George Lois: Why Advertising is Terrible

If you have nothing to say, why bother? That’s the response legendary art director Lois has to the ads he sees today. At 71, Lois hasn’t toned down much since he helped spearhead the creative revolution in both advertising at Doyle Dane Bernbach and then at his own shop –Papert Koeig Lois — and magazines, at Esquire. His third book, $elebrity: My Angling and Tangling With Famous People, a predictably opinionated collection of anecdotes and work, is due out in March from Phaitlon Press.

Q. What prompted you to write $ellebrity?

A. I’ve always used celebrities in an unusual way. I kind of invented using them in a way so they didn’t just stand up and look like dummies but made big points. If you’re doing a celebrity campaign with a big idea, it has the power to become a new language and start an imagery that makes the product famous literally overnight. I thought I could tell funny stories and try to teach young people that if your choice of celebrity is inspired and if you use unexpected juxtapositions, you can create magic with celebrities. You know, we’re all, in a crazy way, star fuckers.

Are celebrities not used that way today?

The name of the game using celebrities—the name of the game of any advertising—is to sell product. When you lecture creative people, they all tell you, the important thing is to do advertising that doesn’t look like you’re trying to sell product. I say, “What are you talking about? Every commercial, one way or the other, has to ask for a sale—obliquely, but it really has to ask for the sale.” And they look at you like you’re crazy—”No, no, you don’t understand, Mr. Lois. That’s an old-fashioned idea. You can’t let people think you’re trying to hustle them.” I say, “Whoa, boy, we live in a different world.”

What’s the biggest mistake you see media making with celebrities?

Dozens and dozens of magazines all run the same cover. They’re all trying to outdo each other with the flavor of the month. I mean, that is so unambitious. When I did Esquire, I did a lot of celebrity covers, but the celebrity cover was Hubert Humphrey as a dummy, sitting on Lyndon Johnson’s lap and aping his feelings about the war. I did celebrity covers that made a difference in what was going on in American culture. Magazines today spend their time, unfortunately, having to kiss somebody’s ass.

Of all of the campaigns you’ve done, what are you most proud of?

I may have destroyed world culture, but MTV wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for me. After a year in business, they couldn’t get cable operators to touch them. People thought the idea of a 24-hour music channel was a joke. So I did a big, boom, bang commercial. At the end the voiceover said, “Dial your local cable operator and say, “I want my MTV.” They told me I could never get a rock star and I got Mick Jagger [to appear in the spot]. We ran the commercial in San Francisco on a Thursday night and Friday morning the cable operator there called Bob Pittman and said, “Get that fucking commercial off the air.” He said, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I’ll take it off right away.” “And by the way, I’ll take MTV.” “Why? Why?” “Because I’m getting thousands of phone calls.” We ran those spots in all the big markets in America, and within six months we were on the cover of Time as the greatest cultural breakthrough in the history of mankind. As I said, I think we destroyed a world culture, but that’s beside the point.

What do you think of the commercials you see on TV nowadays?

The majority of commercials that are considered terrific today are like little stories going on—there’s a guy at the bar and the girl comes in, and this happens and that happens, and you kind of stick with it. Something happens at the end that’s kind of funny, right? But any split second when you get to it, nothing’s happening. When I did commercials, if you’re zapping, all of a sudden you see Dali sitting next to a Yankee pitcher, Whitey Ford. I defy you to zap that off. Do you understand what I’m saying? There’s not a person in advertising that would understand what I’m talking about.

So, no current advertising impresses you?

No. I’m sounding like an old fart talking about how bad advertising is today, but it’s true. Advertising sucks. Guys like me and Bob Gage and certainly Bill Bernbach and two or three other guys, we exemplified and led the creative revolution. But what followed us very closely were people capable of doing really exciting advertising, and it was a joy back in the late ’50s or ’60s to watch what other people were doing. It was a joy to watch what Wells Rich Greene was doing and what Carl Ally was doing, what Scali McCabe Sloves was doing. I haven’t felt that way in 20 years—where I got knocked off my ass. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, there was a David Susskind show, a talk show. He got me to come one Sunday to talk about advertising. And he said, “What do you think advertising is, George?” I said, “Well, I think advertising is poison gas.” And he went, “Huh?” I said, “Advertising should grab you by the throat, should choke you, your eyes should water, your heart should race, and you should almost pass out. That’s advertising, right?” The AP picked up the story and the next day it was in about 200 papers—adman George Lois says advertising is poison gas. I must have gotten 200 poison gas signs from people all over the country.

Do you still believe that about advertising?

Absolutely. Advertising should grab you by the nuts, you know. Every image of your goddamned commercial should be a killer—every image, every second. You know, when I lecture kids, I say, “You’ve got to be ambitious by the advertising, ambitious. You’ve got to say, ‘See, this product? Maybe I can change the world with this product.’ ” They look at me like I’m nuts, but that’s what you can do.