Comedian Johnny Vegas and Monkey, the knitted puppet with a cult following, have teamed up with PG Tips to front an £18m advertising campaign for the tea brand in the new year. Owner Unilever will be pouring out £1m a week for the first 12 weeks.

The activity will focus on tea's hydration, relaxation and antioxidant health benefits - positive angles that Unilever said the hot beverages industry had not played up enough before.

It will make much of theanine - a naturally occurring ingredient in tea, that helps people to relax while maintaining alertness.

"Tea is perceived by consumers to be health neutral," said Simon Whitehead, operations manager. "Mainstream brands haven't talked up tea's healthier, more positive benefits."

From next month, the brand is getting a packaging facelift, with clearer, more natural on-pack photography as well as a 'Your natural source of theanine' flash and a shot of Monkey on the side of the pack.

The ads form part of the brand's biggest spend yet and feature Monkey explaining the product's health benefits to his cerebrally-challenged friend Al, played by Vegas.

Activity also includes a new website with information on why tea is a healthy drink, as well as merchandise featuring Monkey. "The brand is already steeped in humour, with past ad campaigns including the PG chimps, the Thunderbird cartoons and Wallace & Gromit, so Johnny Vegas and Monkey are a perfect fit with its heritage," said Whitehead.

UK tea consumption has been declining gradually over the past three decades as competition from soft drinks and the popularity of café culture have increased. Promotions have also affected value.

However, the standard tea market managed to maintain value in the latest year, helped by growth in higher value speciality and fruit and herbal lines. PG Tips has been a strong performer too, growing 3.4% year-on-year [ACNielsen 52w/e 7 Oct 06].