The Magazine

Advertisements for Themselves

Commercials in a Postmodern Age

Nov 15, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 09 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Julian Watkins knew a good pitch when he saw one. In 1949 the veteran copywriter published The 100 Greatest Advertisements. Most of these first appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, but they promoted products -- Coca-Cola, Camel cigarettes, and Campbell's soup -- that remain mainstays in the marketplace today.

In fact, Watkins's selections reveal that, in some ways, advertising has changed little over the years: It appeals bluntly to our basic wants and fears -- our longing for acceptance and success. Thus the makers of Odorono, a "delightful toilet water," reminded women that "it is a physiological fact that persons troubled with perspiration odor seldom can detect it themselves." And Listerine promised to end the halitosis that has left so many unfortunates "often a bridesmaid but never a bride."

Another ad, for the International Correspondence School, depicted an excited husband telling his delighted wife that at last they were headed for "easy street" -- and all because of the home study courses designed by the International Correspondence School. According to Watkins, this ad's "fundamental appeal" stemmed from the fact that, "like ole man river, man's desire to get ahead, to earn more money, to be admired, to get the gal, and to keep in the running, is as changeless as the orbit of the earth."

But in other respects Watkins's specimens seem like relics from an ancient time. They belong to an era when major advertisers still turned primarily to radio or print; when words necessarily mattered; when copy was king. Relatively few of Watkin's choices relied mainly on clever slogans or eye-catching illustrations. Some, in fact, aren't illustrated at all.

Watkins's book has been frequently reprinted; the 1959 edition added a sampling of typically crisp and stylish ads written by David Ogilvy, who died, at the age of eighty-eight, this past July. Best known for his 1963 bestseller, Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy was a former door-to-door salesman who mastered his craft by studying the work of such legendary figures as Claude Hopkins, Sterling Getchell, and Raymond Rubicam. Like them, Ogilvy specialized in "long copy," and, like them, he consistently landed leading accounts: Shell, Schweppes, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Rolls-Royce.

Ogilvy also created one of modern advertising's more enduring icons -- that suave fellow who sports an eye-patch in countless ads for Hathaway shirts. The "Hathaway Man" campaign, Ogilvy admitted, "made me famous." But it also gave him pause. "That eye-patch," he complained in the late 1950s, "has inspired an entire school of advertising -- a school which I deplore. Its adherents place their faith in visual gimmicks, unaware of the fact that pictures don't sell unless you put some hard-selling copy underneath them."

Ogilvy, the consummate adman, adapted well to advertising's changing venues and styles; the agency he founded (now called Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide) continues to thrive. Still, one senses in his remarks of forty years ago a lament for the passing of an era -- a recognition that, with the coming of network television, the golden age of copywriting was nearing its close. Indeed, Madison Avenue wasted no time embracing the medium presciently described by RCA president David Sarnoff as "the most effective sales agent in the history of merchandizing." And, for the most part, television advertising in the 1950s belonged to what Watkins called the "rockum and sockum" school. It relied heavily on the sort of "visual gimmicks" and catchy jingles that Ogilvy so roundly deplored.

Not surprisingly, Bernice Kanner all but ignores the 1950s in her new book The 100 Best TV Commercials, which attempts to "chronicle the evolution and impact" of a medium that, for better or worse, has "commandeered a place in our psyche." Kanner's earliest selection -- "Acapulco Diver" -- first ran in 1962. It showed high-diving champion Raul Garcia plummeting from Mexico's "famous La Perla cliffs," a Timex waterproof watch strapped to his wrist, with the veteran broadcaster John Cameron Swayze noting that Garcia "hits that water at more than eighty-five miles an hour." Garcia's watch, of course, easily survived his nose-dive; it "took a licking," Swayze intoned, "and kept on ticking."

The more Garcia plunged, the more Timex soared. And for over a decade, the firm produced similar "torture test" ads featuring Swayze and the same "licking and ticking" tagline. As Kanner notes, Timex came to account "for more than half of all watches sold for less than $ 100."

