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When Norman Petty and Buddy Holly wrote True Love Ways in 1958, it's unlikely they predicted it would become the soundtrack to an iconic, cheese-defending panda bear with somewhat troubling anger issues.

To be fair, the person who choose to put the track on a series of odd little ads for Arab Dairy brand Panda Cheese had no idea the work was going to become internationally recognised either. He just thought it was funny.

We caught up with Ali Ali, writer of the campaign alongside creative partner Maged Nassar and director of all three spots, to reminisce about 2010's Never Say No To Panda ads that, upon release, would be pulled off air in a week and get the marketing dept in hot water (and heading for the job center), but then end up grabbing two Grands Prix at the Dubai Lynx, a Silver Film Lion in Cannes, and a Gold for Film at the Epica Awards, not to mention becoming the basis for thousands of memes, unofficial merch and 'tribute' spots - even the occasional shots 404 error page.

When asked to reflect, we knew Ali couldn't say no...

Arab Dairy – Office

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Ali Ali, Creative and Director

When we met the Panda people, before we had done any work on the campaign, the first thing I asked was, “Where is the panda in the commercials?”. It was called Panda Cheese, and there was a really bad illustration of a panda on the package, but I didn’t get the connection. Did it come from panda milk? What does the panda have to do with it? Apparently, the CEO went to the zoo in Berlin and loved the panda, and that’s why he decided to call it Panda Cheese. I said, “Well, you can’t ignore the panda in the room. You know, there’s a panda on the pack, and you’ve been advertising for eight years, but no-one’s ever mentioned it.”.

We could tell from the faces in the room, they were very uncomfortable with it.

We said we’d come back to them with a few ideas, and I said I’m pretty sure one of them would at least involve a panda of sorts. We went to work and we came back to them with just one idea: the idea we sold. We were sure that if we came up with any other concepts, this one would be rejected.

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Above: Some early storyboards.


One of the things that helped us was that they were very tight on time. They were like, “We really need to pull the one that’s on air now. It’s not doing very well, and we already bought the TV media. We need to have this signed off in two weeks”. So, coming back with one idea kinda cornered them. We could tell from the faces in the room, they were very uncomfortable with it.

The idea of an arsehole panda came about because we thought that he would be very serious about the cheese. I mean, what’s a nice panda going to do in a cheese commercial?

The initial scripts were even more violent than what we ended up shooting. We wanted the panda to be a bit bloody - take it to the extreme and get really aggressive. Their comments were, basically, “We’re very scared. Please don’t make it aggressive. Tone it down and come back to us.”.

The idea of an arsehole panda came about because we thought that he would be very serious about the cheese. I mean, what’s a nice panda going to do in a cheese commercial?

Arab Dairy – Hospital

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I think some form of the line ‘Never say no to panda’ was in the initial presentation. ‘Never say no to panda’ is actually the English translation, because initially, we aired in Arabic, and the Arabic line is more ‘you can’t say no to it’ or ‘don’t say no to it’, something like that. There’s no mention of the panda in the line. We wrote ‘Never say no to panda’ when we translated them to send them to Cannes.

The initial scripts were even more violent than what we ended up shooting. We wanted the panda to be a bit bloody - take it to the extreme and get really aggressive.

We came back with five scripts that we shot, three of which are the ones that you probably know: the hospital, the office and the supermarket. There were two others that were scheduled to air before they pulled them; one was a birthday party and the other was a picnic.

Above: Ali on set.


The films were my directorial debut. I had done some tabletop shots and stuff, but no full commercials. In order to convince the client for me to shoot it and not get some foreign director, which is what most agencies were doing back at the time, I waived my director’s fees. I wouldn’t get paid directly, but they could just pay us as the agency. In a way, I made very little money from the panda. Well, I also made a lot of money from the panda, you know what I mean?

We were struggling to find music for the ads, and had tried so many things. At the time, I was living on the couch of one of my best friend’s, and he would stay up all night and watch really shitty movies with his girlfriend. They were watching a Jennifer Aniston one, I think, and that track was in one of the scenes. I was like, “Woah, that’s a really good …”, so the first thing I did in the morning was try it on there. Maged [Nassar, Ali’s creative partner] wasn't keen on the song initially. At the time, Buddy Holly was off the beaten track completely, so we didn’t have to buy rights or any of that, and we just aired it.

Buddy Holly is now the panda composer, you know.

