Nothing sums up a nation’s culture more than its television commercials – at least when that nation is one that has existed in the 20th and 21st centuries and operates under a system of all-encompassing capitalism. Which, happily, this one does. Hence, finding the greatest Australian TV ads of all time is no small feat.
Our country has produced many memorable TV ads – probably more of them than it has actual memorable shows – and whittling them down to one definitive list is quite a challenge. But here at Man of Many, “quite a challenge” is our middle name. So here are the most iconic Aussie TV ads of all time.
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1. It’s Time
It’s hard for us to understand, in 2019, just what a big deal “It’s Time” was in 1972. This ad completely exploded all pre-existing ideas about political advertising. Now-obscure singer Alison MacCallum belted out the song like a fire-breathing true believer, backed by an incredible array of Aussie celebrities, from Graham Kennedy to Jack Thompson to Barry Crocker to Jacki Weaver to Maggie Tabberer to BERT NEWTON.
The all-star chorus was lined up and singing like Band Aid and USA For Africa would more than a decade later, but they weren’t doing this for charity – they were doing it for Gough.
The celebrity choir was intercut in the ad with shots of Gough just being Gough, and the message was: this is a new era, an era of hope and freedom and justice, and this is just the guy to lead us into it. And realistically, it WAS time – the Liberals had been in government for a ridiculous 23 years, which made it pretty hard to disagree with MacCallum when she wailed “It’s Time”.
Suddenly glamour, fame and rock ‘n’ roll were part of the equation in elections. Nothing would ever be the same.
2. What You Get Is What You See
In 1989, the NSW Rugby League made a decision. Throughout the ’80s the game had been growing its profile, expanding into new territories and acquiring a new sheen of professionalism. It was now time to put the seal on the decade’s great strides forward by putting out the slickest ad campaign Australian sport had ever seen. This would leave “C’mon Aussie C’mon” in the dust, and force all the other codes to start sprinting to catch up.
The masterstroke: getting American megastar Tina Turner to front the campaign. Turner had no connection with rugby league – probably didn’t even know what it was when the idea was pitched – but she took to it like a duck to water. In the ’90s the game’s theme song became Turner’s hit “The Best”, but this original ad has a pulsating energy that was never surpassed, as Tina belts out “What You Get is What You See”.
The song isn’t about footy, but it’s an absolute banger that fits the barrage of league action shots perfectly. In amongst the on-field spectacle are shots of euphoric crowds and league players sweating it out on the training track – and sometimes acting like big loveable doofuses. There’s never been a more perfect two-minute evocation of everything there is to love about the game.
As ‘It’s Time’ changed the landscape for political ads, Tina’s first foray into league changed it for sport.
3. Solo Man
There have been many iterations of Solo Man over the years, but never straying from the core message: you’ve gotta work it hard to be a Solo Man. There’s been plenty of ads that have played up the manliness of various beer brands, but here was one that made it plain and unambiguous: REAL men drink lemon soft drinks.
You want to be able to kayak down raging rapids – or in a later version, literally down a mountain through a rainforest? You better crack a Solo. Nothing else will do.
And what makes Solo such a necessity for a man’s man? Say it with me: it’s light on the fizz, so you can slam it down fast. After all, who has time for lengthy sipping sessions when there are rivers to be tamed?
4. Lubemobile Will Come To You
You don’t necessarily need big stars, catchy songs or spectacular action to make an iconic ad. You don’t even necessarily need much money: Lubemobile’s ad was so cheap-looking it was only one step up from the “late night lunatics screaming about carpets” genre. But what it lacked in production values, style, finesse or aesthetic quality, it made up for in tough-faced kids with bad haircuts and speech impediments.
It really didn’t matter what you think of Lubemobile’s ability to put together a high-class ad, because as soon as that little tyke – whose name was almost certainly “Rhys” – barked out: “That’s firteen firty firty-two”, it was in your head and would never, ever leave it.
Lubemobile was a part of you now, and all it took was one phone number and one working-class primary schooler.
5. Not Happy, Jan!
The ultimate aim of every advertising guru is to get their creation into the common vernacular, and on that measure “Not Happy, Jan” may be the greatest success in Australian advertising history.
The catchphrase rapidly became part of everyday Australian conversation, and is still in use today. In fact, “Not Happy, Jan” has proven to have far more staying power than the weighty phone book it was created to spruik; it was even adopted for use in the “Not Happy, John” political campaign of 2004 – although John Howard still won.
The ad itself is actually a miniature comic masterpiece, with some utterly wonderful acting from Rhonda Doyle as the hapless Jan and Deborah Kennedy as her furious boss. Apparently “Not Happy, Jan” was actually made up by Kennedy herself on the day of shooting – the whole nation owes her a debt of thanks for a major contribution to our national dialect.
