The “Big Ad” is an Australian TVC for Carlton Draught pale lager. It used viral marketing techniques to promote the advertisement before it was broadcast on television
In Australia, beer advertising was a funny niche. There was not much of a difference between various lagers in terms of flavour or ingredients, and regulators wouldn’t let you talk much about the social impacts of drinking for fear of encouraging intoxication. That freed up the creative team to come up with whatever crazy, amusing concepts they could think of. As a result, it came as no surprise that many of the most iconic campaigns in the history of the global advertising business have been based on products in this category.
It was likely most pronounced in Australia in the 1990s, when the country’s two largest brewers engaged in a fierce struggle as their advertising firms competed with one another to see who could come up with the most outrageous beer-related stunts.
In 2003, when the Fosters Group, later renamed Carlton & United Breweries, decided to expand the reach of its Carlton Draught beer outside the confines of Melbourne. George Patterson Partners (now Y&R) created the “Made From Beer” campaign for Fosters as a jab at the elitism & pretentiousness of the newly packaged “designer beers” that were flooding the market at the time.
Lion Nathan, Fosters’ primary competitor, responded with similarly comedic advertisements for Toohey’s and draught XXXX, and the satirical tone of both businesses’ commercials gradually expanded to include not just beer but also advertising. The creative team at GPP, of Ant Keogh and Grant Rutherford, were given free rein to mock the success of Saatchi & Saatchi’s “Face” campaign for British Airways in the 1990s with their third “Made From Beer” commercial.
Grant and Ant were seeking a new target for their satire after their previous commercials had poked fun at the advertising industry itself. They considered the abundance of high-budget airline advertisements at the time.
While riding the train together after work, they had a brainwave somewhere near Elsternwick. And aboard the train, they just got that line ‘It’s a Big Ad’ and actually sang it to the tune of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana ‘O Fortuna’ there and then. As they put it, the song sprang to mind because it was the grandest, most epic tune they could think of at the time. (Both Grant and Ant were musicians.) The remainder of the lyrics were written that night by Ant.
By the following day, they had a rough outline of the plot and an idea of the graphics they intended to use to spoof high-budget advertisements like the British Airways ad where people sprint across the field and movies like The Lord of the Rings.
In subsequent iterations, Grant and Ant fleshed up the plot by adding elements like having the ad’s male protagonists construct an absurdly intricate image of a digestive system, replete with humour. Ant’s enthusiasm for the band The Polyphonic Spree served as inspiration for the outfits. What’s more, they resembled the individuals in the Qantas advertisements.
A few days later, they took the client into a board room and presented it, complete with in-room antics to drive home their points. Further, Ant had created a demo musical track to demonstrate how the lyrics would go with the music. The customer was delighted and stated they’d look into finding the additional funds.
Finding a filmmaker who could capture the spirit of Carlton Draught was simple; Paul Middleditch (Plaza Films) had previously directed an ad for the company, and he was a natural fit. It was his bright idea to hire Andrew Lesnie (Fellowship of the Ring, Babe) as the film’s DP.
The three-day shoot for “Big Ad” took place in subfreezing temperatures in Queenstown, New Zealand, in a region made famous by the Lord of the Rings films. Paul Middleditch trained a crew of around 300 extras and then spent three months editing, using CGI to increase the crowd size to about 20,000.
A standard bearer rides into battle on a galloping Clydesdale in a scene straight out of Hollywood. As seen from above, the marching troops have the shape of a face, a hand, and a Carlton Draught glass. Beer is sipped from the palm of the hand as troops join forces.
Middleditch hired Animal Logic, a digital production studio that had already worked on The Matrix and Moulin Rouge, to create the animation. Massive, crowd simulation software, was used to produce thousands of digitally generated human extras for use in the film’s nine aerial crowd sequences. Whenever a character moved or changed directions, it was based on a completely random algorithm. Massive was making its debut in an Australian television commercial.
Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra and a large choir performed the music, which had been re-scored by Cezary Skubiszewski. It was encouraging to see the choir members giggling as they gradually caught on to the song’s meaning.
Despite its initial online-only release and companion website, “Big Ad” swiftly gained a massive following both in Australia and beyond. It won a slew of prizes, but another beer commercial (“noitulovE” by Guinness) won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2006.
Although “Big Ad” was successful in launching Carlton as a top-selling beer in the United States and establishing a worldwide reputation for Keogh and Rutherford and the rest of GPP creative team, it was difficult to live up to the standards it set. An additional Carlton marketer, Chris Maxwell, reflected on its greatness, saying, “It was an epic campaign, one of the finest advertisements ever developed by an Australian agency or brand.” It established the company’s history of “we are renowned because of our famous advertising,” and when the brand expanded, it required further instances of this kind of marketing. It’s like trying to capture lightning in a bottle; it won’t happen by chance.