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."