Heroes of AdTurds: Tango Adverts

tango adverts corden

Ah, Tango adverts. There are certain advertisers who just got it. A product; a brief; a set of brilliant adverts. Everything just clicked. Whether the stars aligned, restrictions brought forth brilliance, the brains were firing on a cylinders or the cocaine was particularly good, these guys just got it right.

It doesn’t happen very often. Honda used to ace it. Then Audi had it licked. Ford had a good run. Cadbury’s enjoyed a moment in the sun; CompareTheMarket, Aldi, John Lewis. 20 years ago it was Benetton making everyone puke and there’s brilliant nonsense such as the Tony Kaye Dunlop ad. No doubt the ad industry is busy shoving gongs up its own arse over the ‘pester power’ genre of Go Compare, CompareTheMeerkat and Confused.com but I can’t think of a set of ads that have been consistently good for ages.

I’m going back in time to find an AdTurds hero. A set of ads that always entertained, got people talking about the brand and were probably discussed by huffy MPs. If anything the appeal of the ads arguably transcended that of the product, which was never particularly rated – until, that is, the series rebooted it as the kind of jolt you’d get from freebasing plutonium.

These in-yer-face British soft drinks were originally based around the original orange flavour and latterly branched out into other citrus suburbs – most of which tasted of sugar, caffeine and a stress headache 45 minutes later.

Tango is rude, lewd, irreverent, childish, surreal, occasionally disturbing and very funny. The ads play with form and convention; they encourage interaction; they pretty much break the fourth wall; they send up their own company and they take the piss. So successful were the Tango adverts that their idiom has been adopted by British soft-drinks (and alcopops) companies ever since, this Irn-Bru advert being a case in point.

Tango was doing social before the word became a colourless totem that had to be inserted into any business plan conceived in east London. Incredibly, millions of people used to phone Tango helplines, designed to tie in with the various campaigns for the many Tango brands that sprung up in the 90s and 00s. Before viral, watercooler moments and cut-through, there were Tango adverts.

Increasingly the ads became self-referential, with several featuring spokesmen for the company making statements on brand misfires or product comms. It took the piss out of other ads; it bullied other ads, essentially going around the commercial breaks sneering at the other adverts and giving them wedgies. Heck, Diet Tango adverts actually taunted viewers – “You Need It Because You’re Weak”. As disruptive marketing goes – and the Tango ads’ impact reportedly had other soft-drinks manufacturers dribbling into their Dr Pepper – it wrote the book, before having it shredded.

The ad agency behind it – HHCL and Partners – was so forward-thinking (or up its own arse, depending on your point of view) that it employed its own shaman. Conceived as a socially-progressive agency, HHCL made waves with its very first ad – a couple shagging on a sofa for Thames Television – which promptly got it sacked. As did a number of following campaigns for MTV, Fruit of the Loom, and Avis. And many others. HHCL was an enfant terrible of the advertising world. Well, even more of an enfant terrible.

Either way the agency was responsible for some of the most brilliant marketing of the 90s with irreverent, risque campaigns for Tango, Maxwell and Pot Noodle (The Slag Of All Snacks) on one hand and launching tech and financial companies on the other. It was bought out and closed down – seemingly much lamented – in the late Noughties but its work for Tango remains influential today: the current MoneySupermarket advert owes a lot to Tango’s WTF moments.

Despite some of the apparent brutishness on display throughout the golden age of Tango adverts (1991 – circa 2005), it’s all very British and anarchic. Goons, Vic and Bob, Vivian Stanshall, Fast Show, Partridge, Mighty Boosh. Slapstick and satire and surreality and piss-taking. What must Americans make of it? “Who cares?” seems to be the answer and in planting British streets, voices and faces front and centre – Ralph Ineson (aka Finchy from The Office), James Smith (aka The Thick Of It’s Glen Cullen), Paul Putner (various including Little Britain), Matthew Cottle (Martin in Game On and many other ads), Rob Brydon, John Culshaw and James Corden amongst others – the Tango adverts bucked the trend at the time.

Some Tango adverts did, however, flirt with the fine line of what’s acceptable in advertising and got it wrong at least twice by my reckoning. A set of ads that seemed to encourage bullying – what is probably termed happy-slapping these days and some rather disturbing spots involving Corden – and the (in)famous St George advert leave a nasty taste in the mouth. And not just in the same way that Tango Clear does.

tango with added tango

More recent materials include recycling popular non-original material on social networks (the Tango Facebook page indicates the brand is a shadow of its former self): calling big bottles King Tango (see King Penguin for why there’s more to this than there might seem), spelling out TWAT on the side of a can and claiming that drinking much too Tango causes ‘casual sexism’. There’s always a danger with stuff like this – a broad and generous creative brief – that the people responsible get carried away, or simply focus on the more scatological, jingoistic or vaguely bigoted elements.

