“The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.” – Bill Bernbach
Before Bill Bernbach advertising was a wasteland. It was WASPy, repetitive, and formulaic – imagine Mad Men without the sex appeal or nostalgia and the boring bits left over would be pretty close to what advertising was like. It was Bill Bernach and DDB, the agency he helped establish, that started the creative revolution and gave advertising a more glamorous air.
Perhaps the best way to capture the effect they had on advertising is to compare their ads with other ads from the same time period. As Luke Sullivan says in Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, VW’s iconic “Lemon” ad debuted when other ads said things like: “Chevrolet’s 3 new engines put new fun under your foot and a great big grin on your face!”
What a change it is! The Chevy ad’s substancelessness is somewhat typical of the time period, which alternated between an over-reliance on emotional appeal or on broadcasting the unique selling proposition. DDB, on the other hand, often used sparse artistry to attract attention and then followed it up with snappy copy. In this case, that copy prominently featured a defective product and turned it into a selling point – finishing with the memorable “We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.”
Noting the artistry of Bernbach’s creative revolution is important. As he put it, “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.” But the creative revolution wasn’t simply about making advertising more visually appealing. In fact, it was about making sure the art fit the ads. As odd as it would seem today, Bernbach was the first to pair copywriters and art directors on projects – ensuring that both aspects worked together rather than separately.
Other famous DDB ads from the period show this. Take Levy’s bread, VW’s Think small, and Chivas Regal’s Give dad an expensive belt. Most impressively, 50 years later they still feel current. They could probably still garner press and generate sales.
So what we mean to say when we talk the creative revolution isn’t just that Bernbach married the art and the copy, or that he found ways to advertise using negatives, or that he made great use of humor. It’s that he turned advertising into pop culture. Bernbach made ads that people talked about – that truly changed buying behaviors and consumer attitudes. In some way, you could say the creative revolution that Bernbach kicked off made ads a part of our culture rather than a reflection of it.
With that, I’ll leave you with the DDB’s Avis Tries Harder campaign. An excellent way to turn the number two position in a product category into a sales advantage.