Some know John Meillon as the fictitious Walter Reilly from Crocodile Dundee and Crocodile Dundee II. Some know him as the baritone featured on the hit track ‘Tap Tap‘ / ‘Picture Show Man,’ which peaked at #80 on the Australian singles chart. But it’s safe to assume everyone – and we really mean everyone – recognises his voice from those iconic Victoria Bitter (VB) ads.
Initially conceived for Queensland’s Bulimba Gold Top beer campaign circa 1965 – a campaign, it’s worth noting, that was virtually identical to VB’s, right down to the rousing instrumental (see: below) – John Meillon was always the first choice for what would go down in history as a cultural milestone.
“As soon as he heard the music track he went for it, almost perfect from take one. He could be laid-back but come on strong when needed,” recounted Bruce Jarrett, former Creative Director of the George Patterson advertising agency’s Sydney office; and the copywriting genius behind the campaign in question.
“We did a finished music track, even though everyone thought the rough audition was great, and it finished up too refined and glossy… so we used the audition track, just as we had presented it.”
As expected, it went gangbusters. Within weeks, Bulimba Gold Top was outselling its closest competitor in XXXX; the ad was even being played free of charge on juke boxes in pubs and clubs across the state.
In 1967, George Patterson was appointed the CUB account for Victoria. As Geoff Seebeck explained (via BrewsNews)…
“At that time, beer marketing and advertising was pretty unsophisticated as CUB had a virtual monopoly. Draught beer in pubs was unbranded, patrons simply asked for ‘a beer.’ CUB’s packaged products had no defined positioning and no real brand values. But Courage, the UK beer giant, was about to enter the market. It was essential that some long term brand positioning and advertising strategies were put in place.”
The agency was tasked with marketing CUB’s four big products at the time: draught beer which eventually became Carlton Draught, Foster’s Lager, Melbourne Bitter, and of course, Victoria Bitter. According to Seebeck, the George Patterson team discovered VB as a product and its consumer profiles matched that of Bulimba Gold in Queensland: blue collar, honest toil, and essentially a reward for a hard day’s work.
“They already had the perfect advertising campaign and strategy in the can. All they had to do was change the name.”Geoff Seebeck
John Meillon was called back for the voiceovers, mixed in with the polished version of the instrumental.
For around two decades, the Victoria Bitter ads ran smoothly. Until tragedy struck.
In 1989, at the age of 55, John Meillon passed away in the comfort of his own Neutral Bay home from liver cirrhosis. Out of respect for both his family and the man’s legacy, the campaign was immediately pulled from airways. And suddenly, a major element of VB’s public identity was gone.
While the Meillon family were gracious and generous enough to greenlight the continued use of John’s voice, they would soon run into another obstacle.
“Well, given that he has passed away, it would be very difficult for us to get a new script read by John Meillon.”VB spokeswoman prior to unveiling a new ad push
After the painstaking process of digitally re-mastering the ancient recordings, which were fast deteriorating thanks to the ravages of time, they leveraged some cutting-edge audio-related innovations in an effort to recapture the “raw, honest, and passionate” delivery that made John Meillon a household name.
Not only could the original reads still be used, now, the lines could be mixed and matched, with individual syllables isolated and re-assembled to create new uncomplicated words. For example: Meillon never actually recorded the phrase “on tap.” Modern technology, however, allowed “on tap” to be (re)constructed from the archives.
Granted, this may all sound pretty bog standard in a modern context where AI deepfakes are running rampart, but keep in mind this was accomplished in the early 2000s.
To this day, millions of adoring piss heads – and respectable Aussie beer drinkers alike – remember the late great John Meillon as the voice of the VB ads.
For a more in-depth look at the iconic Victoria Bitter ads’ history – beyond the voice of John Meillon and early conception alone – check out the complete Geoff Seebeck article here.