The Top 10 NZ Television Ads

Little Bits of Beauty - 10 Classic Adverts  

It’s that time again — when we at NZ On Screen stick our necks out just a little bit, and choose another of our screen industry Top 10s. This time it’s the Top 10 New Zealand television commercials of all time.

TVCs can be an annoyance, but they can also be tiny works of art — little bits of beautiful filmmaking, clever humour, or both. Over the nearly 40 years that this selection spans, we have had a number of brilliant TV ads that have seriously wormed their way into our hearts and minds. 

Without the massive budgets of big overseas ad campaigns, New Zealand writers and directors have often had to be smart and resourceful — so a lot of what makes our favourite ads work is the clever idea at the heart of them, not the budget that has been thrown their way.

In the days before TV recording technology and time shifted viewing, the internet and ad blockers, advertisements could make a particularly fierce assault on Kiwi pop culture, so it’s not surprising that the 1970s and 80s are strongly represented in our Top 10. But the beloved road safety message that was Ghost Chips in 2011 showed that, even in these crowded online times, a great ad can still become a little slice of pop culture legend and give us a new catchphrase to have fun with.

There are so many great ads to choose from, it was a major challenge getting the list down to a Top 10. Ranking them one to 10 would have been just too hard, so here they are — in chronological order from the oldest ad to the newest. 

Generally accepted as being New Zealand’s longest-running TV commercial, we have the iconic Great Crunchie Train Robbery ad from 1975, for Cadbury’s Crunchie chocolate bar. The ad features a who’s who of New Zealand acting talent of the time, and two of the main creatives have been massive presences in our best TVC making — director Tony Williams and composer Murray Grindlay. Their names will be appearing again in this Top 10. 

Also from 1975, comes the animated classic Hugo and Holly, for Kentucky Fried Chicken (or KFC, as it is known these days). Strictly speaking, it’s not actually a New Zealand made ad, as it was animated in Australia, and screened in both countries. But it is so loved and fondly remembered here, we didn’t think we could  leave it out of our Top 10. Two children sit in the car with a hunger so strong, they're "getting thinner" (though not so you'd notice). Tune, lyrics and imagery work as one: the car, the animals and the KFC store all move in time with the music, and the song is the ultimate ear-worm.

Commercials director extraordinaire Tony Williams is also the man behind the Dear John ad for BASF cassette tapes, from 1981. The ad was made on a shoestring budget: milk bottle silver caps stood in for soldier’s dog tags, and a Wellington quarry is a Korean War-zone. The memorable song is a 1953 country and western tear-jerker, adapted by Murray Grindlay and sung by Jacqui Fitzgerald. The deliberate anachronism of cassette tapes in Korea proved a winning twist on the traditional Dear John letter, and the ad was voted Best Australasian commercial of the 1980s.

A year after Dear John, the first ad in the long-running Crumpy and Scotty Toyota Hilux campaign hit our screens. The Crumpy and Scotty adverts combined an iconic Kiwi author, odd couple comedy, and off-road driving. They also deftly sent up two cliches: the unruffled country guy — in the shape of good keen man Barry Crump — and the wimp from the city (played by Lloyd Scott). The first ad sees Scotty trying to sell the brilliance of the Hilux four-wheel drive, while Crumpy takes a backroads short cut. It was directed by Geoff Dixon, another maestro of commercials who has had a big impact on the industry. The Crumpy and Scotty ads continued for 12 years, and were revisited in more recent times with a homage in the movie adaptation of Crump's Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Composer Murray Grindlay also makes an on camera appearance in our next commercial — one of Geoff Dixon's Europa Travellin’ On ads. This one showcases the guitar playing of late American bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan. An anthem to good times on the road, the ad features four friends — musician Midge Marsden, Grindlay, and models Brigitte Berger and Janna Lapidus — larking around the North Island in an old ute. The popularity of the 'Travellin’ On' song helped make this one a viewer favourite.

Our next choice is from 1989, and promoted the Lotteries Commission’s then new scratch and win cards. The inspiration to take a gamble on the new cards was based on the question: “Instant Kiwi attitude: have you got it?”, as personified by a bungy-jumping fisherman. The commercial was directed by prolific ad-maker Lee Tamahori, who went on to make his movie directing debut with Once Were Warriors in 1994.

In 1991, another of our most popular and long-running ad campaigns began — the Spot ads for Telecom. In the 90s SPOT was an acronym for the Services and Products of Telecom — and Spot the dog was a much loved Australian Jack Russell terrier. He starred in 43 different Telecom spots made between 1991 and 1998, many of them on an epic scale and seemingly at risk to his life or limb. The ads were directed by Tony Williams (of Crunchie and Dear John fame).

Another Geoff Dixon entry, this 1993 beer ad dates from the time when craft beer was yet to make a big mark, and Lion Red was NZ's number one beer. Hyperactive in a flannel shirt, a pre-Hercules Michael Hurst takes the mic at a pub talent quest, and sings a war cry for Kiwi blokes against wimpy pretenders like champagne cocktails and Mexican beers. Advertising veteran Roy Meares wrote the commercial, and the Murray Grindlay (yes, again) song 'Red Blooded' became something of a pub anthem.

A series of farming mishaps each provoke the laconic comment "bugger". That was the simple formula behind one of our most iconic Kiwi advertisements. Made by Saatchi and Saatchi in 1999 and directed by Tony Williams (yes, again), the Toyota Hilux Bugger ad attracted 120 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, who ruled that bugger was unlikely to cause serious offence. The shock value of that word, the role of Hercules the dog, and the performance of the hapless farmer — in the tradition of Fred Dagg and Footrot — made for Kiwi pop culture magic.

The most recent commercial in our Top 10 is the 2011 anti-drink driving ad that became a Kiwi pop cultural phenomenon. It spawned countless parodies, memes, t-shirts and over a million YouTube views; phrases from the ad entered the vernacular (“you know I can’t grab your ghost chips”; “I’ve been internalising a really complicated situation in my head”). Eschewing the usual shock and horror tactics, the Clemenger BBDO campaign for the NZ Transport Agency was targeted at young male Māori drivers, and used humour to get the message across that it was choice to stop a mate from driving drunk. Directed by Steve Ayson, the ad won a prestigious D&AD Yellow Pencil award in 2012.

So that is our Top 10, spanning the 36 years from 1975 to 2011. If you didn’t do the maths along the way, four of them (Crunchie, Dear John, Spot and Bugger) were directed by the brilliant Tony Williams, and three of them by Geoff Dixon (Crumpy and Scotty, Travellin' On, Red Blooded). Jingles maestro Murray Grindlay was also involved with four (Crunchie, Dear John, Travellin’ On and Red Blooded). To find out more about these talented men, you can read Williams’ profile, or watch his ScreenTalk interview here; Dixon's profile is here; Grindlay's profile is here and his ScreenTalk here.

And if you’d like to agree or disagree with our choices, feel free to do so. You can email us on info@nzonscreen.com.

- Irene Gardiner has spent more than seven years as Content Director at NZ On Screen. She was very happy to get this collection of classic commercials sorted, before waving the NZ On Screen team goodbye.