In our recent chat with Michael Bannenberg about beer advertising, we discussed the origins of the iconic VB Big Cold Beer ads, which ran continuously for more than 40 years.
Michael referred to a history that he has provided and what follows are the reminiscences of the late Geoff Seebeck, who was part of the George Patterson organisation for nearly four decades, holding the roles of creative director and then General manager.
Geoff wrote this story in 1996 and it has not been published previously.
The story of the iconic VB Big Cold Beer ad
by Geoff Seebeck
“It all began at a late night dinner part in 1965”, recalls Dick Cudlipp, then Managing Director of George Patterson advertising Melbourne. During a lull in the after-dinner conversation, Lou Mangan of CUB, another dinner party guest, mentioned to Dick that they were having some difficulty with an advertising campaign for Bulimba Gold, a CUB product in Queensland. Dick suggested to Lou that George Patts may be able to help.
George Patterson’s Sydney office was given the assignment. Their research director, “Whit”, Whitman and Hugh McKay, then employed as a researcher at George Patts, developed a positioning and creative strategy for Bulimba. Bruce Jarrett, Creative Director of the Sydney office, was given the job of writing the campaign.
The big, big beer
Bruce remembers that the brief was pretty basic:
“We need something that takes over Brisbane, something really BIG”. I knew it had the potential of being one of the biggest advertising campaigns ever to hit the sunny state. I also knew we had to have a pool of commercials, not just a one-off spot.
I had never written for beer, but, fortunately, I knew Brisbane and Queensland and realised the campaign had to have plenty of guts.
The consonant ‘B’ is the most masculine in the English language and I was lucky having two them in Bulimba. I then added the words brewed by and I had two more. I worked at taking the ‘B’ theme even further. And so the big big beer came into being.
A big big thirst
Needs a big big beer
And the big big beer is Gold Top
Gold Top, brewed by Bulimba
It had a certain rhythm to it so I decided the track would mostly be in rhyme and spoken, not sung. It needed a strong-but-laid-back, masculine voice with big, gutsy music to back it. And the beer should be presented as a reward, a reward for a job well done.
You can get it ridin’
You can get it drivin’
You can get it doin’ nothin’ at all
A big big thirst
Needs a big big beer
We realised a music track was needed for presentation to our client – everything depended on the track – and so I briefed Bob (Beetles) Young, a highly experienced free-lance musical director, on the music. I wanted something big, rough and gutsy, something like the music used in the then current Magnificent Seven movie.
John Meillon was my first choice for the voice and as soon as he heard the music track he went for it, almost perfect from take one. He could be laid-back but come on strong when needed. Client approved the campaign without a word change and so I wrote the pool-outs, a batch of 60’s and 30’s and we went into production. Strangely I used a French producer / director, Jacque de Vine, who was staff in Sydney. He’d been here long enough to get the picture and I warned him if he brought anything in too “nice” he’d be in trouble. “Nice” was a word which should never be applied to this campaign.
We did a finished music track, even though everyone thought the rough audition was great and it finished up too refined and glossy and so we used the audition track, just as we had presented it.
First night we launched with twelve 60’s on each channel in prime time backed with three broadsheets in the Courier Mail: First: A big big thirst Second: Needs a big big beer Third: And the big big beer is Gold Top, brewed by Bulimba.
Within a couple of weeks Gold Top was outselling XXXX, the track was being played free of charge on juke boxes in pubs and clubs. It had taken over Brisbane. Woolworths Brisbane phoned to ask where we’d bought the beer glass used in the spots. I had gone shopping and found a Scandinavian glass mug in a small gift shop which I thought looked right – it has to be glass to show the beer but I wanted something heavier than a regular beer glass. Woolworths copied it and named it The big big beer glass.
Meillon became an essential part of the campaign, so much so that when he went to London for an extended visit we had him do tracks for follow up commercials there. By then he needed no direction; he knew exactly what we wanted.
