Benetton's ads were the slap in the chops that woke me up to the power of diversity

Channel 4's top marketer discusses the ads that shaped his career, from HHCL's classic work for First Direct and Tango, to the diverse casts of Benetton's in-house campaigns.

"It’s good to be different". That’s what the sign says, when you walk into my flat. Not all visitors agree and it is frequently invoked by my kids to explain their way into or out of some act which is not otherwise enjoying parental endorsement. To me it seems to be the most obvious of truths.

After my A Levels I decided to go to art school. Wise people told me to go to St Martin’s or Goldsmiths, but I wanted to do something as different from the previous ten years of boarding school as I could manage. I choose Newcastle and so it proved.

It was the same when I tried to get into advertising. You should aim for JWT and AMV, people advised, but I was hell bent on the enfants terribles of the day: HHCL and Chiat\Day.

Truth is, I applied to the Ivy League and didn’t get in. Chiat\Day took pity. I loved Chiat\Day, but the work I most admired was from the now defunct HHCL.

Their 1989 First Direct launch campaign was a particular obsession: how they came up with it, how they sold it and to what client (Jan Smith, an outsider)!

A TV ad for Audi was interrupted by an alleged broadcast from 2010, celebrating the 21st birthday of the bank. Two commercials followed that aired simultaneously on Channel 4 and ITV, each offering a different view of First Direct – one optimistic, the other pessimistic.

What? Who would do such a crazy thing? There were also print ads with random everyday images – I remember one of empty milk bottles on a wall – with the logo and a phone number. I’m not even sure they said it was for a bank, which would have been a step too far for my sensible shoes but, there we are, the HHCL die was cast. 

Next came Trevor Robinson’s stunning Orange Tango slap ad, which invented a whole new branch of subculture. There was controversy around subsequent executions, but the originality of that first one made it a work of art. Cans flew off shelves.

One evening I wore out a U-Matic copy of the Apple Tango seduction ad, so enthralling was the way the protagonist said "Dagnamy". In today’s more inclusive world the Blackcurrant Tango White Cliffs of Dover ad would probably get attacked but at the time it stood out for its sheer chutzpah, right down to the jump jet finale.

Travelling in the opposite direction was the Fuji ad featuring the man with Down’s Syndrome smiling at the cashier and the line "With the right camera and the right film, you can change the way people see the world".

It was critiqued back then, as I recall, yet today would be praised. How times change, and in part because of the dents some of this work made on the popular psyche.

One HHCL effort that seemed to make less impact was the Pepe Jeans campaign. Young people in denim lay in a park laughing their heads off infectiously, with the tagline "Because one day you’ll die".

Most of all though I remember being inspired by some ads made not by an agency, but directly by a client. Holy hell, what a stink those 80s and 90s Benetton campaigns caused, showing nothing more complicated than different people wearing different coloured jerseys.

The twist that got people in a tangle was that the models were of different ethnicities. Eh? What did it mean? Why are you forcing black and Asian people into your adverts? Why, oh why, would you use race to sell woolly jumpers?

I just remember thinking "why the hell not?" At a simplistic level, I suppose, they were selling clothes made in different colours using people with different coloured skin. That mightn’t pass muster now. Back then: Pow. A Tango slap in the chops that woke me up to the power of diversity.

I know I talk about diversity and inclusion a lot. Indeed wise people have advised me to diversify my range of drums to bang. I could do, but that would downgrade the root and branch importance of the subject in my mind.

21 years from now it will be utterly commonplace at work for people to have full-blooded diversity and inclusion practices baked into their every day, not bolted on.

People will look back and marvel at how long it took the business mainstream to realise what will then seem like the bleeding obvious: having new people help solve old problems produces better results. That’s what I believe.

Someone, who also believes it fervently is Channel 4’s new chief executive, Alex Mahon. With her passion and prodigious work rate I very much hope we will get there sooner. Bring it on.

Dan Brooke is chief marketing and communications officer and board champion for diversity at Channel 4, and a member of Campaign’s Power 100.

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