Alex Casey unearths the origin story of a New Zealand icon – featuring a surprise cameo from an international comedy megastar.
At first glance, the Facebook post from a Waipu cafe reads like any other heartfelt change in ownership announcement. “George and Amber have reflected on their involvement in our cafe,” it begins. “As a result of this, they have decided to pursue other opportunities.” So far, so normal. It’s in the comments section where things really start to get interesting. “Such sad times for togs togs undies,” writes one. “They were the heart and soul of Togs Togs Undies,” mourns another. “So proud of all you achieved with Togs Togs Undies”.
Up there with “ghost chips”, “bugger” and “good on ya mate”, “togs, togs, undies” has become one of the most enduring advertising phrases to enter our cultural lexicon since it was first uttered in a 2006 ad for Trumpet ice cream. It’s been used to hawk baches on Airbnb, as a popular Instagram caption for influencers, and is even the name of a mountain bike trail. “Togs Togs Undies Trail has bedded in really well and is becoming quite a popular return to carpark trail,” a post on the Woodhill Forest Facebook reads. “2.5km of flow. Gotta love the Undies.”
If you shut your eyes, you can probably see the vivid blues and greens of the ad now. Under the sizzling New Zealand sun, a mulleted man in Speedos strides confidently towards the camera, the voiceover warning about the fateful moment that togs become undies. With every step away from the ocean, the risk increases. “If you can’t see the water, you’re in underpants”, the omniscient voice advises, as our Speedo’d subject is shown in a supermarket (undies), on a bus (undies), before eventually returning to the beach (togs, briefly undies due to a passing truck).
Those togs/undies still hang in a gilded frame on the wall at advertising agency Colenso in Auckland, a fact that Levi Slavin is delighted to hear. He started as a junior creative at the company in the mid 2000s, and remembers the ice cream ad being his first big project. It was well over a decade since Rachel Hunter’s “can’t beat it” campaign, and Trumpet was looking to reclaim their classic summer icon status. “Normally you get a really succinct brief, but it’s really hard with ice cream, because it’s just ice cream,” he says. “It’s fun, but it doesn’t do anything.”
Slavin, who grew up beachside in Western Australia, immediately got thinking about observations he had during the long summer months. “I remembered standing behind someone who was in Speedos at the supermarket and thinking, ‘this is such a weird thing, how does he not feel self-conscious?’” he laughs. The words “togs” and “undies” came to him quickly, but he admits he abandoned the idea for a while. “All we had was a word document that had ‘togs, togs, togs’ written down the page, and then ‘undies’ at the end. That was the script,” he says.
“We couldn’t go back to the client with that, because it looked like we hadn’t done any work.”
Instead, the team threw themselves into exploring a myriad of other summer scenarios, which included situations such as a woman’s breast falling out of her bikini, a tutorial on how to pull off the perfect ocean hair flick, and a man trying to suck in his potbelly on the beach. “As a writer in advertising, you’re always so desperate to flex your ability to write that you often overcomplicate really obvious things,” he says. “So we had all of these other scripts that were really hyper-diluted observations that had turns of phrase that made us look very clever.”
All the while, the “togs, togs, undies” document was gathering dust at the bottom of the ideas pile. “We just couldn’t figure out how to make this underpants idea work. It was frustrating and actually became our least favourite script for that reason, because it had just had those two words in it.” The client had their own reservations too, not because of the simplicity of the script, but because of one crucial omission: “there’s not really an ice cream in it,” Slavin laughs. “In hindsight, we easily could have had him holding an ice cream, but we were being purists.”
As deadlines loomed, it seemed more and more likely that “togs, togs, undies” was going to make it across the line. “I think the majority of people who work in advertising are just self-deprecating, emotional wrecks, and I remember we all just kept saying ‘this can’t just be it, the joke can’t just be these two words, how are we going to fix this?’” Slavin recalls. “It wasn’t until years later that I realised that was all we really ever needed to say. That was actually a big lesson that I took with me long term: don’t put yourself in the way of the writing.”
The next step was auditioning “loads and loads” of local actors to find the perfect person to embody the togs-undies tension. “Casting was hilarious,” recalls Slavin, “just this stream of people in underpants.” One of the dozens of brave people who walked through the door was Tom Walsh, a young actor who had already appeared in a few local commercials for the likes of Kiwi Bacon (“ate a bacon sandwich seductively”), Toyota (“had my hat blown off and looked annoyed and confused”) and Farmers (“slurping cold noodles out of a cup excitedly”).