6. Sic ‘Em Rex
Just how many Australian boys – and girls, for that matter – underwent their sexual awakening watching this ad?
An unfeasibly attractive young backpacker swelters in a dimly lit room, trying to beat the stifling heat in just a singlet and her trusty Antz Pantz underpants from Holeproof. Lying on the bed, she is suddenly beset by that scourge of backpackers: the ant. Suspense builds as the army of ants proceed up her legs: she tenses as they reach those pristine Antz Pantz undies.
The antz are liable to do her a mischief, but just as the insects besiege what we might call her, “Holeproof region”, she unleashes her secret weapon: a pet echidna. Hungry for the flesh of ants, Rex the trust monotreme awaits by his mistress’s side.
And then the unforgettable phrase is spoken: “Sic ’em Rex”. With whoops and grunts of glee, Rex pounces, leaping atop the young woman and feasting on her six-legged tormentors. We don’t actually see him feasting, but we do see her reaction to whatever Rex is doing down there.
And to the average pubescent boy…whew. That was enough.
7. I Feel Like Chicken Tonight
OK, so we have to be honest: Chicken Tonight ads are, objectively, some of the stupidest things we’ve ever seen. People doing chicken impressions for no reason other than their sudden, irrational desire for pre-prepared sauces are nothing if not annoyingly moronic.
In fact, the greatest contribution of Chicken Tonight to Australian culture was that it inspired the Late Show’s spoof ad “Dickhead Tonight”. But there’s no arguing with effectiveness: thanks to those chicken-dancing imbeciles, the Chicken Tonight brand embedded itself into Australian brains for generations, and no other chicken sauce brand has ever achieved quite that level of penetration.
8. My Dad Picks the Fruit
At one point, this song was ringing around every schoolyard in the country. “My dad picks the fruit that goes to Cottee’s, to make the cordial…that I like best!” we sang, even though our dad did NOT pick that fruit at all. In fact, we didn’t even know anyone whose dad picked fruit.
Still, we sang it, and came up with several utterly filthy variations. If Cottee’s wasn’t the cordial we liked best before this jingle, it sure was afterwards, because we couldn’t get it out of our heads and none of us could even remember the name of any other cordial. It was also effective in tricking everyone into believing that cordial was a natural product freshly squeezed from real fruit.
The ad itself is, truth be told, a little confusing: set in a small town where not only does every child run frantically home from school every day just for a glass of cordial, but apparently every single one of the kids’ fathers picks fruit for Cottee’s. Although we only see one dad, so maybe it’s that every child in town was fathered by the same guy.
Either way, it’s a weird place, but there’s no doubt it makes damn good cordial.
9. Bloody Idiot
A landmark in the use of stark, confronting imagery to sell a public health message, the Traffic Accident Commission’s long-running campaign to convince the public of the lethal dangers of drink-driving was born of frustration at how many lives were being lost to the scourge.
For decades now, ads like this one have been produced to show the brutal reality of the consequences of drink-driving. And always with the unforgettable admonition: “If you drink, then drive, you’re a bloody idiot”.
No sugar-coating, no tactful hints: just the truth delivered in typically straightforward Aussie style. The success of the message has seen it endure for decades.
10. Goulburn Valley
The Oarsome Foursome piled up records and gold medals at a frightening rate, so they’d probably have been pretty prominent fellows even without Goulburn Valley fruit snacks. But rowing isn’t that high-profile a sport, so Goulburn Valley can definitely take a fair bit of the credit for making the champion coxless four crew into true celebrities.
Of course, much credit goes to the muscly quartet themselves, who proved to be natural comedians in the deliberately cheesy ads, wherein lead oar-puller James Tomkins crooned old-timey classics with fruit snack-themed lyrics, while his fellow foursomers danced about with top hats, oars and hilariously over the top facial expressions.
If there’s anything that wins an Australian’s heart more than an Olympic champion, it’s an Olympic champion willing to take the piss out of himself, and the Oarsome boys were rewarded with both the fat Goulburn Valley paycheques, and the undying love of a public who knew great blokes when they saw them.
11. You Can Get It…
The above clip shows a Victoria Bitter from way back before John Farnham invented colour TV, but the same basic premise continued in VB ads for decades, right into the 21st century. You can get it riding, you can get it sliding, you can get it hunting, you can get it punting, you can it working, you can get it twerking…the number of ways you could get it was mind-boggling.
“It”, of course, was that famous “hard-earned thirst”, and the only way to quench it was with a Vic.
