Sharp, witty and definitely not PC, the Olympus ads of the 1980s and ’90s were a masterclass in branding. Olympus Visionary Peter Dench goes behind the scenes to find out more.

My first camera was a second-hand Pentax ME Super. I don’t remember the adverts for Pentax cameras; I remember the adverts for Olympus cameras, the ones with photographer David Bailey. I wanted to be Bailey. Part of me still does. He was cool and hung out with rock stars, models and gangsters. The television commercials from the late 1970s and ’80s, screened during the soap opera Coronation Street and sporting spectacles such as the FA Cup final, reached millions, turning Bailey into a household name and Olympus into a household brand – except in my house. ‘Who do you think you are? David Bailey?’ would be levelled at anyone pointing a camera at a birthday party, wedding, in a pub, street, office, park or playground.

The bold, brilliant and often blokeish ads had Bailey being confused for someone else. In one, Monty Python’s Eric Idle reprises his ‘nudge, nudge, know what I mean, a nod’s as good as a wink’ character, mistaking Formula 1 driver James Hunt for Bailey. The on set gossip is that Idle, after stepping on a nail, ad-libbed his way through infuriating the director. In another, Bailey is taunted for his tiny all-in-one Olympus camera by the all-gear-and-no-idea elitist ‘professional photographer’ played by George Cole.

The Olympus ads worked. Before Ian Dickens joined Olympus in a junior role in 1979, he worked in a camera shop. “I saw the sharp-end. After the first television ad [where Bailey, using the Olympus Trip, out-shoots an old school wedding photographer] people would come in and ask for an Olympus, the one Bailey used. They couldn’t be persuaded otherwise. I just had to take the payment.” Dickens was so impressed, it prompted him to apply for the job with Olympus where he remained for 21 years rising to Marketing Director. “The ads were designed to entertain, amuse, surprise and challenge. Build a brand perception that customers would have an instant warmth to.”

The creative agency behind the Olympus ads were Collett Dickenson Pearce, CDP, the same agency that paired Hamlet cigars with failure, Heineken beer with refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach and Hovis bread with brass bands and steep, sepia hills. And that’s jus the brands beginning with H.

Free rein

“The agency’s brief was to do whatever they wanted, be as outrageous as they wanted and we’d take it from there,” says Graeme Chapman, Managing Director at Olympus from 1980 -2008 (including six years as European President of its Consumer Products division). Which is just as well, CDP had a reputation for only tolerating a certain amount of client interference. They took full advantage of Chapman’s advice, delivering humorous narratives and headlines. The philosophy was to treat the consumer with respect and provoke them into action.

The adverts displayed across these pages certainly provoke, one even suggests – ‘This Christmas, indulge in a little blackmail, extortion and torture,’ above a compilation of frivolous photographs featuring topless men, men with their tongues out, trousers down and sucking the toes of other men. The camera price is ‘… a drop in the ocean compared to the price you’ll be able to charge for the negatives’ it concludes, years before television shows offered financial rewards for the submission of embarrassing video clips.

Almost predicting a future of embarrassing pictures going viral, Olympus took a realistic view of the average office Christmas party

‘Which part of the divine Ms Campbell’s body holds the most allure for people? Her legs? Her lips? Her breasts? Perhaps her brain? No, it’s unquestionably her right hand’ declares another ad. At a time when fashion models were thought by some as a bit dim, Naomi Campbell holds aloft an all-weather Olympus Mju II under the copy, ‘Black. Sleek. Beautiful. Amazing features. Tiny brain.’ Naomi, a model with a large brain, was up for it. “She found the ad absolutely hysterical. She understood the humour as most celebrities featured in Olympus ads did.” says Dickens.

The adverts of the 1980s and ’90s often featured celebrities who were capable of taking the mickey out of themselves

Chapman always took legal advice. The only ad that presented any real challenge featured Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas. An undisclosed fee eventually being donated to a designated charity.

‘The business owners in the Japanese board didn’t always get the intent of the British ads but certainly understood the impressive sales figures.’

Their inspirational president believed in globalisation through localisation and Chapman and his team continued unhindered. Olympus UK were consistently the global market brand leader.

“It was a case of having a fantastic agency doing groundbreaking stuff. Other camera brand ads, sadly, were just pictures of cameras. We rarely did that. We wanted to stop the audience in their tracks” adds Chapman.

Grabbing attention

“I used to hate cameras.” says the empowered looking American actress Koo Stark, probably better known for her relationship with Prince Andrew. “One day the paparazzi turned up on my doorstep, training their zoom lenses on me like a firing squad. It went on for years. In self-defence, I started snapping back at them.’ Stark went on to become an accomplished photographer and patron of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust.

Olympus understood the benefit of promoting Koo Stark as a photographer, rather than and ex-girlfriend of royalty

While grabbing the audiences attention, the Olympus ads also engaged with them. Below the hero images of Bill Clinton with a brunette, a staring, snarling Sarah Bernhard and glistening torsos of rowing heroes Ed Bayliss and Stu Turnbull, are highlighted some of the latest Olympus camera benefits (they were always referred to as benefits not features): built in flash; built in zoom lens; auto film loading; auto film speed setting; auto winding; auto rewinding; auto program; auto focus; drop-proof; waterproof and one of the biggest challenges, red-eye-reduction.

Trans-Atlantic rowers Ed Baylis and Stu Turnbull, as photographed by Olympus stalwart David Bailey

The ad agency was told to be as outrageous as they liked – and in most instances they got away with it

The ads were cheeky, irreverent and often topical, the kind that the satirical and current affairs news magazine Private Eye used to employ on their covers. Convicted financial rogue trader, Nick Leeson, is pictured in an ad for the Olympus Superzoom 120 above the slogan, ‘Perfect for those that like to take long shots.’ A Princess Diana ‘leg-a-like’ poses in a luxurious looking chair; ‘Avoid getting your head chopped off by the in-laws this Christmas’ is the quip for an Olympus AF-10 mini gift set.

While other manufacturers simply showed images of cameras in their adverts, Olympus pushed the envelope

Alongside Bailey, there was a royal rat pack of other more than capable photographers to endorse Olympus: Patrick Lichfield, Barry Lategan, John Swannell and Don McCullin. Not all the adverts featured celebrities, or cameras. One ad for binoculars takes the ‘ooh er missus’ approach promising dedicated ornithologists; ‘We won’t resort to cheap jokes about birds, boobies and tits’ above a picture of Phalacrocorax aristotelis, or to you and me, The European or common shag, a species of cormorant.

These days, it’s unlikely an advertiser would get away with a concept such as this one…

Olympus are known for their innovative ads. They offer an insight and rich archive into the advertising and photography culture of a time when celebrities were nationally recognised and copyrighters were king.

Based on an article which  featured in Amateur Photographer Magazine 19 October 2019.