At first, all we see is a black-and-white closeup of a man’s tanned face, lined by a mixture of age and the sun. Only the creases at the corners of his eyes have escaped the sun’s rays. He’s shirtless, squinting upward at something we can’t see. For 16 whole, soundless seconds, we gaze at this man’s face, waiting. Finally, a gravelly, Scottish-accented voiceover breaks the silence.
“He waits. That’s what he does.”
Thus begins the extended version of “Surfer,” one of the most award-winning television commercials of all time, for Guinness Draught. The original 60-second spot — half the 119.5 seconds it takes to (correctly) pour a pint of Guinness — tells little more than the story of surfers waiting to catch the perfect wave, whose whitecaps assume the surreal form of charging horses. We don’t even glimpse the product till the last few seconds beneath the phrase, “Good things come to those who…”
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Sure, Diageo’s 1999 ad exists to sell us beer, one that by its own design requires we wait a few minutes longer than the standard draft order. Yet “Surfer” looms larger, like a piece of great cinema distilled into a few seconds. Every choice, from the casting of a Polynesian longboard surfer as the hero to the excerpts from Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick,” read aloud by actor Louis Mellis, to the silences juxtaposed with the relentless bass line of Leftfield’s “Phat Planet,” comes together in a timeless vignette that inspires, that appeals to our higher humanity and need for community, that has soul.
“In terms of Guinness being associated with storytelling, with craft and creativity, ‘Surfer’ kind of reimagined what that could look like,” says Nick Andrew, managing partner who oversees Guinness at London-based agency AMV BBDO, which produced “Surfer.” “The legacy speaks for itself. It’s also a f*cking nightmare because every ad since has had to be as good as that one.”
Like most creative works residing in the annals of legend, the story of how “Surfer” got made involves risk, several leaps of faith, and a sprinkling of physical danger. That it arrived at the apex of TV advertising’s deep-pocketed golden age — which gave us such cinematic delights as Playstation’s “Double Life” and Apple’s “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” — begs the question of whether it would break through were it released in today’s fragmented, omnichannel era of infinite streaming services and social media platforms that favor endless scrolling. Maybe not. But it would influence nearly every piece of innovative advertising that’s debuted since.
A Penchant for Wit
Guinness had a long history of boundary-pushing advertising before AMV BBDO won the account from Ogilvy & Mather in January 1998. The brand’s long-running “Pure Genius” series in the ‘80s and ‘90s featured “Blade Runner’s” Rutger Hauer dispensing cryptic isms (“It’s not easy being a dolphin”) while sipping a Guinness. Allen, Brady & Marsh’s 1983 “Guinness isn’t good for you” nodded cheekily to the modern regulatory condemnation of the brand’s 1930s “Guinness is good for you” Benson campaign. JWT’s award-winning 1976 spot, “Black Pot,” extolled the pleasure of “slowly putting away the black,” meaning both a Guinness and the final ball in a snooker frame.
Historically, it hasn’t been so easy to sell drinkers on a black beer, Andrew says. The brand had to be savvier, even turn on the charm.
“Guinness has always taken a slightly intellectual view,” agrees Ross Chowles, Michigan State University professor of practice in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. Some of this also has to do with where its main target market is. “Most of its work is generated for a European, English, and Irish market — so those who take drinking the beer seriously, but not the brand, if you know what I mean,” says Chowles. “They’re treating the viewer as if they’re on a journey, they have intellect, a level of taste; whereas with American beer everything is either made jokey or it’s all Super Bowl and very proud.”
More broadly, TV advertising didn’t really start appealing to intellect and emotion until the 1970s, when the industry underwent a marked shift away from show-and-tell. “Ads started allowing the consumer to participate, meaning, you say something and then the consumer can fill in the blanks as opposed to spoon-feeding it to them,” says Chowles. Creative directors like Bill Bernbach, of global agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, facilitated this by putting art directors and copywriters on the same floor, fostering a more integrated storytelling approach.
Making the Wait Worthwhile
Within the context of flourishing creativity and massive client budgets, “especially for the likes of the alcohol and automotive industries,” Andrew says, AMV BBDO took on Diageo’s biggest quandary of the late 1990s: how to turn waiting two minutes for a pint of Guinness into a positive.
“The story goes that the London team was facing a deadline and one thing they kept coming back to was the fact that ordering Guinness is unlike anything else because of the anticipation,” Andrew says. “Given that that could be perceived as negative, the thought was, ‘good things come to those who wait’ — leaning into something that, hitherto, the brand had struggled with.”
AMV BBDO simultaneously delivered scripts for “Surfer” and another, more straightforward, full-color ad called “Swim Black” that charted an aging local Italian sports hero’s annual swimming race from a buoy to his brother’s seaside bar against the “clock” of properly pouring a pint of Guinness. The agency recruited director Jonathan Glazer to create “Swim Black,” which debuted in 1998 to wide acclaim.
