Myth of the Surfer

Guinness spot toasts waiting

Headshot of Tim Nudd

David Ogilvy once called Guinness ads “part of the warp and woof of English life.” From John Gilroy’s pint-balancing toucan to Rutger Hauer’s “Pure Genius,” the ads are as popular in Britain as shepherd’s pie, and as resilient as the Queen Mum.

In its second Guinness TV spot for the U.K. market, Abbott Mead Vickers/BBDO in London adds to the brand’s mystique, hitting viewers with the warp of poetic narration and woof of spectacular special effects.

The minute-long “Surfer” spot—crafted by art director Walter Campbell, copywriter Tom Carty and director Jonathan Glazer—broke last month under a six-month media budget of £6 million, almost $10 million.

“We looked at the history of Guinness, and what really struck us were the ‘Guinness Is Good for You’ ads, and the way that imagery stayed with you,” Campbell says. “We wanted to get into something like that, something that had a sort of strangeness or mythology to it.”

Filmed in the pounding winter swells of Hawaii, the ad carries the line, “Good things come to those who wait,” referring to the stout’s slow-poured nature and the rare feeling of battling a deadly wave.

The spot opens calmly, with a close-up of a Polynesian-looking surfer staring out to sea. “He waits. That’s what he does,” says a voiceover. “Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock followed tick.”

A pulsing beat begins as the surfer and his friends pull their longboards into the water. “Ahab says I don’t care who you are, here’s to your dream,” continues the voiceover. “The old sailors return to the bar. Here’s to you, Ahab! And the fat drummer hit the beat with all his heart.”

A crashing surfing sequence ensues. The men struggle to stay upright as enormous, ghostly white horses are seen galloping furiously atop the wave. One by one, the men fall. Only the original surfer emerges from the pipe to cruise triumphantly on the flats.

The ad closes with brief, silent images of the men cavorting on the beach, and then a full shot of a churning pint of Guinness. “Here’s to waiting,” says the voiceover.

Campbell and Carty, who developed a nautical theme for the earlier “Swimblack” commercial, searched for images that convey the power and danger of the sea for “Surfer.” The two kept returning to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and, especially, Walter Crane’s 1893 painting Neptune’s Horses.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could bring that [painting] to life,'” Campbell says.

Once the concept was clear, Glazer and underwater cameraman Don King filmed the water scenes. London’s Computer Film Co. transferred the images of the horses onto the crest of the foaming surf.

The language, which Campbell describes as “Moby Dick-esque with a bit of Dylan Thomas,” completed the vision. “Instead of making the kind of surf film where people say, ‘Hey, I’d like to do that,’ we wanted to say, ‘Maybe you should think twice about coming out here.'”

Client: Guinness, London
Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers/Bbdo, London
Art Director: Walter Campbell
Copywriter: Tom Carty
Producer: Yvonne Chalkley
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Production Co.: Academy

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.