The Persuasiveness of Great Language

The advertising industry has a rich history. Much, of course, is based on lore made greater with each telling. It is rife with characters both created and those who lived. The Marlboro Man, The Morton Salt Girl, Cap’n Crunch, Aunt Jemima, Mr. Whipple, The Jolly Green Giant, Miss Chiquita Banana, The Pillsbury Doughboy, Tony the Tiger, Mr. Peanut, and the Coppertone Girl are Pillsburyiconic brand representatives. Many of these creations were spun from the agencies of Leo Burnett, David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach.

These Madison Avenue greats produced intriguing quotes. The thoughts of these revered and referenced gentlemen continue to be trumpeted and contextualized to be made relevant today. Leo Burnett is economical and bit gruff. David Ogilvy was prolific having identified the power of a soundbite from his earliest days. Bill Bernbach was a furious and detailed writer. I know this having sat close to his archives while Chief Communications Officer at DDB Worldwide.

One bit of the latter’s writing recently came to my attention. I had not seen it while at DDB. It Mr. Bernbach’s 1947 resignation from Grey Advertising. It is a delightful but forceful blast of prose. Firm in conviction and clear in intent, the letter is a summary of his disappointment and hope for advertising. It is rant in defence of craft over technique and science. It is a cry for differentiation and distinction.

Yet, what I enjoy most is the emphasis on selling. In recent decades, marketing and advertising has become entertainment. You are hard pressed to hear the word “sales” and “selling” in agencies. That is the industry protecting itself against age-old indictments of being deceptive and manipulative. The irony is, all business communications exist to sell something whether it be a product or idea…so why cover up that fact?

Below is the text from the letter and the original. Read it and come to your own conclusions. I think he does a wonderful job of proving “to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

Dear collegues,

Our agency is getting big. That’s something to be happy about. But it’s something to worry about, too, and I don’t mind telling you I’m damned worried. I’m worried that we’re going to fall into the trap of bigness, that we’re going to worship techniques instead of substance, that we’re going to follow history instead of making it, that we’re going to be drowned by superficialities instead of buoyed up by solid fundamentals. I’m worried lest hardening of the creative arteries begin to set in.

There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best bernbachgame. They know all the rules. They can tell you that people in an ad will get you greater readership. They can tell you that a sentence should be this sort or that long. They can tell you that body copy should be broken up for easier reading. They can give you fact after fact after fact. They are the scientists of advertising. But there’s one little rub. Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.

It’s that creative spark that I’m so jealous of for our agency and that I am so desperately fearful of losing. I don’t want academicians. I don’t want scientists. I don’t want people who do the right things. I want people who do inspiring things.

In the past year I must have interviewed about 80 people – writers and artists. Many of them were from the so-called giants of the agency field. It was appalling to see how few of these people were genuinely creative. Sure, they had advertising know-how. Yes, they were up on advertising technique.

But look beneath the technique and what did you find? A sameness, a mental weariness, a mediocrity of ideas. But they could defend every ad on the basis that it obeyed the rules of advertising. It was like worshiping a ritual instead of the God.

All this is not to say that technique is unimportant. Superior technical skill will make a good ad better. But the danger is a preoccupation with technical skill or the mistaking of technical skill for creative ability. The danger lies in the temptation to buy routinized men who have a formula for advertising. The danger lies In the natural tendency to go after tried-and-true talent that will not make us stand out in competition but rather make us look like all the others.

If we are to advance we must emerge as a distinctive personality. We must develop our own philosophy and not have the advertising philosophy of others imposed on us.

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.
Respectfully,

Bill Bernbach

BillB_Letter

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