How Jack Daniel’s created the world’s longest running advertising campaign
When I first moved to London, it was the highlight of my morning to see a new Jack Daniel’s ad on the underground. I’d miss a train just to finish reading one.
Despite not being a drinker, these adverts have long captivated me. And so it was a thrill to learn that David Ogilvy, the great advertising man of the 20th century, once thought the same. Writing in 1983: ‘I have always been hypnotised by Jack Daniel’s. The label and the advertising convey an image of homespun honesty, and the high price makes me assume that Jack Daniel’s must be superior.’
Jack’s whisky has been distilled since 1866 and today it’s the largest-selling in the world. It’s been enjoyed by everyone from William Faulkner to Winston Churchill to Frank Sinatra — the last of whom referred to it as ‘nectar of the gods’. And the campaign you see above, ‘Postcards from Lynchburg’, is thought to be the longest running advertising campaign in history, having first appeared in an October 1954 edition of Time magazine.
The director was 27-year-old Art Hancock and the campaign was conceived as a one-page plan in which Hancock, himself captivated by Lynchburg, Tennessee, stated, ‘We’re not selling a bottle of booze, we’re selling a place.’
One wonders if there’s been a one-page document so successful since. But how do these adverts get made? Who’s writing the postcards? And why has the campaign been so successful?
A 1989 New York Times article (at the turn of the campaign’s 35th birthday) notes: ‘Finding such photo opportunities is the specialty of Ted Simmons, the president of the St. Louis advertising agency, Simmons, Durham & Associates. For 25 years, Mr. Simmons has spent a week each year prowling the streets and front porches of Lynchburg for offbeat subjects. “I’m just telling people what it’s like down here.”’
A far cry from Madison Avenue, Simmons considered himself ‘a guardian of an American brand and the small town of Lynchburg’.
Kenneth Roman, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, continues: ‘Simmons describes his approach to writing Jack Daniel’s ads as “wanderin’ around”. He would sit on the bench in front of The Iron Kettle restaurant, wander next door to the Farmer’s Co-op and try to hear what the farmers were talking about, wander into the bank, then up to the hardware store to sit with Clayton Tosh by the pot-bellied stove… After wandering, he would go back to the old office — the original office of Jack Daniel and Lem Motlow [Jack’s nephew] — and try to imagine what these men might say about what was happening in Jack Daniel’s Hollow.’
A television commercial produced by Simmons says about Jack, ‘Maybe there’s just no telling what the reason is,’ but if I had to try for the campaign, aside from ‘wanderin’, I’d put its success down to six things.
1) Defying convention. In a 2011 Fortune article, brand historian Nelson Eddy notes, ‘If you look at liquor ads of the period, they’re typically full-page, full-color with a big beautiful bottle shot and a man in a smoking jacket… here comes this brand running smaller-space ads with black-and-white photography of these people in the clothes they wear every day to make the whisky.’
The style matches David Ogilvy’s philosophy of editorialising adverts. ‘Advertising people have an unconscious belief that advertisements have to look like advertisements. They have inherited graphic conventions which telegraph to the reader, “This is only an advertisement. Skip it.”’
2) People want to know how things get made. The grandfather of modern advertising, Claude Hopkins, wrote about the sale of beer in his 1923 book Scientific Advertising:
‘After millions had been spent to impress a platitude, one brewer pictured a plate glass where beer was cooled in filtered air. He pictured a filter of white wood pulp through which every drop was cleared. He told how bottles were washed four times by machinery. How he went down 4,000 feet for pure water. How 1,018 experiments had been made to attain a yeast to give beer that matchless flavour. And how all the yeast was forever made from that adopted mother cell. All claims were such as any brewer might have made. They were mere essentials in ordinary brewing. But he was the first to tell the people about them.’
In Jack’s case, the origins of its whisky are unique. It’s rare that a product as widely sold as Jack Daniel’s is made only in one place (the oldest distillery in America), or a place so unexpected. But the campaign does an extraordinary job of telling you about it. How many companies leave such stories untold?
3) It’s unquestionably effective. You can’t run a campaign for well over half a century that isn’t. Kenneth Roman tells us, ‘Local managers would say none of this dumpy advertising will work in our country or why can’t we have a big New York agency. Some markets wanted lifestyle advertising. Always polite, the Jack Daniel’s people would suggest they test their campaign against Postcards. Postcards always won.’
4) Opportune timing. Back to Fortune and Nelson Eddy: ‘Interestingly, Jack Daniel’s began to advertise regularly at a time demand already exceeded supply. When other companies would pull back from advertising, Jack Daniel’s advertised more… [Even when it wasn’t available] they spent money on ads to tell people they couldn’t get it.’ This is exactly what Ogilvy would have recommended: making a virtue of scarcity. ‘Like Jack Daniel and Lem Motlow before them, they’re not going to compromise the quality of the product to meet demand, so customers can be assured that when they do get some, it’s going to be the one and only Jack Daniel’s.’
5) Preservation of premium. Ogilvy noted, ‘the high price makes me assume that Jack Daniel’s must be superior’. This was by design. Hancock’s one-pager included a strict note to avoid discounts. Instead, the whisky maker put its resources into producing some of the world’s best advertising. Ogilvy wrote, ‘Any damn fool can put on a deal, but it takes genius, faith and perseverance to create a brand’.
6) Striking a timeless chord. The 1989 NYT article noted, ‘Its advertising strategy will be 35 years old in October, and the latest black-and-white ad for the Tennessee whisky is not a whit different from the approach of the first one in 1954.’ This year, turning 63, it remains unchanged.
Hancock considered a 1983 letter from Ogilvy praising the ads ‘among the half-dozen best campaigns in the history of advertising’ one of his prized possessions. We thank Hancock, Simmons and Jack Daniel’s for these lessons and wish ‘Postcards’ a happy 63rd birthday. Long may the campaign continue.