Adam Arnold
May 10, 2021

'Laundrette': BBH's CMO on the ad that built the agency

Bartle Bogle Hegarty's global CMO reflects on the significance of the 1985 Levi's ad 'Laundrette', following the death of its star, Nick Kamen.

'Laundrette': BBH's CMO on the ad that built the agency

Last Wednesday we learned of the passing of Nick Kamen. Too early and too sadly. 

It compounded the feeling we are losing so many of our heroes lately. But perhaps that is what every 40-something generation starts to feel when we too mature. It caused Bartle Bogle Hegarty to pause, consider and celebrate the iconic man who immortalised Levi’s "Laundrette" as an iconic ad.

Kamen made the entire world swoon. As comedian Matt Lucas said in his tribute to the much-loved model, singer and musician: "If you didn't have a crush on Nick Kamen in the 80’s, you probably weren't there."

He was picked out by [BBH founder Sir] John Hegarty from a line-up of models. “I can remember the moment he walked into that casting session, you knew you were in the presence of a star,” John recalled. Like so many others who knew Kamen, John remembers him as “the gentlest, kindest, smartest man you could ever wish to meet”. And he never let the impact of being catapulted to global superstardom stripped down to his boxers shorts in a laundrette change his refreshingly self-effacing manner.

Yet ironically, this gentle guy from Essex became the poster boy for Generation X’s rebellion and the epitome of Americana cool. Yes, remember there was a time when the US exported achingly cool culture rather than buffoonery and conspiracy theories.   

The ad made an unprecedented and indelible dent in popular culture and as result, Levi’s sales rocketed up 800% in the UK alone, with demand outstripping supply. The shops also sold out of white boxer shorts. Which were totally not a thing before it aired. 

It’s hard to imagine, but Levi’s had been a brand in crisis prior to the campaign, discounting itself heavily and considering pulling out of European markets altogether. After "Laundrette" first played out on Boxing Day in 1985, 501s quickly became the most sought-after pair of jeans on the planet. The soundtrack, Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine, was re-released and returned to the UK charts for the first time since 1969. The phenomenon proved the power of an emotional selling proposition and the importance of seduction to sales. It gave birth to a new and exciting way to plan, create and execute advertising. The good old unique selling proposition was called dead on arrival.

Even though the ad is nearly 40 years old, it still feels utterly timeless today. It was the first commercial that was truly cinematic. It purposefully opens with a wide establishing shot setting up the narrative, showing us we’re in a small town in the US in the 50s with a GI standing outside the laundrette as Kamen walks in. This filmic quality put it on a cultural par with the best Hollywood had to offer and took Levi’s to the world.

"Laundrette" also built BBH. As Nigel Bogle recalls: "We felt we were on the crest of a wave." Levi’s, along with Audi, was a founding client of our agency and advertising its denim with so much difference in message, style and craft made BBH the go-to agency for youth culture and a launching pad for acting talent and music. Brad Pitt's acting career was kickstarted in the 1991 ad "Camera" and Levi’s alone was responsible for seven number one singles out of the agency’s haul of nine number ones and 15 top 10 singles. 

"Drugstore", "Creek", "Flat beat" (featuring Flat Eric), "Clayman", "Twisted", "Odyssey" and "Dangerous liaisons" are all still by-words for creative excellence because you can’t think of a single thing you would change in any of them.

I keep a celluloid strip of six frames from "Laundrette’ on my desk. It’s there to remind me where the BBH story started – in explosive, category-busting creative work. And it’s there to underline where the bar for greatness rests. Nick Kamen, thank you for giving us such high standards to strive for.

Adam Arnold is the global chief marketing officer at Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Campaign UK

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