Slip, Slop, Slap (How one of Australia’s all-time great ad campaigns slipped up)

4 min read

In his book Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success, Ken Segall recounts a career working with the late great Steve Jobs. As Segall tells it, Steve Jobs had a remarkable instinct to “hit things with the simple stick”. A term that was used around the halls of Apple to describe the many occasions when Jobs would brutally reduce something to its most simple and effective state

However, even people as brilliant as Steve Jobs can sometimes falter. As Segall tells the story at one meeting between Steve Jobs and Apple’s agency of the day Chiat\Day, the agency team were arguing to focus a proposed advertising commercial on a single feature of the soon-to-be-released Apple iMac.

“Steve, however, had it in his head that there were four or five really important things to say. It seemed to him that all of those copy points would fit comfortably in a thirty-second spot. After debating the issue for a few minutes, it didn’t look like Steve was going to budge. That’s when a little voice started to make itself heard inside the head of Lee Clow, leader of the Chiat team. He decided this would be a good time to give Steve a live demonstration. Lee tore five sheets of paper off of his notepad (yes, notepad—Lee was laptop-resistant at the time) and crumpled them into five balls. Once the crumpling was complete, he started his performance. “Here, Steve, catch,” said Lee, as he tossed a single ball of paper across the table. Steve caught it, no problem, and tossed it back. “That’s a good ad,” said Lee. “Now catch this,” he said, as he threw all five paper balls in Steve’s direction. Steve didn’t catch a single one, and they bounced onto the table and floor. “That’s a bad ad,” said Lee.”

The story illustrates the power of simplicity in advertising. Great advertising, if it is truly great might just be effective in communicating a single message. No advertising however great can deliver 5.

I was reminded of this story the other day when rifling through a pack my 5-year-old son received from the government upon starting school. Within the pack were some suitably PC reading books, a collection of brochures and other tidbits including a set of stickers from the Cancer Council of Victoria promoting their Sun Smart campaign.

As someone who grew up in Victoria during the 1980’s I can remember all too well the SunSmart campaigns of yore.

To me, it was the perfect campaign. The single message was to be sun smart, carried with the catchy alliteration of the phrase Slip, Slop, Slap.

Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat.

The phrase comes to me today effortlessly. Stored in some access of my brain ready for recall at the first sign of sun or some other suitably summery trigger.

Reinforced by the jingle, backed by the alliteration and leveraging all of the power of the rule of three.

So as I slid the stickers from the pile of brochures in my son’s bag, experiencing a shock of nostalgia as I did so, my mind immediately drifted to the miracle of an advertising slogan so perfect that it should last 40 years. That is until…


No they couldn’t.

SLIP, yep.

SLOP, aha.

SLAP, terrific.

SEEK, wait a minute.



In seeking completeness, they’d broken the perfect ad.

In fairness, Sid the Seagull (or rather the agency behind it) has done a commendable job in updating the jingle to include the additional instructions.

But the rule of three is lost, complexity introduced and in much the same way that Jobs could have pushed to include the other iMac features, the Cancer Council have let completeness take priority over effectiveness.

I understand how this happened. This is a state government campaign after all. There are many stakeholders and seeking shade and sliding on sunglasses seem like reasonable additions.

I can almost picture the brief.

But I like to think that I would have had the fortitude to argue that Slip, Slop, Slap works because it is a heuristic for being sun smart (another brilliant piece of prose that the cancer council nailed.) It doesn’t need anything extra.

It just works.

In marketing often the hardest thing to do is to stick to the message, to keep things simple, avoid change for change’s sake and even more challenging to avoid changes for seemingly good reasons.

It’s a tough challenge. On the client side, it takes guts and an iron will to keep the loud voices outside the marketing department at bay. To show the discipline to stay the course.

Even more so for the 40-odd years that the Cancer Council have been at it. Imagine how many people must have “Slipped” into the CMO chair (or whatever title is bestowed the head of marketing at the cancer council) over the years.

The urge to reinvent must have been overwhelming.

On the agency side too, it takes fortitude and courage to push back and to resist your own urges to shake things up, to put your creative stamp on things. Not to mention the freezing ice one would need in their veins to hurl balls of paper at Steve Jobs!

But that’s what it takes.

As the great Mark Ritson so eloquently puts it.

Brands need a “clear, simple, practical brand position. Tight, relentlessly applied codes. Then repeat forever without any fucking-about or fanciness.”

The cancer council have done one hell of a job over a sustained period of time. The fact that so much of that original campaign remains intact is a miracle of marketing discipline.

Their website contains clever resources for schools, and incredible content and I’d hazard a guess that they are achieving some very solid effectiveness numbers if they measure such things and I’m sure they do.

But on this one point. It may be time to hit this particular slogan with the “simple stick”.