Gregg's Instant Coffee, 1970: A man in a leather jacket watches from a balcony as many faces of different races walk past, looking at each other, looking happy, looking pensive, looking at things in the distance. A guy in a rugby jersey, doing a peace sign, takes part in a protest march; a couple sit on a bench eating apples, looking like they might be at a crossroads in their relationship. The song, the melody of which sounds vaguely protesty, tells a relatively unvarnished story of modern New Zealand - "Different races, many faces ... living in a time when things are changing."

Having taken it all in, the man on the balcony goes back into his cool-looking office or apartment, pops his pipe in his mouth and starts banging away at a typewriter, presumably writing something meaningful and telling - a groundbreaking television ad? - about the deeply evocative street scene he's just witnessed. And ... scene.

It's effectively a 50-second movie, rammed full of life and meaning and featuring at least one gratuitous bum shot. It was more revealing of the nature of New Zealand society in 1970 than most scheduled programming of the time, or of any time, including the present. It might have been our first great television ad, a marker signalling the dawn of the ad break as an entertainment phenomenon that would draw us together, help define us as a people and that now, nearly 50 years later, may finally be over.

When Gillette last month released a television ad in the United States that went viral and created a furore because it suggested men have a history of behaving badly, I was surprised, mostly by the fact that anyone still watches ads on TV.


The Gregg's "Different Faces, Many Faces" ad was made by a genius called Tony Williams, who would go on to make some of the most brilliant and entertaining ads in New Zealand television history, including the Crunchie Great Train Robbery, which ran for 20 years. That ad depicted a number of people attempting to rob a train of a chest of Crunchie bars, in an escalating scene featuring multiple explosions, a plane on a bombing run and an ever-growing number of passengers running amok until the train is just a mess of humanity in various states of dress. Finally, an old woman who had been sitting quietly, knitting through the whole thing, pulls the emergency brake, sends everyone flying and ends up with all the Crunchies. The impossibly unimaginative, unbelievably catchy jingle ran: "Have a Crunchie, hokey pokey bar, crazy Crunchie, hokey pokey bar."

Tony Williams and an actor on the set of the BASF
Tony Williams and an actor on the set of the BASF"Dear John" ad. Photo / Supplied.

Williams also made the international award-winning 1981 ad for BASF, in which a soldier posted overseas gets a message from his fiancee - recorded on BASF cassette tape - and discovers as he plays it for the platoon that it's a Dear John letter in song form. The humour is in the song - "Tonight I'm with another / You'd like him John, he's your brother" - but the genius is in the pathos of the reactions from the hypermasculine listening soldiers, themselves reading letters from home. It's funny and it's moving. The tagline was, "Even the bad times sound good."

A shot from the BASF
A shot from the BASF "Dear John" ad. Photo/ Supplied.

Williams made the Toyota "Bugger" ad, the Telecom Spot ads, the Air New Zealand "Being There is Everything" ads and the Hyundai ad where a baby boy picks up a hitchiking baby girl in his Hyundai SUV, then goes surfing on the West Coast. Each one was a classic of the form.

Everyone knows the name Peter Jackson, whose leading work reflects us back at ourselves only in picturesque mountains and bit-part actors but who among us knows the name Tony Williams, whose most ambitious work helped to define both a creative form and a nation?

Williams started his career as a serious film-maker, with all the potential glamour, fame and credibility inherent in that choice. There was no glamour in directing ads - he got a lawnmower for making the Crunchie commercial - but his legacy is to have created some of the most discussed, memorable, culturally important pieces of televised communication in this country's history.

That legacy flowed through other great creators too, through the 1970s, 80s and even into the increasingly internet-soaked 2000s: Crumpy and Scotty, Mainland Cheese's old dudes, BNZ's "You're a New Zealander"; the Anchor family, Lion Red's "Red-blooded blood brothers", ASB's "Goldstein", Ghost Chips.

These ads gave us the surprise of first viewing, that rush of pleasure from seeing something unexpectedly good in an ad break otherwise filled with drudge and repetition. But they also derived power from the environment in which we watched them, which was typically at home, with our families, a shared experience. And they derived power from the way we engaged with them, which was typically to talk about them at school and work and at boring parties, sharing our thoughts, opinions, judgments: "Have you seen that ad for...?"

They were ways for us to connect and to share ourselves and to tell us what we thought of ourselves. The best ones, through their humour, storytelling and aesthetic became embedded in us, especially those of us who grew up with them, whose senses of humour, storytelling and aesthetics were developing as they developed us.

They derived power too from the way in which we reflected on them, as we are doing now, years later. We remember not just the ads themselves but where we lived when we watched them, who we loved at the time, what we were doing with our lives. Their messages and values and emotional pitch become entwined with all that, inseparable from it. The argument I'm making here is that the ads we loved best became part of us.


But, as you may have noticed, this is all in the past tense. Because who watches television ads anymore? Televisual ads, if we watch them at all, are now personalised, targeted via algorithm, rarely watched as collective experience, seldom of New Zealand and by New Zealanders. The idea that we will ever again all see the same thing and be united by it has gone.

Should we mourn its loss? Humour, pleasure, a good story well told, a shared sense of connection: these are all good, but is there something less good? Yes, a few things: the endless interruptions, the convincing us to buy things that are bad for us, the lack of non-white people. There are many problems with ads, but let's start where Gillette left off.