Kanner, however, isn't primarily interested in advertising as "an instrument of sales," to use Julian Watkins's respectful phrase. Her list "honors aesthetics more than effectiveness in moving product." These commercials "took a strong-selling proposition" and "served it to customers in a fresh, surprising, and unusually persuasive way." Kanner's "100 best" commercials "have been admired and envied as breakthroughs" within the industry and throughout the world.

Kanner -- who used to write the "On Madison Avenue" column for New York magazine -- describes and briefly discusses each of her choices, most of which were produced by top agencies in Europe and the United States, including Young & Rubicam, Chiat/Day, Saatchi & Saatchi International, and the Leo Burnett Company. Weeding through fifty years of the world's commercials would make anyone weary -- or mad; and Kanner, not surprisingly, had help. This assortment, she explains, "was selected from the industrywide Great Commercials Library and winnowed down by creative directors" -- a process that "practically guaranteed what I'd be slurping was cream."

Curiously, however, Kanner's list overlooks the work of Stan Freberg, who did much to inspire the so-called "creative revolution" that -- to the chagrin of many on Madison Avenue -- changed the face of advertising during the 1960s. Tip of the Freberg, a recently released box set containing four CDs and a video, covers nearly five decades of Freburg's work; it confirms him as one of the top talents of modern advertising -- an unusually witty and inventive comedian and parodist whose most memorable campaigns, like the best Marx Brothers skits, have stayed fresh for decades.

Freberg first earned wide attention during the 1950s, when he recorded a string of hit comedy records and hosted his own network radio show. (An updated version, "The New Stan Freberg Show," aired on the BBC and NPR in the early nineties.) Produced in the late 1950s, Freberg's first radio commercials spoofed advertising's bombastic and lavish claims. In one, a chorus of singers merrily proclaim that "ninety-five percent of the people in the USA are not buying Chun King Chow Mein." On radio, Freberg specialized in imagery at once outrageous and precise. Another early spot, for the Contadina Company, prompted listeners to picture a mammoth can of tomato paste trimmed with lights and perched atop the Empire State Building. In Morse code, the can blinks out the now legendary advertising question: "Who puts eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?"

Freberg hit full stride in the late 1960s, when he produced a series of movie parodies for, among others, Jeno's Pizza Rolls and Banquet Frozen Foods. In Freberg's 1970 ad for Heinz's new line of "Great American Soups," the dancer and actress Ann Miller stars as a wife who -- promising her husband something a little different for dinner -- magically transforms her modest kitchen into an elaborate stage set fit for a Busby Berkeley musical. Accompanied by dozens of sequined dancers, Miller hoofs it up atop a giant soup can, singing "Let's Face the Chicken Gumbo and Dance!" "Emily," her husband asks in the concluding shot, "why do you always have to make such a big production out of everything?" This spot won Freberg several awards, including two Clios -- the ad industry's top prize.

By 1970, however, funny commercials had become commonplace. The firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach had long specialized in humor; two of their most creative Volkswagen ads are well-known to students of advertising and not surprisingly rank among Kanner's top hundred. The low-budget "Snow-plow," first aired in 1963, showed the humble Bug chugging along snow-packed streets in the dark of pre-dawn. "Have you ever wondered," the voice-over asks, "how the man who drives the snowplow drives to the snowplow?"

Six years later, "Funeral" again stressed the car's durable economy through a wry tale of wastefulness and greed. A wealthy man, recently deceased, looks down upon his own funeral and comments bitterly on the profligate ways of his relatives and friends. To the business partner "whose only motto was spend, spend, spend, I leave nothing, nothing, nothing." But to his Volk-swagen-driving nephew, a model of prudence, the narrator bequeaths "my entire fortune of $ 100 billion dollars."

In 1960, the Volkswagen was still widely considered a comical car for bohemians and cranks. But within a decade, thanks largely to advertising, Beetles were everywhere, a familiar feature of American life. Even David Ogilvy was impressed. According to Kanner, Ogilvy called "Funeral" the "funniest commercial he'd ever seen," and credited it with "changing his mind that people don't buy from clowns."

