Leslie Nielsen had just hit big playing Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun at the exact time that adverts for a new cider were being thought up in the UK – here’s what happened.

In the late 1980s, the Taunton Cider Company – a business that had been in operation in one form or another since the early 1800s – decided to launch a new beverage. The Somerset-based firm thus came up with a new product by the name of Red Rock Cider.

To this day, it’s one remembered not for the taste of the stuff, but for the pretty daring advertising campaign that brought it to prominence.

It knew that it wanted to make a splash with its promotion, and thus pulled together a sizeable budget to help make that happen. It put out a brief to advertising agencies that it wanted to get across the drink was a cider ‘with a totally different taste’. As such, lots of clever people who earn more money than us knocked their heads together, and it was an advertising agency by the name of GGT that came up with the top choice of strapline.

Working with the brand name Red Rock Cider, it proposed to promote the drink using the words ‘It’s not red, it’s got no rocks, and it doesn’t taste like cider’.

GGT duly landed the contract for the work, and the plan was then to find a prominent name to be the face of the campaign. This was an era when Dudley Moore was promoting Tesco free-range chickens in the UK, and when director Bill Forsyth was persuaded to shoot commercials for Foster’s, with the late, great Burt Lancaster (who he’d, of course, worked with on Local Hero).

When it came to Red Rock Cider, though – it’s no longer made, so please don’t take this article as us doing some subtle promotion – eyes turned to a 1988 hit movie. Specifically, The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad!

The film – as we discussed in a podcast episode here – had far exceeded box office expectations, and had cemented its lead, Leslie Nielsen, as an unlikely comedy superstar (building on, of course, Airplane! from 1980).

Nielsen had some commercial clout off the back of The Naked Gun, and negotiations were ongoing for him to star in its eventual sequel. But also, once the plan was formed for the Red Rock campaign to have a spoof comedy tone, he became the top choice for it.

Not that The Taunton Cider Company didn’t need some persuading. As Empire reported back in September 1990, other names in the mix were Rowan Atkinson and Rik Mayall. But research showed that Nielsen was incredibly popular, and an offer was made.

As the story goes, he would ultimately receive $1m for a three-year contract, that would involve three weeks of shooting work across that time. On top of that, first class plane travel and nice hotels. He’d struck gold.

There was still the small matter of putting the commercials together, and for that, in came British TV comedy legend John Lloyd. With a list of credits by this time that included Not The Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image, Blackadder and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – and his creation of QI to come – he was hired to direct the adverts.

The plan was to ape the style of the Police Squad! TV series that had led to The Naked Gun, with Nielsen effectively playing a version of Lieutenant Frank Drebin that’d ensure nobody had to pay for the rights to actually use the character directly. As such, Fraud Squad! was born, and production was all set to begin.

But there was a late twist in the tale. The Taunton company was getting cold feet over using the line ‘and it doesn’t taste like cider’. That had been the whole basis of the campaign that GGT had devised, and as one of its co-founders, Dave Trott, would recall to Campaign magazine, “what could we do, it felt like a disaster … we lost the whole reason for the line”.

Faced with an impending deadline, it took the only decision it felt was open to it: it dropped the last part of the line, which felt like damage limitation at the point that choice was taken. But as it turned out, it proved to be to the benefit of the commercials themselves. As Trott would muse, “people don’t miss what they never had”.

And thus a hugely successful line of commercials was launched. A series of commercials that somebody has thoughtfully compiled into one video. Take a look…

The campaign would be a huge success, although the drink itself would have a relatively short shelf life. Once the commercials had died down, Red Rock Cider was retired in the mid-1990s.

But it left behind a collection of adverts that give us just a few more minutes of the late, great Leslie Nielsen – unofficially at least – in what turned out to be one of his most-loved roles.

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