What that ad depicted was toxic masculinity defined as the most overt forms of bad male behaviour - bullying, sexual harassment, abuse of power - with results that are easy to see and to define. But toxicity exists in more pernicious forms too, in which its effects aren't so obvious. And it is here that advertising has been at its worst.

When you go through the archive of great New Zealand ads, (which you can do online at New Zealand's audiovisual archive, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision) you quickly discover that central characters, heroes, voiceovers and even animated figures are overwhelmingly male. Where are all the women? you might reasonably wonder.

Pick almost any legendary ad: Crumpy and Scotty, Mainland Cheese's old guys, BNZ's You're a New Zealander: men, men, men. Ghost Chips: two boys. Goldstein: a man. His boss: also a man. The Crunchie train robbery: overwhelmingly men.

Go deeper into the archive. The famous "Two Boys on a Beach" Treaty of Waitangi ad from 1990, depicting racial unity between Māori and Pākehā: No girls. The 1989 ad for Toshiba microwaves, the main selling point for which is an endorsement by Alison Holst, includes a three second appearance by her ("Excuse me, John, can I borrow a cup of sugar?") following 40 seconds of a man using the microwave. The ad's voiceover: a man.

More: The brilliant Ansett "Fluffy the Cat" ad from the late 80s centres around a man going on a business trip. In the epic 1990 Levene "Summer Full of Colour" ad, the daughter of a Levene factory owner and a truck driver fall in love. The main character is not the daughter. In the Sealord ad "Leave Fishing to the Experts", we see a series of men, but no women, fishing.

If you thought this all started to change once we hit the millennium, how about no? Sanitarium's 2007 "Wholegrain Fables" depicts two cartoon wholegrains going to the city where one goes bad and starts hanging out with refined grains and one stays true to his roots. Even though they're animated, so the gender is arbitrary, both are male. The voiceover? Male.

Should we go on? Okay: 2006's National Bank ad "Our Summer Game" shows a series of ordinary people play-acting at playing cricket while going about their everyday lives. It starts with a girl, then everyone else is male.

Four ads from 2007: New World's famous ad shows a boy rather than a girl biking through towns across the North Island; Air New Zealand's "Amazing Journeys" shows a young man jumping off the end of a pier and flying to Dunedin to meet his girlfriend - not the other way round. Instant Kiwi's "The Milky Way" shows a young man stealing a swig from an old man's milk bottle on his daily run; Telecom's "The Xtra Ordinaries" shows a young man playing on his computer being interrupted by a group of men who burst in with the plan of sending him into space.

 Tony Williams (in cap) setting up on an LA rooftop for the Air New Zealand
Tony Williams (in cap) setting up on an LA rooftop for the Air New Zealand "Being there is everything" shoot, with the Capitol Records building in the background. Photo / Supplied.

Only two ads from the archive's 2000s section could be said to have females at their centre and in one of those the woman is brushing her teeth to make herself look good in the hopes of attracting a man.

The groundbreaking Anchor family of the 1990s centres around a girl and Toyota's "Everyday People" has a fairly even gender split. After that it gets pretty difficult pretty quickly to find women in leading roles other than in ads for tampons, pantyhose, women's underwear and occasionally as objects of men's desire.

Obviously it's not just a New Zealand problem. An international study in 2017 funded by Google looked at 2000 award-nominated and award-winning ads over 10 years and found that men got four times as much screen time as women and were spoken about seven times more than women. The ads had twice as many male as female characters and 25 per cent of the ads featured only men, while 5 per cent featured only women.

The study also assessed the way each sex was depicted: Men were 62 per cent more likely to be portrayed as intelligent; one in three men were shown with an occupation, compared to one in four women; women were 48 per cent more likely to be shown in the kitchen; men were 50 per cent more likely to be found at a sporting event.

The Gregg's "Different Races" ad was a work of genius, a groundbreaking work that depicted life in this country in a way that was more realistic and accurate and insightful than maybe any ad before it and most that followed. At the same time, the main character was a man. The ad started and ended with that man and was shot from his perspective, showing life through his eyes. It was directed by a man and featured a song by a man.

Less than two weeks ago, the National Party released a new ad on social media. It showed a wide-eyed young woman at a barbecue, who thinks the Government's Kiwibuild scheme is just swell, being condescended to by a smug young man who tells her she's wrong. At the end, another man butts in with a terrible sausage-related innuendo. And ... scene.

The National Party's 'All sizzle, no sausage' ad. Photo / Supplied.
The National Party's 'All sizzle, no sausage' ad. Photo / Supplied.

The ad was a clear provocation, which harnessed the power of outrage attention to spread its message via social media and, in volumetric terms, it was a success. Its rapid spread across Facebook and Twitter and its resulting pick-up by major news websites, primarily because of its gender stereotyping and obscene innuendo, made it the online equivalent of a recurring TV ad during the opening break of the 6 o'clock news, circa 1991.

If this model is the future of video advertising, it's a depressing one. The decline of the mass broadcast ad gave us the opportunity to reflect on what we've done badly and to do it better in the future but if anyone learned these lessons in the first place, the click-driven model of the attention economy might mean nobody ever cares.