And yet, by the early 1970s, many in American advertising were eager to eliminate the clowns, contending that wit and whimsy no longer suited the country's tired and contentious mood. Moreover, some studies suggested that humorous irony left too many viewers distracted and confused. Alka-Seltzer's famous "Spicy Meatballs" spot, first aired in 1969, depicted an actor downing endless forkfuls of spaghetti during the filming of a commercial for "Magadini's Meatballs." Dozens of takes are botched, and the hapless actor, gorged and nauseated, can barely utter his big line: "Mama Mia, that's a spicy meatball!" As Kanner notes, "the most famous commercial about making a commercial didn't work. People thought it was for spaghetti sauce and Alka-Seltzer sales slumped."

During the 1970s, production values for commercials continued to improve, and as a result many more took on the tight, polished look of little feature films. And, more frequently, commercials offered nostalgic images or patriotic themes. In the wake of the raucous 1960s, Coca-Cola proposed "to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." In 1974, in the midst of Watergate, General Motors commissioned a spot for Chevrolet that mixed images of family fun with an upbeat country tune celebrating the timeless pleasures of "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie." The song, Kanner recalls, became "an anthem," played by "by organists at ballparks while airplanes flew overhead with banners." The commercial itself -- regarded by some industry leaders as the best ever made -- aimed to put Chevy "back into a position of trust after a year in which people believed nothing."

As the economy dragged, the ad business tightened its belt, putting renewed emphasis on marketing and research. By the middle of the decade, "creativity" was no longer the buzzword, and -- as advertising historian Stephen Fox has observed -- the industry returned generally to "hard sell" techniques that had prevailed twenty years before. By the late 1970s, Fox writes, ads "came to resemble each other." In America at least, it was a time for "naked women in bath-oil spots; macho sportsmen in beer ads; pet food commercials with a pet and a bowl of the product."

Fox's The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators appeared in 1984, just as a second "creative revolution" started to boom. This one owed directly to the spread of cable and the VCR -- to the new ubiquity of remote control. In effect, during the 1980s, Ogilvy's nightmare came true. Advertisers and their clients now knew that, unless riveted, most viewers would disappear after a second or two, zapping their way to more gripping pictures.

At the same time computerization made special effects increasingly cheap and easy. Internationally, today's top commercials are more than ever like mini-movies, offering elaborate visuals and, increasingly, big stars: Burt Reynolds, Anthony Quinn, Michael J. Fox, Catherine Deneuve. And they're frequently directed by the sort of high-profile directors who, twenty years ago, would have very probably dismissed advertising as a low and vulgar trade. This trend has long been clearest in Britain, where Hugh Hudson and Ridley Scott are among many well-regarded directors who have worked in advertising throughout their careers.

Hudson, best known for the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, also directed several commercials to win a place on Kanner's list, including "Swimming Pool," a widely celebrated spot for Benson & Hedges that first appeared in British movie theaters in 1978. "Swimming Pool" featured no commentary, only "rhythmic rock music" and an arresting series of images that, as Kanner notes, included a desert, lizards, a glimmering swimming pool, and a helicopter transporting oversized cigarettes in what initially appears to be a "large tin of sardines." As a narrative, "Swimming Pool" made no sense. Nor did it illuminate the product's virtues. Instead, it offered "fantastic imagery to forestall wear-out," luring viewers to watch "repeatedly without getting bored."

Ridley Scott gained acclaim as a film director with the 1979 Alien and 1982 Blade Runner. But he also directed what is arguably the single most influential American commercial ever made: Apple computer's "Big Brother," which first aired during the Super Bowl in January 1984. "Big Brother" featured a grimly futuristic setting in which an ominous Big Brother figure, projected from a huge TV screen, addresses a large group of dronelike people with shaved heads and gray uniforms. Suddenly, a young woman in red jogging shorts breaks through the crowd and, hurling a sledgehammer, shatters the screen projecting Big Brother's grim face. "On January 24," a voice proclaims, "Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."

