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Did an old advert ruin a classic song?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016 2:58
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By Brian Clegg

B4INREMOTE-aHR0cHM6Ly8yLmJwLmJsb2dzcG90LmNvbS8ta0NnTXRtN05WbkEvV0NuWjBVclhpREkvQUFBQUFBQUFXenMvcXgyeXFyT3FPSzhNdng2dTAtY0ZoV2N2eHBRcl83V2V3Q0xjQi9zMzIwL2Vzc29ibHVlLmpwZw==When I was young, an unlikely product was regularly advertised on TV which some accused of ruining a great song. It was what we’d now primarily call kerosene – aviation fuel – but then was the more humble paraffin. But it wasn’t because we all had private jets back then. If you were allowed to watch commercial TV (more conservative households considered ITV to be the work of the devil and stuck to the BBC) it would only take someone to sing four rising tones in a major key to the jaunty words ‘Bum bum bum bum’ (no, really) to come up with the response ‘Esso Blue!’

This wasn’t, of course, the song in question, but more of that in a moment. Esso Blue was the leading brand of paraffin in the UK and it was bought in large quantities, because back then most of us didn’t have central heating. (We got it when I was 11.) In the winter, a room or two were heated by open fires, you might have had an electric wall heater in the bathroom – but if you wanted heat elsewhere, you’d probably haul in the paraffin heater. These things sound deadly – presumably they put out all sorts of noxious substances – but we survived somehow.

However, Esso didn’t limit themselves to the poetic drama of ‘Bum bum bum bum’ – they had another advertising trick up their sleeve which would provide an earworm to this day. They took the old classic ‘Smoke gets in your eyes,’ and subtly transformed the words for advertising purposes. For this reason, long before I knew it was an existing song, I could sing ‘They asked me how I knew/It was Esso Blue./I of course replied/”With lower grades one buys*,/Smoke gets in your eyes.”‘

However, despite this, I have to answer ‘No’ to the question in this post’s title. The advertisement didn’t ruin a classic song – it merely brings back powerful memories many years later.

* They don’t make adverts like they used to. When did you last here a non-ironic ‘one’ in an advert?

Now Appearing is the blog of science writer Brian Clegg (, author of Inflight Science, Before the Big Bang and The God Effect.


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