Advertising Could Do With More of Bernbach's Genius

Recognizing Good Ideas Can Be More Important than Creativity

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Al Ries
Al Ries
"Nobody's Perfect" is the title of Doris Willens' new book on Bill Bernbach and the golden age of advertising.

And just to make sure you get the point of the title, the book explores every imperfection she could find in the career of perhaps the most famous person in the history of advertising.

Fair enough. Nobody's perfect. But I think she failed to stress the essence of Bernbach's genius which, in my opinion, was his incredible ability to recognize a good idea. (Willens' book is particularly interesting since I knew many of the people she writes about. Our agency at the time shared the Uniroyal account with Doyle Dane Bernbach, although we had by far the smaller share.)

In spite of Doris Willens' many negative comments about Bill Bernbach, I think he was a true advertising genius.

One example from Willens' book: "From Helmut Krone's wastepaper basket, Bernbach fished wads of crumpled papers and beamed upon spreading open a sheet with the words, "We're only No. 2. So we try harder."

(That was the genesis of the Avis campaign, No. 10 on Ad Age's list of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th century.)

Another example: Future Hall of Fame art director Bill Taubin and copywriter David Reider discovered that Israeli airline El Al made all its flights at night. So they took the idea, "The only fly-by-night airline," to Bill Bernbach for his approval.

"Are you kidding?" End of meeting.

Sorting the good from the bad
In the course of developing a campaign, advertising people usually dream up lots of ideas, some good and some bad. But no one had the ability to sort the good from the bad like Bernbach. It's a trait that's extremely rare.

How rare? You only have to watch a dozen TV commercials or leaf through a dozen magazine ads to figure that one out.

Most advertising is mediocre at best. And yet every advertisement was approved by someone at some company somewhere in the world. Why didn't the people who approved these mediocre advertisements demand to see "something better?"

The truth is, they thought the ads were good. Actually it's worse. Based on my personal experience in working with advertising people, I believe that most of them thought their advertisements were "great."

The advertising industry worships the creative process. At Cannes and at countless other places, the industry lavishes praise on its creative folks, the people who think up these wonderful ads.

But it's a rare individual who is good at recognizing the power of an idea once it is created.

You lose your objectivity once you create an idea, especially an idea in which you have invested a lot of emotional energy. Every creative person needs a Bill Bernbach, a sounding board to bounce ideas off of.

The difficulty of judging
In my opinion, there are far more people who are good at coming up with great advertising ideas than there are people who are good at recognizing great ideas created by others.

In the history of the advertising industry, there were far more David Ogilvys, Hal Rineys and Shirley Polykoffs than there were Bill Bernbachs. Far more.

Why is it so difficult to judge the potential effectiveness of a proposed advertisement? I believe most people tend to make their judgments against a background of "accepted standards," or conventional wisdom.

Take Doyle Dane Bernbach's Volkswagen campaign, which was launched in 1959 with the famous "Think small" advertisement. (According to Advertising Age, the No. 1 campaign of the 20th century.) If there was one ad that marked the start of the golden era of advertising, "Think small" was the one.

But how did the '60s differ from the '50s? I recently analyzed 146 automobile advertisements from the 1950s and compared them with the Volkswagen ad.

Almost all of the 1950s auto ads (137 advertisements, or 94%) showed people in the ads. How else was a creative director going to demonstrate the pleasure that car buyers might feel about their new acquisitions?

Almost all of them (135 advertisements, or 92%) used artwork, not photography. How else was a creative director going to make the cars look long and low and beautiful?

Most of them (102, or 70%) used multiple illustrations. Some single-page advertisements had as many as eight separate illustrations. How else was a creative director going to communicate all of the car's exciting features except by using a number of different illustrations?

Almost all the ads were in color with hand-lettered headlines, big illustrations and large logotypes. How else was a creative director going to communicate the excitement of buying a new car?

Some typical automobile headlines from the 1950s:

  • Buick: "You can make your 'someday' come true now."
  • Cadillac: "Maybe this will be the year."
  • Oldsmobile: "You've got to drive it to believe it!"
  • Chevrolet: "Filled with grace and great new things."
Now compare these ads with "Think small." The Volkswagen ad was in black and white with a small illustration, lots of white space and a headline totally lacking in news value. Everybody knew that Beetles were small cars.

At the time the ad ran, Volkswagen had been in the American market for nine years, had sold more than 350,000 vehicles and had generated a lot of favorable publicity.

Looking back
In retrospect, it's easy to see that the difference between the 1950s automobile ads and the 1960s Volkswagen ads. It's the difference between complexity and simplicity, between artificiality and realism.

But why didn't the creative directors of the 1950s value simplicity and realism? Because it's exceptionally hard to go against accepted wisdom. That wasn't the way advertising was done in that decade -- especially automobile advertising.

People don't want to be different. They want to be better. Clients want advertising à la mode. And most creative directors want the same thing. They want advertising "in the fashion" of the times, only better.

That's why it's hard to recognize a great advertising idea. It doesn't look right because it goes against accepted wisdom.

I remember a new-business presentation we made to a large account a number of years ago. The company's CEO dismissed us by saying: "Your ads have big pictures and this is the era of long copy."

Bernbach never believed in à la mode advertising. His creative philosophy was outlined in a guide he once wrote:

"Merely to let your imagination run riot, to dream unrelated dreams, to indulge in graphic acrobatics and verbal gymnastics is not being creative. The creative person has harnessed his imagination. He has disciplined it so that every thought, every idea, every line he draws, every light and shadow in every photograph he takes, makes more vivid, more believable, more persuasive the original theme or product advantage he has decided he must convey."

Now I wonder what he might have said about the Press Grand Prix winner at Cannes this year, a Wrangler advertisement with an illustration of a woman lying in a pool of water pretending to be a crocodile and the headline: "We are animals."

"Are you kidding?"

Al Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm that he runs with his daughter and partner Laura.

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