But above all what made Tango ads so amusing is their irreverence. It’s attitude that’s tempered by wit and an overriding sense of fun. You did know when you’d been Tango’d. And chances were, following a Tango advert, your day was brightened up just a little bit.

Orange Man: You Know When You’ve Been Tango’d

The series of ads for Orange Tango – later developing into Apple, Lemon, Blackcurrant and Still Tango – that kickstarted the whole phenomenon back in 1991, featuring a duo (Hugh Dennis and Ray Wilkins apparently) commentating on people enjoying – or enduring – Tango moments that generally consist of an enormous shock, disturbing event or vaguely orgasmic moment.

The first advert – Orange Man – riffs on the sort of sports broadcasting Andy Gray was bringing to the UK with his video tapes and ranty shouting at the time. The sports commentary device was one used by Tango for another 15 years or so, though the rough edges – including the handheld camera and shouty voiceovers – were knocked off as time went on.

The slapping adverts brought forward suggestions that children all over playgrounds were having their eardrums burst (the ad was supposedly withdrawn when one of the creatives heard from a doctor who was treating children who, in their own words, had been Tango’d); the exploding pensioner ad for being offensive; the legless man for shitting up the kiddoes. While it’s a matter of debate as to how offensive these ads were deemed, as opposed to how good HHCL were at pretending they were offensive and exploiting the publicity, the phrase You Know When You’ve Been Tango’d wasn’t going anywhere for the next decade.

The first set of ads – featuring the Orange Man and various iterations – was supposedly responsible for increasing sales by 300 per cent.

The Hit Of The Whole Fruit

Perhaps the funniest series of ads (and towards the end of the glory days) retain the commentary element and feature a series of men in search of beatific Tango-related pleasure that sees them essentially self-immolate in crushed oranges or apples. The concept is very strong but it’s the execution where these work so well: the actors take it completely seriously; the voiceover is totally believable.

Again, it’s openly sexual (the contemporaneous death of poor Tory MP Stephen Milligan, found dead as a result of auto-erotic asphyxiation gone wrong with an orange in his mouth, can’t have been purely coincidental), with various unlikely set-ups counterbalancing anticipation with sudden release. Casting these escapades in a record-breaking, sports-based idiom allows for a well-observed commentary by someone who’s almost certainly Phil Cornwell.

The casual arrival of a porcupine in one of the adverts never fails to make me laugh out loud. Perfect adverts.

NB. The Pipes advert was banned in case children copied it, bizarrely. Said the ASA, having banned the ad without going through the due process: “We were so concerned that the ad could encourage children to emulate dangerous practices that it ordered immediate suspension.”

Lemon Tango: Jim

Lemon Tango adverts can be split into two batches. The first sees a concerned journalist (presumably) played by the late James Saxon interviewing member of the cult of Jim – a large Brummie who appears when they quaff the citrus drink. Again, it’s all very British, suggestive and weird – in using a documentary-style device it also prefaces The Office by a good couple of years.

With Jim established, the drinking of Lemon Tango heralds an unwelcome, socially-embarrassing visit from the man himself and you just know that they seriously considered a ‘caught wanking’ ad.

Apple seduction

Apple Tango, a prostitute or mistress calling your house with sexual taunts – making weak British men humiliate themselves in search of apple-based sexual release. These are genuinely filthy – tweak my ring… pull; you want my big juicy apples; peel my top off – and, again, it’s hard to dissociate them from the British sitcom staple of repressed sexuality and sex farce.

Still Tango

Perhaps the most daring set of adverts, these Still Tango adverts don’t bear any of the usual hallmarks of advertising, posing instead as public information films or recall notices.

300,000 people rang the number advertised for worried consumers to report sightings of ‘unofficial’ product Still Tango, only to be told that – surprise, surprise – they’d been Tango’d. Even less surprisingly, a lot of them complained. The Independent Television Commission immediately banned the advert and criticised agency HHCL for ‘trespassing on public confidence’.

I’m not familiar with these actors, who deliver their lines as might a rather dull middle manager at Tango House. The devil really is in the detail, with ‘that’s an end to it’ in the spanking advert a cracker.

