Past Perfect

Considering the highlights of David Ogilvy's revolutionary work in context

David Ogilvy is the most familiar brand name in advertising. His fame lives on in the name of a global company, on the dust-jackets of two books worth reading (and one not worth reading), and in dozens of querulous quotes.

On the centennial of his birth, we will be told how revolutionary his work was for its time. Today we see his advertisements only as artifacts, set off by white borders, accompanied by captions telling us the ads are even better than we think they are. But how are we to judge?

Let’s saddle stitch Ogilvy’s work back into the original context and try to see his ads the way some of his first audiences would have seen them: in the pages of The New Yorker magazine of the 1950s. For a reader, it requires a certain trick of mind erasure to see the ads fresh and not be influenced by their later fame.

Explore select The New Yorker ads on the following pages, along with Simpson's reactions to them.

The New Yorker, Sept. 22, 1951: In an issue in which Le Corbusier is taken to task for the new U.N. Secretariat Building and William Faulkner is chided for Requiem for a Nun, one wonders how the editors must have writhed when the print ads started coming in. One, from the Remington Rand, shows a secretary, shot in the breastbone by Cupid, confessing she is “head over heels in love…with typing quiet…with typing results…” Another, for the Alcoa Company, hopefully offers a painting of its factory by “the famous artist Peter Welch…in larger size suitable for framing.”

So it is with a kind of start, really, that one comes upon a color photo of a trim military-looking man, wearing a crisp white dress shirt—and a black eyepatch. “The man in the Hathaway shirt” is being measured for a bespoke suit. The copy begins: “American men are beginning to realize that it is ridiculous to buy good suits and then spoil the effect by wearing an ordinary, mass-produced shirt.” The remarkable thing is the ad’s absolute refusal to explain the central mystery: the eye-patch, and the man wearing it. The text is all about—is only about—the virtues of the Hathaway shirt. The titillation is all the greater for its restraint.

The New Yorker, June 6, 1953: The ad inside the front cover shows Joe DiMaggio Jr. and Sr. at the seaside wearing “precisely matched, precisely tailored swim trunks and shirts” for Bates Disciplined Fabric. A few pages later a young woman fondles a Lordcastle shirt and declares, most oddly, it’s “the nicest thing that ever happened to Father’s neck!”

But things don’t get better on page 62 when we see “The man from Schweppes is here.” “Commander” Whitehead disembarks from an airplane—alone, as royalty do, carrying a Very Important Briefcase. The fakery of the visual is exceeded only by that of the copy: “Commander Whitehead has come to these United States to make sure that every drop of Schweppes Quinine Water bottled here has the original flavor. [The] secret of Schweppes unique carbonation is locked in his brief case.”

Really? The Hathaway shirt ad delivered 250 words of information and added mystique. The Schweppes ad is cute and cloying, and built on a thin conceit—which makes it the most like the other ads around it, and the most un-Ogilvy idea of the bunch.

The New Yorker, May 31, 1958: Block that English major! One imagines when the The New Yorker insertions came up, the most “literary” copywriters were rounded up to write them. So we see an ad for Hanes underwear that reads: “What is more taken for granted, more utterly Babbitt, than his underwear!” And for the new Jet-Prop plane Bristol Britannica, we read: “Welladay! Eureka! O Gemini! Etc.! Home Sapiens has homered again.”

So it is with relief that one encounters this headline: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” The headline is deliberately un-literary; it’s the quote of an “eminent Rolls-Royce engineer.” The copy then walks you through 19 numbered reasons to justify the $13,550 price. Less often commented upon is the photo: a woman at the wheel of the Rolls waits curbside, as her two children emerge from the market. The effect of the whole is simple, tasteful, rational—for Rolls-Royce.

The New Yorker, Nov. 25, 1950: Our final exhibit is the earliest work from Ogilvy’s hand, the “Guinness Guide to Oysters.” It’s not much to look at: a grid formed by sailor’s rope, displaying nine types of oysters. But now, read just this one caption: “Oyster Bays are mild and heavy-shelled. It is said that oysters yawn at night. Monkeys know this and arm themselves with small stones. They watch for an oyster to yawn and then pop the stone in between the shells. ‘Thus the oyster is exposed to the greed of the monkeys.’”

Well. This is something different. It is perhaps the single most memorable paragraph in the entire magazine. It is clear that Ogilvy was pushing, in his own cranky, idiosyncratic way, to make ads do more than they were used to doing—to make them inform, compel, and delight.