In hindsight, it was wise to kick off the campaign with “a simpler story of the time it takes to pull and pint and wait,” notes AMV BBDO’s head of production Yvonne Chalkley, who produced both ads. The team had Glazer in mind all along to direct “Surfer,” knowing full well how gutsy it was to make the leap from a charming tale to abstract, grayscale followup inspired by a Neo-Romantic painting depicting great, curling waves made of white steeds.
“Doing something in black and white was risky, not showing the product till the end was risky, the poetry, the surreal element with the waves — all those things,” Chalkley says. “We were on a journey with the client to get them to make the plunge.”
The hero (and his face) would thus bear the heavy burden of gaining viewer buy-in during those opening seconds. Indeed, the agency tapped Glazer in no small part because of his gift for casting. The crew wandered the beach for a long time talking to people before Glazer found their main character, local amateur surfer Chadwick “Dino” Lanakila Ching “who happened to be nearly 50” — another tough sell for Diageo at first, Chalkley says. The comrades were far easier to cast in world-champion surfers and brothers Rusty and Brian Keaulana. Chalkley recalls they had an easy rapport with our more reticent hero (who since passed away, in 2006).
“He was magnetic in that shy way, super laid back but not an expert surfer,” says AMV BBDO creative director Walter Campbell, who also worked on the ad, in a 2021 interview. “This tension worked for his performance because when our expert surfers, Brian and Rusty Keaulana, got him on those epic waves, you could see he was both elated and a little freaked out.”
The Joy (and Surf Culture) of the Silences
One need not surf to understand “Surfer,” though a few choice Easter eggs reside therein, most plainly the white horses, which is a term denoting waves with foamy white crests. Finding the perfect wave (what Rusty Keaulana referred to as the ad’s “biggest character,” in a 2018 interview) on the North Shore of Hawaii, where swells famously reach 30 feet or higher, demanded patience and plenty of nerve. But it has served the legend well in reminiscence, like tall tales of big-game fishing in which the catch grows bigger every year.
“It’s always touch and go — when are you going to get the right conditions?” Chalkley says. “But it was dangerous; I think they were 80-foot waves in the end.” (Keaulana guessed a slightly more modest 50.)
Suddenly, the surfers’ glittering, 50- (or 80)-foot destiny takes shape. As they paddle furiously to meet it, British composer Peter Raeburn transfers their surging adrenaline to us by overlaying Melville’s prose atop the relentless, thump thump thump of the bass. One by one, the crashing white horses engulf the group while our hero remains standing. Silence engulfs us once more as the friends triumphantly reunite on the shore in another quiet nod to surf culture that would also help seal the ad’s creative prowess.
“When you’re in the sea and surfing, it’s such a loud noise, you get quite deaf for a little while,” Chalkley says. “Peter was literally trying to be inside their heads, like they’re celebrating and they can’t hear each other, but it ended up being another reason the ad stood out.”
Chowles always flags this detail when he shows the ad — which he indeed shows to every crop of students he gets.
“That simple bass guitar creates such tension, but the real joy is in the moments of silence — when they fall back on the beach and they remove the music, and at the beginning with that squinting surfer,” he says. “I try to talk to my students about the storytelling and drama that happens through great editing.”
The silences likewise make us relish the voice-over all the more: deep, growling, urgent — that voice! Cadence can’t be written; we must hear Mellis say the words: “Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock followed tick. Ahab says, ‘I don’t care who you are, here’s to your dream!’ The old sailors return to the bar.”
Chalkley and company unsuccessfully auditioned several voice-over actors before Glazer said, “I want to try something here,” and had his friend and then-writing partner Mellis read the piece.
We can savor other delicious anecdotes that now serve mainly to pad the legend, too: that AMV BBDO initially selected an obscure passage from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” before settling on the aptly nautical “Moby Dick;” that “Surfer” flopped spectacularly in testing, but Diageo said hell, let’s do it, all the same.
“Deep down we knew it was gonna be great,” Chalkley says. Nerve wracking as it was, Guinness was never trying to win over everybody anyway.
“Marketers always make the mistake of wanting everybody to love them,” Chowles says. “Whereas if you take Guinness — let’s say they’ve got 5 percent of the beer market — they’re only looking to move it to 7 or 8, and they’re making money. They’re not looking for world domination.”
For over two centuries Guinness has favored this strategy of deepening relationships with existing drinkers over chasing new ones — known in marketing-speak as value growth, Andrew says. This has in turn given way to pockets of deep-rooted love, like in Nigeria, where Guinness is considered by many to be the national beer, and among the artists and DJs still asking the brand if they can incorporate elements from “Surfer” into their work. It assumes stranger forms as content creation has democratized, like the @shitlondonguinness Instagram account, which features improperly poured, unattractively presented pints of Guinness at offending bars throughout London and beyond.
Yet even those who never had a taste for the black-and-white pint — or dry humor or absurdity, for that matter — likely can’t help but be gripped and delighted by “Surfer” all these years later, like an iconic film or the heartstrings-tugging refrain of a classic song. Indeed, its cleverest superpower is that it’s genreless.
“Universal things last,” Chowles says. “Great songs, great movies last. Great ads last.”