These kind of guerilla tactics were largely unheard of in the 90s, at least on this scale. Despite the clear problem over such cry-wolf tactics, the ad industry yummed it up.

Tango Clear: It’s Clear When You’ve Been Tango’d

The Tango Clear adverts make explicit something that had only been implied before – an outright taking of the piss out of other adverts.

The first effort is a pitch-perfect parody of the Sony Bravia advert, which showed thousands of bouncing balls making their way down a street in San Francisco. Transpose to a provincial British town (Swansea apparently) and add in some humourous details such as the fruit smashing in windows and you have a perfect ad that’s almost the Platonic ideal of a Tango ad; a funny little throwaway sketch that wouldn’t be out of place in The Fast Show.

The second ad, Metaphor, is pretty much riffing on a staple of every drinks advert and the idea that you can enjoy a moment akin to sniffing coke while enjoying oral sex, if only you open that can of fermented vegetable extract. In a sector hardly known – at the time, anyway – for post-modernism it’s hard to ignore how influential they’ve been. For a current iteration of this very trope, see the Five Gum advert.

Blackcurrant Tango: St George

This Blackcurrant Tango advert is undeniably brilliantly executed and rather funny – ad people positively ejaculated awards in its direction – but it’s hard to ignore the nasty undertones. The line with this sort of stuff – as in Til Death Do Us Part, Viz, Brass Eye as the like – is often in observing who you’re supposed to side with; who you’re laughing at opposed to who you’re laughing with.

It seems fairly clear here that you’re supposed to side with Ray Gardner (who became a sort-of celebrity as a result) rather than ‘Johnny French’ – it’s tough because its jingoism is what makes it funny. The technical brilliance of this and note-perfect script and delivery really elevate this above something that’s simply nasty – nevertheless I couldn’t ever escape the impression that the UKIPers of this world would love the spot.

Diet Tango: You Need It Because You’re Weak

Not content with taunting characters in adverts, Tango went a step further with its series of Diet Tango adverts. Having been shown a succession of mouth-watering foods, viewers would be slapped with the legend You Need It Because You’re Weak.

I can’t really think of another advert that has lampooned its own audience and customer base so obviously – unless you count the hectoring Gladstone Brookes adverts. It’s an almost punk-rock, fuck-you attitude to diet drinks, in direct opposition to the default mode that suggests healthy lifestyles and rippling abs as an inevitable result of eating fat-free food.

Tango Adverts: Odds and Sods

Tango Strange Soda

Tango Strange Soda – a fizzy drink that tasted weird – didn’t last long but it did at least spawn this memorable ad, detailing how it was to be pronounced.Again, the conceit of stiff businessmen in horrible 90s grey suits relating these lunatic messages with nary an eyebrow raised is what makes it, with the coda of media types trying to recreate the Strange Soda noise a lovely detail.

We Drink Tango Don’t You Know

Perhaps not these strongest, but these turn-of-the-millennium spots tread a fine line in cognitive dissonance, throwing Tango into situations where it has no obvious place to be, including a housewife’s daytime spread, teachers’ staff room.

We Drink Tango, Don’t You Know didn’t catch on though, and it was back to You Know When You’ve Been Tango’d before long.


This series of Tango adverts promoting the Tango megaphone (tangophone) features James Corden being driven slowly insane by an unsettling bunch of middle-aged, ginger-haired men repeating everything he says.

Pitched halfway between Guantanamo Bay and that episode of Doctor Who, it’s kinda brilliant but understandably brought accusations that it encouraged bullying.

Feed The Tango Inside

Suggesting that Tango awakens hideous parasites in your guts is, on the face of it, not a wonderful idea, but if anyone could pull this stuff off it was Tango. The notion that Tango is somehow a malevolent or mischievous force in the lives of those who drink it flies in the face of received wisdom, but it was essentially Tango’s whole brand proposition by this point. It’s also worth pointing out that drinkers of Tango were probably unconcerned about what it was doing to their guts.

Trade ads

Tango even took the piss out of itself when developing ads for trade.


The initial Clowns advert is classic Tango – retraining the big-shoes pratfallers as estate agents (pointless little men) in an effort to build a better world.

The follow-up sees the creative responsible for the ad locked in a cupboard with his boss and subjected to some orange Tango – and possible something else.


Nowadays Tango seems diminished as a brand, lost in the labryrinth of Britvic’s beverage portfolio. But its lunatic spirit lives on in this most recent series of Tango ads.

Possibly every Tango advert ever

• So, you’ve seen pretty much the lot. Over to you to tell me which series you prefer by voting for your favourite Tango adverts below