Magazine

The Ronseal phrase: It does exactly what it says on the tin

  • 8 January 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Varnishing

Prime Minister David Cameron used a famous advertising slogan to sum up the state of the coalition government at its halfway point, saying "it is a Ronseal deal - it does what it says on the tin". This phrase has entered the British vernacular, says its co-creator Dave Shelton.

David Cameron has said it before. In 2004, he said: "People are crying out for a kind of Ronseal politics - they want it to do what it says on the tin."

People use the phrase every day. On YouTube you can listen to Katie Melua's What It Says On The Tin. Google the line and you get millions of results.

In 1994, when my advertising partner Liz Whiston and I came up with the line "Does exactly what it says on the tin" for Ronseal, we never dreamed how it would enter the language.

Back then Ronseal was just another varnish fighting for market share against a lot of fancier lifestyle brands. Anyone wandering into a DIY superstore was faced with a wall of different solutions to whatever woodcare job they might be trying to tackle.

We had presented a number of different campaigns, all of which had been rejected by Ged Shields, the then marketing director of Ronseal for "trying too hard".

Shields wanted to de-mystify the product.

We decided what was needed wasn't puns or art. Instead we would call a spade a spade.

We started to write a commercial that featured a straightforward guy who said lines like: "If you've got wood to stain and you want it to dry quickly, you need Ronseal Quick Drying Woodstain."

It was a way of talking that until then hadn't been done in advertising.

We'd soon knocked out several scripts but we needed a line, an anti-line.

Media captionDavid Cameron: "A Ronseal deal"

"Does exactly what it says on the tin" was a great way of summing up. Initially we used it as a placeholder thinking that we'd write a proper line later, but then we realised a proper line would be completely wrong.

We put the scripts into research and they totally bombed. To the punters, it wasn't "advertising" enough.

Fortunately Shields is one of those few-and-far-between clients who have their own opinion and the courage of their convictions. He insisted that the commercial and the line he loved were what summed up the philosophy of Ronseal. Nothing was to be changed and the ads ran as they were written.

He had a very small budget, but very quickly the ads were noticed. Firstly by the advertising industry itself. Were these ads bad or good? Immediately they were spoofed by other companies, like Irn Bru.

There have been slight variations, one of my favourites being an anti-smoking ad which simply showed a pack of cigarettes with the public health warning "Smoking kills" clearly visible. Underneath was the line: "Does exactly what it says on the packet."

After the initial campaign, sales shot up and Ronseal became brand leader.

We wrote more ads.

And then we started to hear our line become part of the vernacular. It even made it into the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms.

Liz was sitting at her daughter Marina's speech day and the headmaster very proudly said the school was determined to do "exactly what it said on the tin". Her daughter clapped the loudest.

The food critic AA Gill wrote about a restaurant, "This is a dining room that doesn't do what it says on the packet."

There was obviously a gap in the English language for a phrase that said: Do what you promise.

That's not something we had anticipated. Perhaps that's a bit sad, but if our phrase becomes a standard that everyone wants to aim for, we're happy for that.

Now Ronseal doesn't have to spend money on a famous spokesman because, as we've heard this week, David Cameron is happy to endorse their product for nothing.

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