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Is Great Advertising Art Or Science

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"I warn you against believing," said advertising genius Bill Bernbach, "that advertising is a science."

Now, now...

Keep your hands off your holsters there, cowboy. I know them's fightin' words...

Especially to us, disciples of Claude Hopkins' "Scientific Advertising" that we are.

But maybe it's worth taking a closer look at what Bernbach was saying, if only Advertising Age has called him the most "influential" marketer of the 20th Century.

In today's issue, we'll do just that.

Let's start with a glimpse at the man himself...


When copywriter Bill Bernbach died from leukemia in 1982, Harpe
r's magazine wrote:

"Bernbach probably had a greater impact on American culture than any of the distinguished writers and artists who have appeared in the pages of Harper's during the past 133 years."

Wow. Not bad. You and I should get such an epitaph.

What did he do to earn such a great reputation? For one thing, he wrote hugely successful ads.

And by that, I mean he wrote ads that put a lot of sales profits to the bottom line. For instance...

His famous "Lemon" print ad helped make the Volkswagen Beetle a worldwide phenomenon... his ads for Alka-Seltzer put the heartburn product in every medicine cabinet in America... his ads for Polaroid, Life Cereal, Cracker Jack, all sold the products in question like crazy.

Other copywriters before him -- Caples, Ogilvy, and more -- also sold well with their ads.

But the difference with Bernbach was the style of ads he created. They were fun and stylish. Even artistic.

"Logic and over-analysis," he said, "can immobilize and sterilize an idea. It's like love -- the more you analyze it, the faster it disappears... "

"Research," he told protégés, "can trap you in the past."

"Rules," he said, "are what an artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula... "

Bernbach's new views seemed to defy the old school of benefit-centric selling. The methodical "salesmanship in print" mindset seemed antiquated.

Naturally, thousands of artists and novelists who felt like they'd 'sold out' to become copywriters found this liberating. Here they could write their ads and still look cool doing it. The new creative revolution had begun. Image-centric advertising was in. And the old way of benefit-laden advertising was dead.

Or so said the pundits.

But was it? Maybe not...


If Picasso made a lot of painters think one could be an artist without drawing a straight line...

If Hemingway made a lot of typists think one could be a writer without really saying anything...

Then Bernbach made a lot of young "creatives" think they could write advertising without really selling anything.

But the talent of the master was a lot different than that which his many protégés perceived. He had not, really, strayed as far from the "salesmanship in print" formula as so many liked to believe...


Bernbach had another quote attributed to him: "Advertising doesn't create a product advantage. It can only convey it."

On that foun dation, billions of dollars were spent to avoid talking about product advantage at all. "Awareness" was (and for many, still is) everything.

As long as you had cute and clever TV spots, print ads with lots of white space, and lots of wit and wonderful camera-work... you had everything you needed to win all kinds of advertising awards.

Unfortunately, the responsibility for actually SELLING seemed to fall by the wayside.

In direct mail, you and I both know that such copy-vanity rarely flies. Because we can measure our results. And if an ad doesn't work, no matter how cute or clever, it's pulled. Cancelled. Made to disappear.

Not everybody failed to notice that Bernbach's clever ads also seemed to boost profits of the advertising companies.

In fact, many managed to great groundbreaking ads that met the new "cleverness" standard but still managed to move product right and left.

Take a look.

Here are what Advertising Age calls the "top 10" ad slogans of the last 100 years. Are they art? Or are they classic benefit-driven headlines? You decide:

"DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER" (DeBeers) -- Diamonds, says the implication, will show her once and for all that you'll love her forever. And for that, she'll reciprocate in kind. Isn't that a benefit?

"JUST DO IT" (Nike) -- Sick of buying exercise bikes and diet books you never use? Here's your chance to escape your own lack of initiative and unleash the athlete within.

"THE PAUSE THAT REFRESHES" (Coca-Cola) -- It couldn't get more straightforward than this. Quick, delicious relief from a hot summer day and your otherwise hectic life.

"TASTES GREAT, LESS FILLING" (Miller Lite) -- In these famous ads, celebrity Miller drinkers debated not one but TWO benefits of the product. Pure genius.

"WE TRY HARDER" (Avis) -- They tried harder to please you, said the ads, because they needed to compete for your car rental loyalty with #1 Hertz. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade.

"GOOD TO THE LAST DROP" (Maxwell House) -- A consistently great-tasting cup of coffee, even and smooth and aromatic. Every time. Every coffee connoisseur's dream.

"BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS" (Wheaties) -- Again, no need to dig deep. Eat Wheaties and you'll be like Jenner, Jabbar, and all the rest of the world's great athletes.

"DOES SHE... OR DOESN'T SHE?" (Clairol) -- Subtle, but here's where the picture that came with the ad made a big difference. Perfectly colored hair... or was it natural? Who cares, as long as nobody else can tell!

"WHEN IT RAINS IT POURS" (Morton Salt) -- This never meant much to me. But it meant a lot to people who remembered how salt used to clump in the shaker even in the slightest humidity. To them, the benefit couldn't be clearer.

"WHERE'S THE BEEF?" (Wendy's) -- Clara Peller, little old lady who made millions of sales for Wendy's, did so with this line -- showing just how other fast-food offerings came up far short to Wendy's big, juicy burgers. A benefit made clear by comparison.

It's barely a contest.

Bernbach's copy may have been art. But his every ad thrived not on cleverness... but on something good ol' Claude Hopkins, the original "scientific" advertiser, made clear in 1923:

Promise, big promise, is still the heart and soul of every good ad. Because advertising's first job ISN'T to be admired. Its job is to sell. And nothing does that ´ art or no art -- better than a benefit clearly expressed.
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John FordeAuthor: John Forde, Editor - The CopyWriters Round Table

John Forde is editor of the Copywriter's Roundtable, a published writer, and has been a direct mail copywriter since 1992. John currently works from an office in Paris. You can sign up for his free weekly e-letter, the Copywriter's Roundtable, at