Some Ad Tactics Don't Age

Why 9 Out of 11 Ogilvy Commandments Still Ring True Four Decades Later

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

John Sweeney
John Sweeney
I am one of those struggling veterans trying to keep up with all the changes hitting the advertising world. I'm trying, on the one hand, to keep up with the latest fashions in TV writing while understanding the revolutions in social media, search and other forms of interactive. Even though my current challenge is the classroom, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff of everything new is numbing, to say the least.

Why that sent me thumbing through David Ogilvy's "Confessions of an Advertising Man," I'm not sure. The book is a classic. John Kennedy was president then, and the Beatles had not yet arrived in America. Reading it should be an experience in nostalgia for a simpler time, like thumbing through a 1963 book on computers that boldly shows the advantages of transistors over vacuum tubes. I expected it to be fascinating but hopelessly dated.
It's the thought that counts: Adidas campaign relied on a great idea.
It's the thought that counts: Adidas campaign relied on a great idea.

Instead I found Mr. Ogilvy's 11 commandments on "How to build great campaigns" as clear today as then. Well, two are debatable, but nine out of 11 is a pretty remarkable percentage. So here's a quick take on Chapter Five from "Confessions," complete with examples from current agencies other than his own to show that this is not a promotional piece.


1. 'WHAT YOU SAY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN HOW YOU SAY IT'

Witness TBWA/Media Arts Lab's introductory advertising for the iPhone. Yes, it is clever how the finger directs music, e-mail and the web and then answers a call in front of our eyes. But the commercial is also 100% focused on the amazing things the phone does.


2. 'UNLESS YOUR CAMPAIGN IS BUILT AROUND A GREAT IDEA, IT WILL FLOP'

Adidas and 180 Amsterdam put the greatest athletes in the world in a barren art studio and had them paint pictures and talk about their lives. It was absolutely riveting to hear David Beckham talk about his World Cup red card and the death threats he received while painting a stick figure hanging in effigy. Yes, the campaign was an integrated masterpiece with TV commercials, documentary programs, gaming, retail, music downloads, online and even an art event. The core, though, remains a simple, brilliant idea.


3. 'GIVE THE FACTS'

The Martin Agency presents the business advantages of UPS shipping with its "Whiteboard" commercials. They're tied to an extensive, award-winning interactive site with the same spokesman and graphics, where extensive information is available for any potential customer. Informational and highly watchable TV leads to full information online. David had only body copy; we have a lot more.


4. 'YOU CANNOT BORE PEOPLE INTO BUYING'

Mr. Ogilvy claims the average family in 1963 was bombarded with "1,500 advertisements a day," and there were only three TV networks at the time. Imagine the statistic now. Absolut and TBWA, according to author James Twitchell, created a sales increase of "some 14,000% in 15 years" with intriguing interpretations of the Absolut bottle. Then they refreshed the idea by adding famous artists. Then they refreshed the idea again with "In an Absolut World," for which people can submit their individual visions online and have them become a part of the campaign.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Sweeney is a professor and head of the advertising sequence at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He joined the university after working at Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago.

5. 'BE WELL-MANNERED, BUT DON'T CLOWN'

Well, nobody is perfect, and David's prohibitions against humor ring false to me. DDB Needham's consistently funny work for Bud Light has set the standard not only for humor but for humor that sells. Whether it's with the rubber-floor apartment or rock paper scissors, the campaign shows that humor works. But perhaps Mr. Ogilvy is right about being well-mannered. When the commercials featured a flatulent horse, a lot of folks thought the spots had gone too far.


6. 'MAKE YOUR ADVERTISING CONTEMPORARY'

There was a day when Morris the Cat spoke but no one saw his lips move. Today, Jeep and agency Cutwater portray a squirrel, two birds and a wolf singing and dancing to a Neil Diamond song during a drive in a Jeep using animation that was utterly impossible until the digital age. The lip syncing and comic movement is amazing and available only today.

Mr. Ogilvy advises us that committees don't make good campaigns and that we shouldn't be copycats -- two inside-the-biz pieces of advice that remain relevant today. Sigh.


7. 'IF YOU ARE LUCKY ENOUGH TO WRITE A GOOD ADVERTISEMENT, REPEAT IT UNTIL IT STOPS PULLING'

MasterCard and McCann Erickson have produced dozens upon dozens of commercials that end with something "Priceless." This wonderfully structured commercial approach now exists as its own website, priceless.com. You're invited to see the "Priceless" commercials, download music, review travel offers, share baseball stories. Yet all of it stems from the original campaign idea.


8. 'NEVER WRITE AN ADVERTISEMENT WHICH YOU WOULDN'T WANT YOUR OWN FAMILY TO READ'

In the three-network world of David Ogilvy, this makes perfect sense. The outrage over the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" occurred because it was on the Super Bowl. Put the incident on VH1, and it is tame next to "Flavor of Love 3." The new world of channels by the hundreds and magazines by the thousands creates the opportunity to talk to adults in ways kids shouldn't hear. The real problem is that too many of these adult commercials -- for R-rated horror movies or erectile-dysfunction drugs -- do make it where the kids can see them. Shame on us when they do.


9. 'THE IMAGE AND THE BRAND'

Mr. Ogilvy advises companies to "build sharply defined personalities for their brands and stick to those personalities year after year." Apple launched a comparative campaign with rival Microsoft using two actors who were meant to personify the brands. You can go to the Apple website and see this campaign for 2006, 2007 and 2008. It's the same actors and the same white set but dozens of quirky variations on the idea.

Isn't it nice to fit the latest in integrated, media-friendly advertising into the grand bromides of a 1963 book by a legendary practitioner? It certainly speaks well of David Ogilvy. It also speaks well of the lasting principles behind the advertising business.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the agency responsible for the introductory advertising for the iPhone; it also misstated the name of Adidas' agency; and lastly, it attributed a Jeep ad to BBDO that was created by Cutwater.
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