Like "Swimming Pool" -- and countless commercials since -- "Big Brother" was less concerned about the product than the presumed values of its buyers. Apple owners, the ad implied, were fit, energetic, rebellious -- and bright enough to savor this updated allusion to George Orwell's famous novel. With this new machine, Apple buyers would decisively declare their independence and creativity. "Big Brother," they recognized, symbolized "Big Blue" -- Apple's dominant rival, IBM.

Kanner discusses more recent campaigns for Diesel Jeans, including one 1997 spot in which "a handsome guy in impeccable Diesel Jeans kisses his wife and baby good-bye before dueling with a grubby, despicable man who kicks dogs -- and shoots our hero dead." Such oblique and "edgy" spots, Kanner writes, have created "a counterculture personality" for Diesel's "$ 80 dungarees," making them "the second-best-selling jeans behind Levi's in many European countries."

In other words, Diesel's ads try not to look like ads at all. Their elliptical structure aims partly to exclude undesirable viewers -- namely, unhip schmucks who can't or won't put down eighty bucks for a pair of jeans. Diesel's ad director told Kanner that his company's commercials "are about making our mark and establishing our image as a company." Consumers, he suggests, "don't actually buy jeans; they buy the image, what surrounds the jeans." Adds Kanner: "People who think an ad is cool think the company is cool -- and that buying their product makes them cool."

Advertising today is more varied -- and ubiquitous -- than ever before. Still, most prime time advertisements link products to popular "images" or fashionable attitudes: Sports shoes, snack foods, cars -- even Cadillacs -- are pitched primarily on the assumption that they too are, somehow, cool. As a result, a growing number of commercials -- like Diesel's -- are determinedly "artistic," often with pretentious results. A recent television spot for Agilent Technologies, for example, mimics Wim Wender's beautiful 1987 film Wings of Desire, and manages to suggest that eternal questions of time and mortality are pretty much the same as the universal need for speedy e-mail. One cringes as Kanner exclaims: "If Michelangelo were alive today, he'd probably be working on Madison Avenue."

So, too, in its use of dark sarcasm, Diesel is hardly alone. Whether selling fast food, pistachio nuts, or credit cards, many recent commercials present the world as a grotesque place inhabited primarily by bizarre characters in absurd situations. Presumably such caricatures are designed to make viewers feel better about themselves and somehow superior to others. In this regard, contemporary advertising owes far less to Stan Freberg than to a sensibility -- and a sense of humor -- shaped variously by Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, David Letterman and Howard Stern. Kanner, like Stephen Fox, is largely right when she suggests that "advertising holds a mirror up to show us who and what we are." And, aptly, she dubs the Diesel spots "Nihilist Chic."

In this climate, it's no wonder that so many of Ogilvy's colleagues paid him tribute in recent years; in 1991, for example, the Association of National Advertisers hailed him as "perhaps the last great figure in the advertising world." For them, Ogilvy, stylish and urbane, represented standards that prevailed when the world -- and their profession -- seemed generally less chaotic and mean. Back in 1949, Julian Watkins argued that "great advertising" was not only "clear" (offering "an idea" that "can't be buried regardless of presentation") but "sincere" (its "belief" reaching "right out from the page and into your heart"). Ogilvy stressed the same points repeatedly in interviews and his own published writings.

"A good advertisement," Ogilvy once wrote, "is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself." "The consumer is not a moron," he declared, many years ago; "she is your wife. Don't insult her intelligence." After fifty years of television, it still seems like sound advice.


The 100 Best

TV Commercials

And Why They Worked

by Bernice Kanner

Times, 252 pp., $ 29.95


Tip of the Freberg

The Stan Freberg Collection, 1951-1998

by Stan Freberg

Wea/Atlantic/Rhino, 4 CDs and 1 video, $ 59.97

Brian Murray teaches in the Department of Writing & Media at Loyola College in Baltimore.