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What are the best adverts of all time in the UK?

A great TV advert doesn’t just have the potential to boost sales, but can cement a brand in people’s minds for good.

A great TV advert doesn’t just have the potential to boost sales, but can cement a brand in people’s minds for good.

Some adverts have taken on a life of their own as annual media events; as touchpoints of cultural nostalgia; or even leaking out into playgrounds.

The era of the TV advert shows no signs of waning in the UK, either. High-profile ads are nowadays sometimes even previewed with an advert of their own ahead of transmission, and stunts including Channel 4’s audio-described ad break in 2021 achieve widespread promotion and impact.

But creating an unforgettable advert is no mean feat for a brand or agency. Some of the best adverts of all time in the UK have been risky, unexpected, complained-about, or just plain absurdist.

The UK’s favourite adverts of the past few decades share few characteristics - some high-budget, some low; some complicated and some remarkably simple; some with international stars and some with no human characters at all; some serious, but most funny.

In no particular order, let’s run down the very best adverts broadcast on UK television.

MoneySuperMarket - Dave’s Epic Strut

Agency: Mother London

Launched in 2015, ‘Dave’s Epic Strut’ by MoneySuperMarket was not only Campaign Magazine’s Campaign of the Year, but was the year’s most complained-about with more than 1,500 complaints.

In it, a fairly regular-looking business type, Dave, struts through the street from his car wearing hotpants and high heels to ​​’Don’t Cha’ by The Pussycat Dolls, before jumping into a tightly choreographed routine with passers-by. A later iteration of the campaign would feature a pole-dancing builder, then a dance-off between the two. All in all, an unforgettable piece of work.

Tango - You’ve Been Tango’d

Agency: HHCL

In 1992, boutique agency HHCL took on the big guys and created something yet to be beaten. ‘You’ve Been Tango’d’ features the brilliant Orange Man slapping the Tango drinker in the face and the voice of the legendary Gil Scott-Heron remarking “You know when you’ve been Tango’d”, and according to YouGov was the second-most popular ad of the 90s.

It was ultimately banned after being copied by schoolchildren nationwide, and a more sanitised version created. Creator Trevor Smith said: “We knew we were brave enough to do stuff that nobody else would do… that’s what made the ad what it is.”

Nescafe - Gold Blend

Agency: McCann Erickson

This traditional TV spot made its mark through a series of ads rather than one memorable clip. The ‘Gold Blend couple’ series ran from 1987 to 1993 for a total of 12 instalments, and had viewers hooked as though watching a real romantic drama.

Each ad ended with a cliffhanger, with Tony (Anthony Head) and Sharon (Sharon Maughan) beginning their slow-burning relationship over Nescafe’s Gold Blend instant coffee. Its success led to a novel, video compilation and two CDs, and boosted UK sales by 50%.

Guinness - Surfer

Agency: AMV BDDO

The 90s’ most popular advert, according to YouGov, this ambitious advert took inspiration from the painting ‘Neptune's Horses’. With driving music from Leftfield, the surfer takes on and triumphs over a giant wave, embodied in the form of galloping horses towards the shoreline - VFX handled by The Computer Film Company, now Framestore. 

Ultimately, ‘Surfer’ would win accolades at the 1999 Clio Awards, D&AD Awards, and Cannes Lions.

Dairy Milk - Gorilla

Agency: Fallon London

Sticking with the animal theme but with a little less visual magic, ‘Gorilla’ from Cadbury Dairy Milk in 2007 was another example of out-of-the-box thinking that captured the imagination.

Quite simply, across 90 seconds we see a gorilla sitting silently at a drumkit, before joining in the famous drum fill of In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins. Marketing magazine named it as the nation’s all-time favourite advert.

Cravendale - Cats with Thumbs

Agency: W+K London

“Imagine that… cats with thumbs.” Narrated by Tim Curry, ‘Cats with Thumbs’ launched in 2011 and featured as its central character Bertrum Thumbcat, a cat with polydactyly, after the Cravendale milk enjoyed by its owner. Its success would lead to follow-up ads featuring a kidnap by the gang of thumbed cats.

Compare The Market - Compare The Meerkat

Agency: VCCP

Perhaps one of the longest-running campaigns of TV adverts, Compare The Market launched ‘Compare The Meerkat’ in 2009 for British and Australian TV. Aleksandr Orlov, the CGI animal taking centre stage, is still a central part of ads in 2022.

The concept was of Orlov frustrated about people confusing Compare The Market and his website, comparethemeerkat.com. There are now numerous extra characters, soft toys, sponsorship deals, a catchphrase, and more - and it’s helped make Compare The Market the UK’s third-largest price comparison site.

Specsavers - Rollercoaster

Agency: Written by Specsavers’ in-house team, produced by Transparent Productions

Last but not least, the third-best loved advert of the 2000s according to the public as discovered by YouGov was part of Specsavers’ popular ongoing theme of those who “should have gone to Specsavers”.

The minute of silliness aimed at promoting Specsavers’ deal for over-60s, sees an elderly couple taking the weight off their feet on the Blackpool seafront and enjoying a packed lunch. Unfortunately their choice of bench is, in fact, a high-octane theme park ride. Infusion, the rollercoaster it was filmed at, was the world’s first looping coaster suspended over water - formerly known as “the Traumatizer”.