By Published on .

This is the end of my stint as the token academic in this nest of the unruly and unwashed. The Annals of Advertising is closing down and the confidence of impending unemployment is bracing. It's time for the leather-patched elbows and the Dunhill pipe to unload on the Armanis and double perfectos. So here goes: I've had it with art directors.

In the first place, it's not art, and in the second place, they shouldn't be directing anything. I'm tired of every page and frame of advertising being given over to the guys with the great retinas. I'm tired of every page of Creativity being hijacked by the dull monotony of color. I'm even tired of "Image is Nothing" campaigns being nothing but images. Take a hike, Bernbach. Your time's up. People can read, you know, irregardless (as my students say) of how poorly we are teaching them. So why not resurrect the greatest selling medium of the modern world -- the word?

I grew up on Howard Gossage. I loved his ads. I read them top to bottom. He knew people did, and so sometimes he would run his copy over two or three ads, making you read it on the installment plan. He always left plenty of room in the trap for the mouse. Dickens did the same in selling novels -- they were serialized week to week, giving you plenty of time to think and digest plot and character. And before Gossage and Ogilvy there were some great wordsmiths. Read Theodore MacManus rhapsodizing about the "penalty of leadership" for Cadillac (I can barely even write that brand name, I'm so distraught about what has happened to the classic nameplate). Watch Raymond Rubicam on Squibb or International Correspondence Schools, or listen to anything from the great Claude Hopkins. I tell you, these guys could write every bit as well as Fitzgerald or Hemingway. They just couldn't do it for more than a few paragraphs, and maybe they could only do it about things. Who knows? But I do know this: people cannot not read.

Go motoring in your flivver with a preliterate tyke in the rumbleseat and you'll be amazed at how much he wants to read the billboards. Watch people watching television and see how they concentrate on the superscript, and even on the legal demurrers in tiny unreadable print. For goodness' sake, that's why the financial channels run the stock ticker across the bottom of the ads. People read by nature, and they will really read if it is in their self-interest. Your job is to put what you sell in exactly that area of interest. Make them read, not look. Study the ad (page 4) from Merrill Lynch called "What everybody ought to know . . . about this stock and bond business." It's not reproduced large enough to be legible. But you would read it if the size of the print permitted it. That's because this 6,000 word-long ad, broken with only a few subheads (supposedly the longest copy ever in a national newspaper) explains stocks and bonds in readable prose. Your great uncle, the one who retired to Provence at age 48, read it. After an initial test in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, the ad was run just once in The New York Times, on Oct. 19, 1949. It pulled thousands of reprint requests for the booklet promised in the last paragraph.

Charles Merrill couldn't believe the magnetism of this ad, so he had a market survey done. The ad was seen by half that day's readership; 20 percent read more than half the text, and a whopping 37 percent remembered that it came from Merrill Lynch. Not only did this ad mark the transition of the brokerage house from Wall Street to Main Street, it introduced the common man to the idea of equity investing. Although Merrill Lynch has given itself up to the bull, and to brainless image advertising, this ad shows better than most that, if the stakes are high enough, people will spend a good deal of time studying what you have to say -- especially if they think it will make them rich. It is proof of the bromide that while no one actually plans to read an ad, a successful ad never gets in the way of a consumer. It is also proof that you don't always have to go for the heart or the gut. Sometimes the brain will do.

Most Popular