Generations of Australians grew up knowing from about the age of three, long before they’d ever sipped a cold one, what the “best cold beer” was. And a matter of fact, I’ve got it now…
12. Louie The Fly
The risk with Louie the Fly was always that if you made your product’s spokesman not only a member of the species that your product was designed to murder, but also extremely charismatic and fun to be around, people would sympathise with the fly and consider your company to be a monster.
Didn’t seem to be a problem for Mortein though. Like VB, the fly spray manufacturer kept with its winning ad formula for decades, Louie getting updates to his look and becoming more loquacious and generally sassy, but never deviating from his core message: I’m your old pal Louie, please don’t spray me with the lethal Mortein!
But we did. We did spray him with Mortein. Because somehow, seeing sentient anthropomorphic insects on TV just makes us want to slaughter them all the more. Savvy marketing: slightly disturbing window on the human mind.
13. Sam’s Lamb
In recent years the Lamb Council has made its 24 Best Documentaries of All Time and Where to Watch Them, and Sam Kekovich’s act has worn a little thin as it started to feel like less of an act and more of a pathology. But at the time, Sam’s rants about the virtues of lamb and the evils of not eating lamb were a tongue-in-cheek hit.
They were hilarious, and appealed to that part of even the most open-minded carnivore that thinks vegetarians are just a little bit nuts. They were also controversial, as those who didn’t want to eat lamb on Australia Day resented being told that they were un-Australian, and vegans angry at being dubbed humourless complained that the ad deliberately exploited the fact that they didn’t understand the joke.
Or was it a joke? Maybe Sam really meant it? You never can tell.
14. Don’t Chop The Dinosaur, Daddy!
What can you say about this one except, look at that adorable little face! And his daughter’s pretty cute too.
The Natural Confectionery Company hit on a winner when they launched this gorgeously simple commercial, featuring a rather heartwarming interaction between a little girl and her dad. The benefits of eating Natural Confectionery jelly snakes and dinosaurs are got out of the way quickly, and then we are on to “Don’t chop the dinosaur daddy!” and the most irresistible facial expression this side of Shirley Temple.
It’s just really, really, REALLY cute, and the ad’s elegant simplicity leaves us plenty of room to imagine how perfect and idyllic the relationship between these two loveable lolly lovers must be.
15. I Still Call Australia Home
This campaign, first launched in 2001, has achieved such resonance in the national consciousness that I saw a comedy show just this week that used it for a running gag. The epic sweep of the visuals, the stunning beauty of the landscapes, the heart-swelling sentiment of Peter Allen’s classic tune, the innocent purity of the youth choir, decked out in pristine white like obedient members of a mad globetrotting cult…it all added up to patriotic PR dynamite.
Qantas has always traded heavily on its status as THE Australian airline: why try to compete on price, service or efficiency when you could hammer the public relentlessly with the simple message: “If you don’t fly with us, you are a traitor”?
This ad did the job beautifully: never have you seen patriotism packaged so slickly, so emotionally, or so expensively.
16. It’s A Big Ad
When you want to persuade people to get on the piss, start by taking the piss. In contrast to VB’s appeal to the working-class heart of Australian manhood, Carlton Draught opted to appeal to the Australian sense of the ridiculous.
We don’t like to take ourselves too seriously here – or at least we don’t like to think of ourselves as taking ourselves too seriously – and The Big Ad expertly punctured the pomposity of your typical big-budget corporate advertising campaign with its sweeping images of choristers striding purposefully across a valley singing operatically about how big the ad was. My God it’s big.
It’s all the more brilliant for the fact that the Big Ad which sends up the concept of a big ad is itself a big ad, and no doubt cost just as much as it would have to make a serious big ad. But a serious big ad would never have cut through the way The Big Ad did, and it secured the beer industry as the true comedic masters of Australian advertising.
17. Rhonda and Ketut
Rhonda actually didn’t start off on a tropical beach. She started off in a car accident, but as it turns out, if you have the right car insurance, being in car accidents can actually make you rich enough to take luxury holidays and have affairs with handsome Asian bartenders…or something.
The message of AAMI’s ongoing Rhonda soap opera was never all that clear, and that was by design: no insurance company wants its customers to look too closely at the claim that paying insurance premiums will actually make them money. But the campaign became that rare thing: a cultural phenomenon that became such a part of the national conversation that people talked about it completely independently of the product it was advertising.
Rhonda and Ketut became a beloved fictional couple on par with Scott and Charlene, and the ads spawned a still-ongoing trend of casting actress Mandy McElhinney in everything, which sadly shows no signs of abating.
In the future, our children will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about, but we who are there remember those golden months when Rhonda and Ketut stole our hearts, and their happiness was all that mattered.
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