Ad Breakdown: Chivas Regal’s “When.”

Lewis Folkard

Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

"When." by Chivas Regal print ad

How do you build and advertise a premium brand? In today’s breakdown, I’ll show you.

This ad was written by Tony Brignull in 1969, during his time at DDB London. It really caught my eye as I was looking through The Copy Book, and I’d initially thought I’d use it as a LinkedIn post. But the more I dug into it, the more I realised there are actually quite a few insights I could share. So, I’m going to take you through what I saw and break it down in my usual fashion so you can apply it to your (or your client’s) luxury advertising.

But first, some context. 

Chivas started working with DDB in the 60s. At that point, Chivas had been in business for ~160 years. They weren’t category leaders nor considered a premium brand. They approached DDB to change that.

The positioning aspect of this problem is fascinating. So many wannabe luxury brands go straight in with the confidence game, shouting about how good they are, beating their chest, but fail to understand (and accept) that it just pushes their audience away. You need more elegance than that.

You see, if your audience doesn’t already deem you a premium brand and you start shouting about how good you are, the misalignment is going to alienate your audience. And it’s an uphill struggle to win them back.

What Chivas/DDB did was different. 

Sure, they stunk of confidence. But they played with it. To me, it almost comes across as a bit tongue-in-cheek. Their playfulness disarms the reader. It helps the message get through. And balances things. It’s like a nod to the reader, acknowledging their current non-leading, non-premium position, establishing some common ground to then build on it.

Copywriters, remember, we’re always trying to start with the conversation in your reader’s head. Sync up and then guide them to where you want them to go.

Anyway, let’s dig into the ad.

The Art and Headline

Like many great ads, the art and headline complement each other. They work together and, in unison, produce a greater impact than they do individually (like 1+1 = 3). It also taps into a cultural reference and provides a little dopamine hit when you ‘solve’ the ad. My last breakdown, Fisher Price’s Anti-Slip Roller Skates, did something similar. A “quick get” as Luke Sullivan calls it. 

The headline is particularly short. And it stands out more.

Another ‘pattern disrupt’ (if you can even call it that), is how full the glass is (vs normal limits). Obviously, this is the whole message behind the ad. When guests are asked to “say when” (as in when to stop pouring), they don’t say “when” until it’s about to overflow, showing that it’s tasty and guests love it. Honestly, seeing a glass that full makes me feel a little uncomfortable – and that’s why it’s good. It hooks you and pulls you in.

And, of course, notice how there’s no logo slipped into the corner of the ad. That’s right, NO LOGO. Imagine that. It shows a lot of confidence in the product. Something we’ll see a lot more of in the rest of the ad.

Main-Body and Structure

There’s not too much body copy here, but I’ve rewritten it for you to read easier.

And here’s how I’ve broken the ad up.

Section 1

I’ve considered this section more of an extension to the headline, well, a second headline. With a bit of a re-jig, I think it’d make something half-decent. But with the current headline in, it adds context and helps set the scene for the art. It also adds another dot for the reader to connect to, just in case they didn’t ‘get’ the ad from the art and headline.

This section speaks to a certain type of reader – and subtly pushes away anyone not relevant. There’s an intentional, more ‘premium’ language use, creating an aura of luxury.

Section 2

Okay, this section is particularly playful. But also quite visceral. I know a “mouthful of peanuts” has nothing to do with the taste of the whisky, but it plays a role in tying you to the ad. 

A “mouthful of peanuts” not only has a taste associated, but it also has a physical and emotional feeling too – i.e., the physical feeling of peanuts stuffed in your mouth and the emotional feeling of not being able to talk, which is then reframed in the following sentence. Bringing more senses into your ad makes the message stickier.

It’s quite a funny delivery, but it helps you picture what’s going on and how you’d feel. Oh, and, of course, confidently dramatises the desirability of Chivas.

Sections 3 & 4

There are actually some crossovers in these sections, so I’ll break them down together. Section 3 is more focused on selling points (i.e. the age and smoothness). It also helps disqualify competitors, and better position Chivas, making them a clear-cut choice. 

Across both sections, there’s also some future pacing. Combined with their obvious confidence, the future pacing almost acts like social proof (making them seem more popular and desirable).

And then finally, in Section 4, I really like how the ad comes full circle and says how you’ll have a chance to “lose your own voice” too. It’s putting the power in your hands. But, of course, the only way you can feel that power is if your guests buy a bottle of Chivas. And for them to buy it, you need to first. Clever.

Other Observations

There are two other observations I’m picking up here. 

The first is their clear tone of voice throughout. Their playful confidence. Or cockiness, I guess. As we touched on earlier, the ‘confident’ approach from brands isn’t uncommon. But it’s too serious. Too braggy. Too in your face. Brignull (and Chivas) do it differently. They play with it. The sarcasm in Section 2, the future pacing, and even the headline and art give off playful confidence. 

This confident tone also helps make them more desirable. It’s talking to those on the upper end of the societal ladder. Those looking up (naturally) aspire to be similar. And if those at the top at drinking Chivas, those looking up will want some too.

Secondly, as with any premium brand, there needs to be some ‘high-status associations’ with the product. Within this ad, it’s:

  • The art showing someone pouring the drink for someone else
  • The copy referencing “guests”
  • A social gathering with whisky as the drink of choice
  • Using “premium” language (e.g. “unwise”, “consolation”)

And then, from this, the ‘expensiveness’ is suggested to the reader (and left for them to pick up on) rather than telling them directly. High cost = more exclusive = more desirable (but less attainable and more scarce) = a pillar of a premium brand.

And there we are. “When.” by Chivas Regal (and Tony Brignull). I hope you enjoyed it. 

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