Advertising Goes Punk In U.K.

Advertising Goes Punk In U.K.
Never mind the bullocks, indeed -- Johnny Rotten and some stampeding cows have started a rush toward punk advertising in the United Kingdom.

The Sex Pistols frontman, now known as John Lydon, stars in popular U.K. TV commercials for the butter brand Country Life. Dressed in country-gent tweeds, the one-time scourge of polite society is seen watching traditional English folk dancers, running from cows and declaring, "It's not about Great Britain -- it's about great butter!" with the gusto he once reserved for sneering "I am an anti-Christ/I am an anarchist."

On other British channels, punk forefather Iggy Pop stars in ads for the online car insurance brand Swiftcover in which the shirtless Stooges frontman declares: "You think I'm selling car insurance? I'm not -- I'm selling time!"

But he is selling car insurance -- and lots of it. Swiftcover says its first-quarter sales soared 31 percent over the same period last year, thanks to the ad. And Lydon has heated up butter sales -- Country Life parent company Dairy Crest credited that ad, which debuted on U.K. television October 1, 2008, with driving an 85 percent increase in sales by volume of its "spreadable" brands in fourth-quarter 2008.

"Punk doesn't mean what it meant 30 years ago," says Snowy Everitt, director of the London-based marketing agency Espionage, which specializes in putting brands and music together. "For most people in 2009, punk isn't about music, it's about attitude. Butter isn't fun, edgy, sexy or cool -- but, in times of economic crisis, advertisers need cut-through, and anything that gets you talked about is worth a punt."

Swiftcover marketing director Tina Shortle agrees, crediting Pop with helping the campaign -- which has a rate-card value of 25 million pounds ($38 million) -- "stand out in a cluttered market."

"We weren't too worried if the target audience didn't recognize Iggy as a celebrity," she says. "We just wanted someone renowned for having fun and enjoying life." Both campaigns also have attracted considerable media attention: Shortle says online searches for Swiftcover and Pop have increased 30 percent since the campaign started January 4, and Dairy Crest marketing director Paul Fraser says Country Life's "spontaneous awareness" rating more than doubled.

Fraser says the brand chose Lydon for his "British rogue" appeal, and the second phase of the campaign, which began May 15, stresses Country Life's use of British ingredients. "John's independent views are a huge part of his consumer appeal," he says. "And this has obviously struck a chord with our consumers."

Punk music-licensing deals are also on the rise, and in the fall an ad for the upmarket British supermarket Waitrose used the Stranglers hit "Golden Brown." Although it's one of the band's gentler tracks, it's a hymn to drug use -- a fact that Stranglers bassist and "Golden Brown" co-writer JJ Burnel feels may have escaped Waitrose.

"When our manager told us, I thought it was very funny," he says with a laugh. "My first reaction was: 'Are they advertising Christmas heroin or something?' I'd have thought everyone had guessed by now (what the song's about), but maybe not." Waitrose did not return calls for comment.

Martin Costello, a consultant to Universal Music Publishing Group, which now owns the Stranglers' publisher Complete Music Publishing, says the supermarket paid a "five-figure" sum for the song, and that demand for punk tracks on ads has been rising for the past six or seven years.

"It's because you now have creative heads at agencies that grew up with it," he says. Another Complete Music act, the Only Ones, enjoyed a career revival after the mobile company Vodafone ran an ad that used "Another Girl, Another Planet."

Burnel says the Waitrose deal didn't do much for the Stranglers, other than provide a payday. "I don't think it sold an extra download or tickets for shows," he says. "It was just a business decision made on our behalf and in our interests -- I don't think it has any association with the Stranglers other than they used a recording made by us 30 years ago."

Lydon's and Pop's links with the products they're pushing, however, are more explicit. The Swiftcover ads attracted criticism from musicians -- and, ultimately, censure from Britain's Advertising Standards Authority -- when it was discovered that the company didn't insure musicians. (It has since reversed that policy.) "It hasn't damaged the campaign," Shortle says. "It's given us greater prominence."

So will other old punks climb on the bandwagon? Will the Buzzcocks advertise baked beans or Sham 69 turn up flogging fish fingers?

"I wouldn't be surprised if more brands looking to get cut-through go for rebellious figures," Everitt says. "If it works, why not try it?"