Ad Breakdown: Sainsbury’s “Oil Change”

Lewis Folkard

Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

Sainsbury's oil change ad from 1993

This is technically car ad breakdown number five. FIVE! That’s a significant portion when you consider this is only #15. Of course, it depends on whether you think this Araldite ad is a car ad and if today’s ad from Sainsbury’s is one too.

Anyway, today’s ad is a bit odd (there’s a salad sculpture), but it uses some effective techniques that I think will help you in your advertising.

Would you expect anything less from David Abbott and Ron Brown? Of course not.

Now, if you’re familiar with the “copy-heavy” breakdowns I share, I quickly want to clarify something.

I never want to give the impression that the writers and art directors use these techniques intentionally – or consciously choose to. They might. But it’s unlikely.

When it comes to creating great ads, I’m confident it’s more a matter of having lots of “information presenting techniques” buzzing around your head and then relying on your subconscious to deliver what’s necessary. 

And then, once you’ve earned your stripes, like the greats in these breakdowns have, you’re going to have a lot of experience to pull from too. In a nutshell, it’s the ol’ “good input = good output”.

And that’s my intention behind these breakdowns – to give you good input. That way, you can see what different ads do and how they might impact the reader. And then, when you need to create an ad, you’ve got more to pull from.

It’s somewhat easy to post-rationalise someone else’s work and suggest reasons why they’ve done something a certain way. So what you read is just my take on it.

Anyway, here’s the ad. It’s from 1990.

Let’s dig in.

A background on Sainsbury’s advertising

During the 80s and 90s, Sainsbury’s and AMV created some top-quality ads. Their partnership became one of the longest-running and most successful press campaigns in British advertising history.

With the likes of Dave Dye, Ron Brown, Richard Foster, Martin Thompson, and, of course, David Abbott all on the account (at different times), that’s not surprising. 

If you’re familiar with “The Copy Book” – or great copywriting in general – you’ll likely be familiar with Richard Foster’s “Olive” ad for Sainsbury’s. If you’re not, I broke it down a little while ago. It’s brilliant. Find it here.

I won’t go into the details of Sainsbury’s and AMV’s partnership in this article – I couldn’t do it justice. But if you’d like to learn more, Dave Dye’s post here is great.

In case you can’t see the copy clearly, I’ve typed it up for you.

The Copy

As you can see, it’s a very familiar tone and style to other Sainsbury’s ads of this era. It’s instantly recognisable – even without mentioning “Sainsbury’s” and their tagline at the end. 

That says a lot about their consistency over decades of great advertising.

Art and Headline

Okay, so let’s start at the top.

The main idea here is a double meaning. And that requires a small amount of thought to “get”.

It’s a different kind of ‘aha’ moment to this Fisher-Price ad and this one from Reebok.

But it’s an ‘aha’ moment nonetheless. 

What’s particularly important about double meanings is how much it demands from the right side of our brain. (Which tends to make our ads more effective).

To paraphrase Orlando Wood in his book Lemon

“The right hemisphere sees the whole rather than parts. It understands the world through the relationships and connections between things (and not cause and effect like the left). It has the flexibility to deal with contradiction – for instance, it understands how one might find joy in melancholy. The right brain’s ability to hold two competing thoughts at once also enables it to understand and use metaphor, humour and irony.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening here – it has to hold two competing thoughts at once. 

‘Is the ad referring to a car – or a salad?’

With the brilliant salad sculpture playing on this further, you can see why it requires a little bit of thought. Abbott isn’t referring to a literal car oil change (which is how the left side of our brain might interpret it) but rather that salads taste better – and people want them more – with Sainsbury’s oils.

Playing with the real, tastier meaning like this makes the message more elegant. Directly saying “our oils are great” would have nowhere near the same impact and would likely be met with more resistance from the reader.

Body Copy Structure

Let’s have a look at how the body copy is put together.

In true David Abbott fashion, it’s refreshingly simple.

Section 1

Okay, so here we start broad. Abbott gets his foot in the door by leading with a vague but relevant desire. 

He follows it up with a (short) incomplete sentence – to keep you moving – and then clarifies the vague desire, turning it into something more specific and relevant to the product range.

The clever use of brackets also helps keep a conversational (and disarming) tone.

Section 2

You’ll notice that each of the following sections, other than the last, follow a similar structure: Where the oil is from, a little fact about it, and then ways to use it. Keep an eye out for it.

Here, Abbott utilises the power of specificity to aid believability, also deepening the “connection” with the product.

To avoid appealing to a niche market, he also shares a range of ways to use the oil, expanding the potential market further.

Section 3

In this section, Abbott follows the same structure as before and continues to keep it conversational. 

Note how he also talks about the flavour of the oil. This builds expectation around the oil and primes the reader for when they actually experience it. 

It also helps to pull in some senses and deepen the neural pathways. Great for mental availability.

Section 4

Okay, so whilst Abbott uses the same structure in this section, there is a subtle difference.

Look at the copy from a visual POV. There’s no line break. 

If you scroll back up and look at the ad, you’ll notice how a line break would end the column at the end of a sentence. And not invite the reader across to keep reading.

Again, I like how Abbott uses the brackets to keep the conversational tone. Like he’s talking to a friend. It’s very endearing.

Section 5

From the get-go, we have a nice change of direction. It keeps the copy interesting and thus the reader moving. 

Abbott builds in more about the quality – reinforcing the tagline once again. The tagline is cleverly woven through this ad in so many ways. (Which makes sense when that’s what Sainsbury’s want their market to associate with them).

It never gets boring or seems repetitive though.

Section 6

And then, in the final section, there’s quite a bit going on. 

It doesn’t follow the usual structure because Abbott is closing off. But he does reframe the tagline once again.

He also comes full circle and plays on the double meaning from earlier. It gives closure and ends on a positive note. It’s kinda funny… or playful, at least.

This is another advantage to double meanings – they invite humour into your ad (also a right-brained ad characteristic).

To paraphrase Orlando Wood again…

“Humour is one of the most important tools in the creative’s armoury. It enables you to reach the parts that more literal communication simply can’t reach. Moreover, it suggests that the advertiser has a right-brained human intelligence and so renders everything they do and say more plausible. It helps connect and makes you more memorable.”

Together, these right-brained features help build mental availability. And the way in which Abbott delivers this ad means you’re more likely to like Sainsbury’s too.

This is important because when you’re about to go shopping, Sainsbury’s (or their oils) just might come to mind before others. 

The ad then ends with a subtle wordplay (another right-brain ad characteristic) and plays on the car reference again whilst reiterating the value of Sainsbury’s food.


Want more?

If you do, all my past breakdowns are in my blog here

Or, if you want to see them before others and with insights I don’t share anywhere else… click here and I’ll send them straight to your inbox every two weeks or so.

Hope to see you there.

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