Advertising Shots Heard Around the World, Global Province Letter, 27 March 2013

Advertising with a clear, simple, mildly witty message does work out well for the sponsor. A well-wrought ad, as a well-turned-out poem, can loose echoes whose sound can be heard from here to Timbuktu. Even today words that sparkle can outshine ad campaigns costing millions, reaching into distant nooks about the globe, and resonating for years to come. All this is forgotten amidst the marketing mishmash beloved by marketing managers and agency executives today —a mix of fancy targeting, copious demographic studies, too elaborate media plans, and other complex measures that make us forget that Incarnate Words can win the battle for minds, achieving such dominance that they leave the marketing geniuses aghast.

They Said It Couldn’t Be Done. Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach in the 1960s used outsize photos and very crisp words to grab the customer. “The fact that in 1960, the German Motor company’s budget for advertising was a mere $800,000 meant that DDB’s creative director Helmut Krone was required to pioneer the idea of simplicity in print media advertising going very much against the grain of advertising at the time.”  He was at work making the Beetle every so popular.

Nor did he really know how powerful his ads were. We learned just that one night at a jolly cocktail party in the Bronx. Our hostess had absented herself. When she came back, she told of her very young baby boy Benno. He had called her to the bathroom and she thought he needed help with his doings. Not at all. What he did was proudly point out to her his deposits in the toilet whereupon he proclaimed loudly, “They said it couldn’t be done.” This line had come straight out of the ads done by DD&B for Volkswagen. The ad by then had so worked its way through the American consciousness that it had taken hold in the mind of a 2 year old. In other words, it was powerful enough to stir Americans of all ages.

Amidst the Silences of Glacier Bay. Some years ago our friend’s boat, let us call it the Artic Rose, had made its way to the head of Glacier Bay. There were penguins, masses of ice, and forbidding water. Our host set down kayaks in the water so all the guests could anxiously dart about on the top of the terrifyingly beautiful surface, which would snuff out anybody so foolish as to fall out of their craft.  Most intrepid of all was a Texas oilman and rancher who raced over to a commercial cruise boat a quarter of a mile away.  To the passengers who lined the railing, quite jealous of us flailing about in the water, he shouted, “Anybody seen some Grey Poupon,” his take on the famous ad line, “Pardon Me, Would You Have Any Grey Poupon?”

A few days later, our captain, having taken us into our final port, came in to the Board Room where we were eating lunch to say he had just had the strangest incident. A chap came up to him from the dock  (obviously a wag from the big cruise boat) and presented him with a package, cheerily saying, “Here is your Grey Poupon.” Grey Poupon advertising, it seems, had penetrated into the forbidding vastness of Glacier Bay. A good ad line can wind up anywhere.

The Great Communicator. Many think of Ronald Reagan as an actor turned president. In truth, he was not much good at acting. But he shined as a TV pitchman, not only for cigarettes, but also for such giants as General Electric. In one way or another, he smiled over the airwaves for GE for years on end. Importantly, it seems, his GE flogging made Reagan’s career but it also made Reagan the man he was. In this role he became well known to America and he perfected his selling techniques, all good preparation in his run for the presidency. Significantly, his philosophy flip-flopped while working for GE as he shed his traditional New Deal California liberalism and turned into a corporate conservative whom devout Republicans could love. “The GE years provide an insight, to borrow Bill Safire’s phrase, as to ‘what made Reagan Reagen.”

Polarization of America. We learn that great advertising can reach into every hamlet in America and capture the imagination of every mind young and old. But what’s more it seems to push men and women into simplistic thinking and hackneyed expression---a formula that leads to catchphrase minds and very glib politics.. We are forced to deal with a world of slick surfaces and perforated guts, an unhappy atmosphere for democracy.

Advert thinking, we find, now colors every presentation and every product or service offering. That means products and services and people are increasingly more and more about the packaging and less and less about the substance. T.S. Eliot spoke of hollow men:  now we encounter hollow products and no-service services. We have to be aware we are now part of a world where selling is an end in itself, a state of affairs that somewhat overwhelms the human psyche.

P.S. A world slathered in advertising recalls Mad Men, an award winning drama on cable TV that is all about the ad agency world and the ad people of the 20th century, helping us understand how our discourse of today took shape.

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