The funny thing is, we got a letter, like, two years later from the Buddy Holly estate, like his sons and daughters or whatever. I thought: “This is definitely a fucking million dollar lawsuit”. It turns out it was a thank you letter. They sent us a note saying, “Thank you for bringing this song back to the minds and hearts of people, and we were so moved and we love the ads.” It was such a nice letter.

If you go on YouTube and search for the Buddy Holly song, all of the comments are, “Woah, that’s the song from the panda ad.” Every single comment mentions the panda, “Oh, that’s the panda song.” So, I mean, Buddy Holly is now the panda composer, you know.

Arab Dairy – Supermarket

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We wanted the panda to look realistic. We said, “a cartoon-like panda won’t do. It can’t be Kung Fu Panda or [Egyptian friendly bear character] Kimo Kono”. We wanted real texture, real eyes, real nose; the only difference is that he can stand on two legs and kick your arse.

The guy in the panda is actually the current creative director of Facebook in the Middle East.

The drumming Gorilla [for Cadburys] was definitely an inspiration. It was great because it was very subtle. I remember how much it blew my mind when I saw that gorilla.

It was a two-day shoot, and we had to do five spots. We had to do it quite fast and I was a novice director at the time. All of the actors were first-time performers too.

He’s a really calm and collected guy ... so to get him to be an arsehole was a bit challenging.

The guy in the panda is actually the current creative director of Facebook in the Middle East: Ahmed Hafez Younis. We wanted him in the panda is because a) he’s a friend of mine and b) he’s short. So, he was perfect for it, you know?

He’s a really calm and collected guy, a really nice guy, so to get him to be an arsehole was a bit challenging.

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Above: Ahmed Hafez Younis on set as the iconic bear, plus more behind the scenes shots.


After the ads aired, the entire marketing department got fired. All of the Arab Dairy marketing department got fired. The ads aired for just about a week, and then I think some relative of the CEO saw them and he was like, “What the fuck are you guys doing? You need to pull these.”, so, the guy completely switched. He liked them at first, but then he started hearing all this hearsay at parties and dinners and stuff, so pulled them and fired the entire department.

After the ads aired, the entire marketing department got fired.

Just after it got pulled, it went crazy online, but it didn't happen overnight. Back then, YouTube was just beginning. I didn’t even have a YouTube account. Some Russian dude found the ads and posted them online and slowly but surely it grew. I started getting screenshots from just friends around the world saying, “Hey man, your ad’s got 20,000 views,” which was a lot at the time. Then 30,000, 100,000… I remember, two weeks later, it was about 500,000. It was going crazy, and all the while, all these poor marketing guys are getting fired, looking for jobs.

That was the end of these ads as far as Egypt’s concerned. They just kinda created a life of their own on the internet and became some kind of a cult.

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Above: Some of the unofficial products, memes and images that have featured the panda, collected by Ali.


The ads are so low quality now because even though we shot on film, we went to London to do the telecine and transfer them onto tape. Then that fucking Iceland thing exploded [the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic events which caused enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe over an initial period of six days. We were stuck in London trying to get home, and we couldn’t carry the reels back. So, we just had these tapes. It’s so sad. You know, that’s one wish I would have; to go back and re-master these to watch them on HD.

We wanted real texture, real eyes, real nose; the only difference is that he can stand on two legs and kick your arse.

The memes based on the ads are great. I think there were a couple Japanese manga design ones that were pretty good. Kids react to Panda Cheese is a good one too. It has five million views - just kids reacting to the ads. There a lot of these reaction ones on YouTube. It’s a bit like Two Girls and One Cup

I love that it’s still around after all these years. My wife and I were looking for a flat in Athens and the real estate guy we were meeting prepared a bunch of houses to show us. The first thing he says was, “I googled you because I wanted to know who we were meeting. You know that the Panda Cheese ads are our family’s favourite thing. In my house, I’m known as the panda. It’s like ‘never say no to Stavros’, is what my in-laws always tell me, because I’m so stubborn.”

In 2012 and 2013, there wasn’t an animal script around the world that I didn’t get. You name it: rhinos, hedgehogs, pigeons, whatever.

There’s always a panda reference, at least once a week. It’s always, obviously, nice to get. I think in the middle of my career, I was struggling to get out of it and trying not to do too much comedy because I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I got so many animal scripts - in 2012 and 2013, there wasn’t an animal script around the world that I didn’t get. You name it: rhinos, hedgehogs, pigeons, whatever. Every animal script out there, I got. I was the animal guy. I wrote back to one of the producers saying, “You know, I’m not an animal wrangler. I’m a fucking director.”


Check out Ali's latest work on his new website.

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