David Ogilvy combined sense and sensibility to create an ad legacy
Among the many obits to appear in print at David Ogilvy’s death last week was a eulogy by Pat Fallon in Time.
In it, Fallon wrote, ” .his legacy will be one of brilliance, complexity, flair, passion and proof that enduring values can indeed travel around the world.” He ended: “By carefully disseminating his beliefs, David changed the face of advertising. His writing and books continue to provide the ‘how-tos’ of contemporary best practices, but also the inspiration for gloriously big, business-driving ideas. ”
I was aware of the clever, elegant work crafted by Ogilvy & Mather under his reign, but I hadn’t read his books. And that inspired me to look up Ogilvy on Advertising, published by Crown in 1983, eight years after he had retired and 20 years after he had written his other ad-based bestseller, Confessions of an Advertising Man.
And boy could that guy write. The book, as Pat put it, is “carefully disseminated” and filled with “how-tos,” but it also brims with wit and style. He had a deliciously laconic take, as in rule No. 8, about using illustration: “Don’t show human faces enlarged bigger than life-size. They seem to repel readers.”
Or this one about poster visuals: “It pays to make your poster a visual scandal. But don’t overdo the scandal or you will stop the traffic and cause fatal accidents.” (Ogilvy hated billboards.)
Given the patrician imagery in his ads for Rolls-Royce, Schweppes and even Hathaway, it surprised me to learn that Ogilvy had tried to be a farmer in the Amish country. (Now
we know where those horse-drawn images for Pepperidge Farm came from.)
Ogilvy had the unerring ability of a Cosmo editor to use italics, but he was an adman through and through, and a man of his time–as his best-known advertisements show.
Many of the campaigns he seemed most comfortable writing featured an eye-catching photo of a dashing European man of indistinct nobility. (An alter ego, Dr. Freud?) Take Commander Edward Whitehead, he of Schweppervescence fame, with his eccentric beard, bowler hat, formal coat and umbrella. How many clients like that walk into your office? But it was a time of post-war recuperation and wellness, when men with suspect titles from Europe, far from seen as Euro-trash, were apparently admired.
Another ad, for Austin cars, was a mixture, as even Ogilvy admitted, of “snobbery and economy.” Under a picture of a royal-looking British husband and wife, posed in front of their country manse and sitting between their two Austins, a son and two dogs, the headline read, “I am sending my son to Groton with money I have saved driving Austins.” Ogilvy was not above making up a testimonial, as with this ad, which claimed it was a “private letter from an anonymous diplomat.”
The diplomat, of course, was he, and he writes that “when the headmaster of Groton found that the anonymous diplomat was the author of this book, I found it expedient to send my son to another school.” (Now, of course, the headmaster would be thrilled, and he’d have his agent on the phone with Miramax.)
In this eccentric, English-class-system vein, no campaign for a mass-marketed product got as much attention as the man in the Hathaway shirt. In the book, Ogilvy says he learned that “photographs with an element of ‘story appeal’ were far above average in attracting attention. This led me to put an eye patch on the model in my advertisements for Hathaway shirts.”
In taking a good look at some of the Hathaway ads reproduced in the book, it seems that the model, “Baron Wrangell,” not only sported this bizarre eye patch, but also has a freakishly small waist and almost always wears a pinky ring and sometimes an ascot. Now the only person who could get away with this would be a Monty Python character, or an Austin
The man in the Hathaway shirt with the eye patch no longer exists. That oddly iconic showstopper has been supplanted by a real one: The Hathaway man is now the U.S. soccer star lifting up her shirt in victory, revealing her black Nike sports bra. David Ogilvy would, one hopes, cheer.