“Given it was 2005 I was most likely out paragliding or wrapping up a lunch at SPQR when I received the call from my agent,” Walsh recalls in an email sent from a recent Disney Cruise with fiance Kim Crossman, and likely while wearing his togs (or undies, depending on his location). “I didn’t know much about what the role entailed, but I was already sporting a flourishing mullet so my agent thought I might be a good fit.” When he found out he would have to don a pair of Speedos, he admits that it was a challenge for his self-esteem.
“I went to Otago Boys High School, famous for producing rugby legends like Richie McCaw, so having very skinny, very long legs was a unique look compared to my farming and rugby type mates,” he says. “But I did do some catwalk modelling in my late teens for Melbourne fashion week which helped fine tune my skills of walking in a straight line with conviction.” Slavin remembers the moment Walsh walked into the room for that first audition. “He could just carry it. The weird thing is that he just looked cool, he just looked like he didn’t care.”
For the second audition, Walsh remembers being asked to drop his pants and spend an hour walking around in public in his Y-fronts, while the director James Pilkington filmed him on a Handycam and threw out different prompts. “He would yell ‘walk like a model’ ‘dance like you’re in flash dance’ and ‘glide like a ballerina’,” says Walsh. “His whole point was to see if I would have the confidence and bravery to actually give over to the concept of the ad and play along.” The very next day, Walsh got a call from his agent to schedule a spray tan.
A week later, Walsh jumped in his Jeep Cherokee at 4am and headed to Auckland’s Browns Bay. On arrival, he was whisked away by wardrobe to have bronzer applied to his patchy fake tan, and was then given the iconic blue Speedos to change into. “I was then given a dressing gown to keep warm, as if the wardrobe lady thought I looked a bit chilly,” he recalls. The first scene of the day was the interior shot in the supermarket, before it opened to the public, and Walsh had his first experience disrobing in front of a “massive” crew.
“I remember thinking that I must be confident for the commercial to work – if I felt insecure, then the entire point of the ad would be lost.” Luckily, Walsh remembers a very comfortable environment on set over the two day shoot. “Everyone was awesome and so supportive and gave me a lot of respect every time I had to take my robe off and made me feel confident,” he says. It also probably helped that they closed off the streets for all the outdoor shots, and everyone milling in the background was a paid extra.
With Walsh nailing his “confident guy” role, there was another key piece of talent needed to make “togs, togs, undies” sing – the voiceover. Director James Pilkington had come from a comedy background in the UK, and suggested Welsh actor and comedian Rob Brydon. At this point, Brydon had voiced ads for behemoths like Tesco and McDonald’s, and made two comedy series for the BBC, but was still approaching the career-defining heights of The Trip, Gavin & Stacey, Would I Lie to You and “small man in a box”.
Slavin, still nervous about the whole concept coming together, thought Brydon was a brilliant idea. “I was a massive fan because he’d done those hilarious Tango commercials where he had apparently riffed with the writers and they’d had this amazing experience.” Hoping the same improvised magic might happen on the day, the local team were up at 3am to record with Brydon in the UK. “We started by saying: ‘here’s the rough outline of the script, we’d love to jam a bit with you’,” Slavin recalls. “And he was just like ‘no, I don’t think so’.”
“That was that,” he laughs. “What can you say when Rob Brydon turns you down on riffing?” It wasn’t all bad news for the red-eyed Kiwi contingent – Brydon still did a “perfect” read through of the original script a couple of times, before making a comment which Slavin will never forget for the rest of his life. “At the end he just said ‘that’s quite funny’. It’s still one of the pinnacles of my career – Rob Brydon almost liked one of my jokes.”
With all the necessary elements acquired, it was in edit where Slavin knew it was make or break for “togs, togs, undies”. “I remember watching the first edit, and the director saying it was the worst edit he’d ever been in.” A lot of the payoff hinged on the final gag of the ad, which required a large passing truck to momentarily conceal the beach, forcing Brydon to interrupt his own voiceover to hurriedly declare “undies, undies, togs”. “As soon as we figured out the truck scene, that’s when the client and everybody else, were like, ‘oh yeah, this is entertaining’.”
It is worth noting at this point that the rest of Trumpet’s “Simplifying Summer” series was also going through the same process, with “togs, togs, undies” sitting alongside “the perfect hair whip”, “the stomach hold-in” and “how to recover from a pop out”, but Slavin can barely remember them. “I don’t think anybody’s ever seen them to be honest. ‘Togs’ was just the one that everybody just was like, ‘that’s it: togs, togs, undies’.” There was also an Australian version made at the same time, adopting the local vernacular “bathers” rather than “togs”.
“Bathers, bathers, undies,” laughs Slavin. “It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?”
