“The trouble with advertising is it doesn’t even pretend to be real.” Frank Zappa
There was a time when advertising ruled the Earth. Sponsors of products like Lysol, Lucky Strike and Alka-Selzer decided what you smoked, what you drank and what afflictions you kept to yourself. On “The Flintstones,” for instance, Alka-Selzer, the sponsor, ruled that no character could get a stomach ache, and there could be “no derogatory presentations of doctors, dentists or druggists.”
“Plugola” was par for the course, and nobody — outside of Sid Caesar from “Show of Shows” — minded touting a brand if it kept their programs on the air.
Those were the glorious days when everybody knew their place, when Eddie Fisher sipped Coke, Lucy and Desi Arnez smoked Philip Morris cigarettes, and Jack Benny hawked Schwinn bikes. What we call product integration today was old hat to these characters. “Plugola” was par for the course, and nobody — outside of Sid Caesar from “Show of Shows” — minded touting a brand if it kept their programs on the air.
It was a symbiotic relationship, with Madison Avenue enjoying more power than they could ever conceive of today. They could decide on one hand what would come next — like the comment “Advertising had spacemen before there were spacemen” — to Young and Rubicam walking out of the boardroom when ABC suggested an all-black variety show starring Sammy Davis Jr.
The idea was dropped, of course, and it would be years before people like Norman Lear would ever get a chance to suggest black characters having their own show (The Jeffersons).
Advertising was fun, and sponsors went along, agreeing to an industry standard of six minutes of advertising per hour (today it’s fourteen minutes).
When Jerry Della Femina famously said “I honestly believe advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” he wasn’t kidding. Advertising was fun, and sponsors went along, agreeing to an industry standard of six minutes of advertising per hour (today it’s fourteen minutes).
Within this six-minute framework, agencies knew it wasn’t just a matter of being seen. If Jack Benny could say (off the cuff) “Send me three” for Schwinn bikes, and sales soared, every Mad Man knew the buying public wanted a sense that whatever was clever in the shows bled over to the advertising.
Agencies like Doyle Dane Bernbach, led by Bill Bernach’s philosophy that you “couldn’t bore people into buying,” created brilliant advertising. In one Volkswagen spot, featuring a young Dustin Hoffman, he tries to find the engine on a fastback sedan, opening the front hood and the back, only to discover they were both trunks.
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Everyone online has seen it. Whenever people search for something on Google, they end up interacting with similar ads…
It ran on All In The Family, soon to rank number one in Nielsen ratings for five seasons. While All In The Family soared, so did Volkswagen. The Bug became a superstar, selling over 21 million worldwide in less than a decade (compared to two the first year it was introduced in North America).
Every ad man (and woman) understood it was worth the long hours to shine — or occasionally outshine — a room full comedy writers.
Numbers like this weren’t always the norm, but as long as the product was central, advertising held amazing power and influence. If that meant competing with the shows themselves, it was worth the long hours to shine — or occasionally outshine — a room full comedy writers.
Political advertising was just as influential. During Regan’s reelection campaign in 1984, Nancy Regan wanted to inject new life into the old “Gipper.” She suggested Hal Riney, known for his thoughtful ads together with his low sonorous voice.
Riney created “Morning In America,” saying, “It’s morning again in America.Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history.” It was a bit of an exaggeration. Unemployment was at an all-time high, but it was true based on comparative population increases.
In any case, Regan was re-elected, and Riney could claim he played a big part. More importantly, the commericial’s appearance on The Cosby Show helped generate over two billion dollars in support for the Regan campaign.
Marketing executives would rely on formula like — as David Ogilvy remarked — “a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than illumination.”
Of course things would change. After years of brilliance, both in advertising and sitcoms, research decided to dig in its ugly heels. Marketing executives the world over would rely on formula like — as David Ogilvy remarked — “a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than illumination.”
If the energy of the 70s sitcoms was fading, it was nothing compared to what was happening in advertising. Clients weren’t necessarily harder to please (although many were). They simply sniffed the wind, figuring all they really needed was presence.
Sure, they advertised on Super Bowl games, but that’s because everyone else was there. Even then, the cleverness seemed forced, a clear sign advertising agencies weren’t used to clever concepts, relying instead on expensive production values and big name talent.
In it, he said there were 371 scripted shows in 2019. With few exceptions, formula replaced innovations.
For the day to day, advertisers and sitcoms stuck with research, something John Landgraf, CEO of FX lamented when he delivered a speech to the Television Critics Association. In it, he said there were 371 scripted shows in 2019. With few exceptions, formula replaced innovation. “Eventually the bubble will deflate,” he predicted.
It wasn’t much of a prediction. “Peak TV” had already peaked. Everyone was “bending to the money,” and advertisers were no different. What good was creating anything new when two minutes of original production could buy you an hour of American drama?
And why go to all that trouble when VCRs, DVDs, DVRs and Internet had already reduced networks to reruns and formula works? Why should advertising be any different? There is no deep engagement, so why bother?
Certainly advertising agencies don’t have an answer. I was asked to attend a meeting where the agency wanted to impress a new VP creative director. Over a hundred ads were presented, yet nobody mentioned how well the advertising did, other to say that the client “loved it.”
Nobody stands at the water cooler debating advertising the way they did when Doyle Dane Bernbach did Volkswagen’s “Think Small.”
So it’s no surprise we’re dying. If advertising once ruled the Earth, now we’re just earthlings. Nobody expects to be shocked or amazed anymore, just as nobody stands at the water cooler debating advertising the way they did with Volkswagen’s “Think Small.”
We don’t ponder because we aren’t expected to ponder. The “money” is in distribution, and that’s all that matters. Have you ever wondered why studios make so many action movies these days? It’s because chase scenes, gun battles, murders and rape require so little dialogue. The less you have, the easier — and cheaper — it is to translate and dub for international markets.
Think of video games. Why are they so violent? Because gamers aren’t kids anymore. Over sixty-percent are adult, and most want nothing more than to blow something up.
So, no, advertisers aren’t particularly interested in creative — or advertising, for that matter. It’s okay to have presence, but it’s not worth the effort to create, even if companies like GEICO Insurance has been consistently creative, and remarkably successful.
Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, said he’d invest $2 billion in GEICO if he could.
Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, said he’d invest $2 billion in GEICO if he could. A ringing endorsement, sure, but still not as easy as rotating the hell out of a slice-of-life commercial. And what about product integration? Surely, Bruce Willis holding a Coke while he blows up an ammunition dump is easier than presenting a talking gecko.
No wonder advertising is dying. What comes next is anybody’s guess. We’ve seen the warning signs. Now it’s a matter of waiting for the dust to settle. One day it will. Maybe there’ll be another Bill Bernbach. I doubt it, though.
As he once said, “In advertising, not to be different is virtually suicidal.” Maybe that’s the problem now. We don’t want to be different.
So I guess we’re suicidal. It certainly looks that way now.
Robert Cormack is a satirist, novelist, and former advertising copywriter. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. Check out Skyhorse Press or Simon and Schuster for more details.