Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ogilvy on Advertising

My ten creative books #5: Ogilvy on Advertising

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

Believe it or not, I’ve been posting here on a daily basis for nearly a decade, which means that I’ve devoted something like five hundred working days to this blog. When I first threw it together, however, I couldn’t have spent more than a couple of hours deciding on its overall layout, which has turned out to be surprisingly consistent. It took me a while to get the hang of the format, and I’ve tweaked a few minor elements along the way, but this site looks pretty much the same now as it did eight years ago. Part of this is because I knew how I wanted each post to look—black text on white, a headline, an illustration or two, and not much else. (I ended up using a WordPress theme called The Journalist that is no longer being actively updated, and I plan to stick with it for as long as I possibly can.) But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that my preferences along these lines had been formed by the legendary advertising executive David Ogilvy, who laid out his conclusions as clearly as possible in his book Ogilvy on Advertising: “Research suggests that if you set the copy in black type on a white background, more people will read it than if you set it in white type on a black background.” Ogilvy was infuriated by print ads that refused to acknowledge this basic fact, complaining that he had counted forty-seven offenders in a single recent issue of one magazine: “I have even seen coupons in reverse; you cannot fill them out unless you have white ink in the house.” And as the creative director of the agency Ogilvy & Mather, he enforced the same layout on all of his magazine advertisements, with a color photograph, a headline, and the copy set in black type underneath. “I challenge you to invent a better layout than these,” Oglivy concludes, and I don’t think anyone ever has. And within the limitations imposed by the template of this blog, I’ve spent much of my online life operating within the constraints that Ogilvy recommends.

It might seem questionable to take creative inspiration from a book about advertising, but this one has a few strong points in its favor. The first is that Ogilvy on Advertising really reads—I pick it up every couple of years, and I can never resist leafing through the whole thing. Another is that the ads themselves are more interesting and beautiful than a lot of the content that was being published at the time, or even now. But its real value lies in the challenges of the advertising industry itself, which constantly confronts its practitioners with the need to balance lasting interest with the demands of the moment. At times, Ogilvy can come across as hostile to familiar standards of creativity, as when he witheringly writes: “I occasionally use the hideous word creative myself, for lack of a better…Meanwhile, I have to invent a Big Idea for a new advertising campaign, and I have to invent it before Tuesday. ‘Creativity’ strikes me as a high-falutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.” Yet here’s what he says about the process itself:

I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea. I am supposed to be one of the more fertile inventors of big ideas, but in my long career as a copywriter I have not had more than twenty, if that. Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.

And his test for a big idea is one that all artists should remember: “Could it be used for thirty years?” It was true of the Pepperidge Farm baker, who came to Oglivy in a dream—and perhaps we’d all be better off if we asked ourselves, before devoting ourselves to any new idea, if it could be useful for thirty years.

Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

Confessions of an advertising fan

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Farmer ad by Dodge Ram

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your all-time favorite Super Bowl commercial?”

Of all the works on creativity I’ve internalized over the years, one of the most singular and least expected is Ogilvy on Advertising. David Ogilivy is best remembered today as the founder of one of the agencies that provided much of the inspiration for Mad Men, but he was perhaps the greatest genius the field ever produced, and his book is a masterpiece: in design, style, and feel, it’s the equal of any of his unforgettable ads, and I can’t pick it up without browsing through it cover to cover. A lot of this is due to the seductiveness of the ads themselves, many of which, like that for the Rolls-Royce and its famous electric clock, make better reading than most of the magazines in which they originally appeared. Ogilvy’s influence, while enormous, has become harder to discern in contemporary advertising, which is a shame. If more ad agencies—or their clients—shared his emphasis on clear, readable, fascinating copy, rather than just providing a picture of the product and a link to a web page, we’d all be better off. (The look of this blog, with its stark black type on a white background, is directly influenced by Ogilvy’s favorite layout, especially his belief that text on any kind of colored backdrop was unreadable.)

And I still think that it’s worthwhile for creative artists to study advertising, not so much because we’re trying to push anything on the reader, but because the best ads are master classes in working under considerable pressure and constraints. I’ve said before that I find short stories more challenging than novels because there’s so little room for error—you need to hit that target precisely, without the slightest deviation to either side. That’s all the more true of ads, which are operating within the smallest space imaginable: usually a single magazine page or commercial slot, which can be as short as fifteen seconds. Within that narrow window, an ad can create a character, present a story, tell a joke, or evoke an emotion, and although most of them are forgotten at once, a handful survive, to the point where some even outlast the original products themselves. And none of this is theoretical: a television commercial is thrown into a Darwinian world in which all elements of craft are intensely practical. Which isn’t to say that anyone in his or her right mind should actually go into advertising. But it’s also possible to look to the field itself as a source of insights and ideas while keeping a safe distance.

Bubble by Volkswagen

That said, advertisers and clients are only human, which is why most ads try for an easy way out. Humor, for instance, seems intuitively simple, even if it isn’t—hence the endless string of lavishly mounted but painfully unfunny ads that we see during every Super Bowl. (As Ogilvy writes: “I must warn you that very, very few writers can write funny commercials which are funny. Unless you are one of the few, don’t try.”) Super Bowl commercials are particularly handicapped by their simultaneous attempt to wow us and amuse us, a deadly combination for comedy; the result is usually shrill, desperate for laughs, and leaves viewers feeling as if they’ve been manhandled by an aggressive clown at a frat party. This isn’t to say that you can’t make a funny television commercial with big production values, but that when it fails, the result is awkward and a little pathetic. It’s probably better, if you don’t have any real ideas, to go for sex and bombast: I was recently startled to realize that it’s been fifteen years since the premiere of a certain Pepsi spot, and even more startled that I still remember the whole thing, even if it didn’t quite succeed in making me switch from Coke.

And the rarest achievement of all is for a commercial to evoke real, complicated emotion and nostalgia, which is why my own favorite Super Bowl ad might seem like a strange choice: Dodge Ram’s “Farmer,” built around Paul Harvey’s famous speech. It’s openly manipulative, yes, but brilliantly constructed, and the mild backlash that it provoked in some circles can only be taken as a testament to its power. It even got to me, and I’m not exactly in Dodge’s target demographic. (Oddly enough, my favorite commercial of all time, “Bubble” by Volkswagen, is also an ad for a car, although to the best of my knowledge it never aired during the Super Bowl.) If you want to be cynical about it, you can say that the Ram ad is a reminder to always steal from the best: it trades tremendously on Harvey’s original speech, in the same way lesser commercials lean on famous songs, and it’s essentially a more polished remake of an ad made two years earlier by Farms.com. It also suits its style to its subject in a way that doesn’t leave us feeling cheated when we find out what we’re really being sold, as De Niro and Scorsese did, alas, with American Express. Ultimately, as with all effective advertising, you can either love it or hate it. But you can’t ignore it.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2014 at 9:09 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 9, 2011 at 7:56 am

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