Walsh doesn’t recall the first time he saw the ad on TV, but he does remember the ad making waves in his immediate circle – his family lawyer remarked “nice cock” and his grandma’s Vicar showed it on the projector a church service. But it was when strangers started to stare at him and distant contacts like “the girl from United Video” got in touch, that he realised the ad had ascended to another level. “I remember walking into a Twizel pub and everyone treating me like a celebrity. I didn’t get any free drinks, but I did get a lot of pats on the back.”
The campaign was also plastered on buses and Walsh, who worked a day job as a cameraman, remembers a particularly awkward shoot day for Eating Media Lunch. “We were crawling along in Auckland’s rush hour traffic behind a bus with a car full of important clients. Jeremy Wells was in the front seat, and pointed out to the clients in the car that the almost naked man plastered on the back of the bus was, indeed, me.” The role later saw Walsh appear alongside the Briscoes Lady, the Ghost Chips Guy and the Get A Perm Guy at the New Zealand Media Awards in 2019.
As for Slavin, finally seeing the much-fretted-about ad in the real world was an “extraordinary” feeling. “I would have been in my early 20s and it was the first big thing I did, and I just remember the head of the company Roger MacDonnell saying ‘it’s a hit’.” The ad won a plethora of local awards, and the team were sent to a big advertising awards ceremony in France later that year. “I don’t know if it travelled that well. The French didn’t understand it at all because they don’t dress like that at the beach, and everyone else was just like: ‘what are togs?’”
Beyond the accolades, Slavin is proudest that the ad instantly became a part of local popular culture. He was attending the wrestling match of one of his friends, who appeared under the moniker Kurt Chaos, when Chaos got on stage in blue Speedos. “Everybody was chanting ‘togs, togs, undies’ and that was the moment where I realised this weird thing was not mine anymore – it was everybody else’s.’” He also heard of a popular university drinking game at the time, where students recite the ad and the person who says “undies” has to take a sip.
It’s difficult to know exactly why “togs, togs, undies” captured the national imagination the way that it did, but local historian Katie Pickles has a few theories. “To me, the meter of ‘togs, togs, undies’ evokes ‘paper, scissors, rock’ or the ‘getting hotter, getting colder’ game. It is extremely catchy,” she says. “And also because ‘undies’ is such a naughty and fun word.” Although she thinks the ad skates dangerously close to Australia thanks to the mention of “budgie smugglers” she believes it continues the tradition of Trumpet’s iconic summer advertisements.
With an academic interest in the way that advertisements express New Zealand culture, Pickles also noticed another trend preserved within the 45 seconds of ‘togs, togs, undies’. “It was objectifying a male body, and that was the zeitgeist of the times,” she says of the ad, released six years after Carlos Spencer first disrobed for Toffee Pops and just two years after Dan Carter’s first Jockey underwear campaign. “Showing more flesh was something, of course, that had been commonplace for women. The ‘consumer gaze’ was now on men, as well as women.”
But just as some see togs where others see undies, experts have differing opinions on the legacy of the ad. “It almost forgets the product that it is actually supposed to be marketing in order to emphasise the humour appeal,” says senior lecturer of marketing at Lincoln University Tim Baird, who thought the ad was for swimwear when he first watched it back in 2006. “It’s more like something you might hear in a Speight’s ad and not an ad for ice cream. It’s funny, but nowhere near the heights of ‘Bloody Legend’ anti-drink driving advertisement.”
Whether it was an effective vehicle for selling ice creams or not, “togs, togs, undies” has left an indelible mark on the people who worked on it. “I would have thought I’d be remembered for something complex and profound,” laughs Slavin. “But I’ve come to appreciate that, if I’m remembered for something, and that something is trying to figure out when togs become underpants, then that’s still something.” He left the agency world and went on to co-found Ironclad Pan Co., but is still often introduced as the person who made “togs, togs, undies”.
Despite losing the mullet long ago, Walsh can’t escape the legacy of the ad either, with the phrase popping up most recently in headlines about his relationship with actor Kimberley Crossman. “She is a huge fan, so that helped with the courting in the early days of our relationship,” he says. His son Louie also adores the ad, which Walsh says can be a useful negotiation tool in his parenting. “I often threaten that I will go places in my undies if I need him to get ready quicker or if he is not moving at pace, because he thinks I actually will.”
He’s glad the ad has brought so many people so much joy, and happily admits that he has continued to wear Speedos in his everyday life. “If any Kiwi men are ready to step outside their comfort zone, I thoroughly recommend trading in your boardshorts for budgie smugglers and getting a little more sun on their upper thighs this summer.” At the very bottom of his email, he attaches a series of enormous photographs of himself on a recent holiday, nearly 20 years since he first debuted the look, still rocking a very small pair of navy blue togs.
Except you can’t see the water, so maybe he’s in undies after all.