Then it was Victoria’s turn
George Patterson Melbourne appointed to the CUB account for Victoria in 1967. At that time, beer marketing and advertising was pretty unsophisticated as CUB had a virtual monopoly. Draught beer in pubs was unbranded, patrons simply asked for “a beer”. CUB’s packaged products had no defined positioning and no real brand values. But Courage, the UK beer giant, was about to enter the market. It was essential that some long term brand positioning and advertising strategies were put in place.
George Patterson Melbourne had the responsibility of determining and writing these strategies for CUB’s four big products at the time – draught beer, which became Carlton Draught, Foster’s Lager, Melbourne Bitter and Victoria Bitter. It’s interesting to recount that an early recommendation was to brand the draught beer product VB.
The George Patts team discovered that the product and consumer profiles for VB exactly matched those for Bulimba Gold in Queensland – blue collar, honest toil and reward for a hard day’s work. They had the perfect advertising campaign and strategy in the can. All they had to do was change the name!
So in 1967 Bruce Jarrett wrote a pool of TV and radio spots for VB based on the work he’d already done for Bulimba Gold. John Meillon was again called in to do the voice overs. The VB theme music was used – not the original audition track but the more polished ‘finished’ version. The commercials were produced by Cambridge Films with John Dixon as director.
The ads went to air in February 1968.
A legend was born.
After the first batch of commercials, George Patterson Melbourne took over creative responsibility for the account. But the format stayed the same as more TV and radio executions followed.
By 1970 the format had struck trouble. The rhyming couplets like “rollin’ and bowlin’”, “jumpin’ and pumpin’” was proving restrictive. So the format changed slightly to the “How do you get it?” approach allowing new extensions and freshness. But those powerful words like “a hard earned thirst needs a big cold beer, and the best cold beer is Vic” and “matter of fact, I’ve got it now” remained firmly entrenched and the power of the communication unaffected as a result.
The campaign has not changed since, except for a slight departure in format during the late 80’s: “Some people shoe for it, some people crew for it”. John Meillon again did the voice-overs but the new style was not successful and a return to the original format followed almost immediately.
Paul Green of Horizon Films shot new footage to original Meillon reads in 1991 and 1994. In 1996, in an effort to ensure that the integrity of the campaign was not affected in any way, John Dixon was enticed out of retirement to produce a new batch of commercials, again to original John Meillon voice-overs. The producer on this project was Bill Reagan who had also worked on the original shoots.
A vital ingredient in the style, success and popularity of the VB campaign is the voice of the late John Meillon. Somehow only his raw, honest and passionate delivery can make the now famous words come to life. When Meillon sadly passed away 1989, the campaign was immediately taken off air. However the Meillon family graciously and generously agreed to allow the use of John’s voice to continue, as it does to the present day. The VB campaign has become a continuing memorial to a wonderful Australian.
This has resulted in some interesting technological developments. The quality of many of the original ‘reads’ has deteriorated. However, digital re-mastering and modern electronic enhancement has meant that not only can the original reads still be used, but lines can be mixed and matched and even individual syllables isolated an re-assembled to create simple new words. For example, John never actually recorded the words “on tap”. But modern technology allowed “on tap” to be constructed from John’s voice.
John’s voice over for the tracks used in 1996 VB ads was recorded in 1970.
By 1991 the original music master was also showing signs of wear. A couple of composers / musical directors were commissioned to ‘reproduce the original sound’. But no matter how they tried, the just couldn’t match it. The original had been recorded by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing together in a sound studio. Then one of the VB teams at GPB had a chance meeting with musician Bruce Rowland, whose many local and international credits include the soundtrack for ‘The Man from Snowy River’.
The problem of matching the original music came up in conversation.
Bruce stated that “for some reason or other I believe I have the original charts from that recording in my archives at home”. He checked and he did. So, under Bruce’s direction, the MSO was re-assembled in the Allan Eaton Studio in South Melbourne, the original charts presented to each musician and the original sound faithfully re-created.
The VB campaign has run virtually unchanged since 1968. It is without doubt, the longest-running beer campaign in Australia and possibly the world. The campaign is an advertising and cultural icon. Its success and popularity lie in its inherent honesty and integrity.
Victoria Bitter has grown to become the biggest selling beer in Australia and the most valuable brand in the country.*
*written in 1996