Advertising by the book

When advertising exploded in the late 50s, the race began to find a scientific theory to explain it. By 1963, four books had been released. What can they teach today’s ad industry?

When advertising exploded in the late 50s, the race began to find a

scientific theory to explain it. By 1963, four books had been released.

What can they teach today’s ad industry?

There have only been four seriously influential books about modern

advertising - books which, whether we know it or not, have shaped the

way we go about our work - and all were published nearly 40 years ago.

In date order, they are: Vance Packard’s the Hidden Persuaders (1957),

Martin Mayer’s Madison Avenue USA (1958), Rosser Reeves’ Reality in

Advertising (1961) and David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man


With the exception of Reeves’ little tome, all were huge bestsellers

worldwide - running into innumerable editions, in innumerable languages.

Although less of a smash-hit than the others, Reality has been regularly

reprinted and, as it launched the concept of the ‘Unique Selling

Proposition’ - a concept that still to this day underlies most of our

strategic thinking about campaigns - it unarguably deserves its place in

our small hall of fame.

Before considering them separately, it is worth asking why all four

appeared and were so successful within such a brief time span. And it is

also worth asking why no other advertising book has had anywhere near as

much of an impact for almost four decades. Just coincidences? I think


In the 50s, after 25 quiescent years, advertising exploded - and it

scared people. During the 30s depression and World War II, advertising

had languished. When the Western economies recovered, it returned - not

with a whimper, but a bang. Television had arrived, consumer goods were

flooding the shops and - most important of all - politicians had begun

to use advertising in a big way. (In the US, it was employed brilliantly

in 1952 by President Eisenhower - Reeves masterminded his campaign -

and, in 1959, by Harold Macmillan in Britain.) For a while, the power of

advertising seemed almost limitless.

Into this milieu, Packard cleverly lobbed Persuaders. Deliberately

exploiting the public’s anxieties, he invented a malign, Machiavellian

monster. A monster that could make people buy things they didn’t need,

didn’t want, and which were often downright harmful. He claimed that

advertisers use psychoanalytical methods to control people’s minds and

behaviour. To quote from the book’s blurb: ‘The frightening processes

being evolved and applied by super-advertising-scientists are having an

increasing effect upon their potential victims.’

Packard crammed Persuaders with case histories from unnamed sources.

Most of his facts could neither be corroborated nor contradicted, so he

could dispense his allegations with nonchalance. Consider this typical

sleight of pen: ‘The insight of Freudian psychiatry that pictures many

adults as subconsciously seeking the pleasant mouth satisfactions they

felt as infant breast-feeders opened up vistas for the depth

merchandisers. Americans do more than dollars 65bn of their annual

consumption by mouth.’ You’ve got it; they eat.

Nonetheless, Packard might not have been so successful had the leading

admen of the time not embraced his attack with masochistic zeal. It

suited their commercial purposes. It helped them convince sceptical

clients that their campaigns were now scientific and their predictions

foolproof. It flattered them and encouraged them into overweening,

vainglorious boastfulness.

The bizarre thing about all this is that, although almost everyone in

the world, including politicians and economists, thinks Persuaders is

about advertising - and in that sense it is easily the most influential

book about advertising ever published - it isn’t really about

advertising at all. It is about that comparatively small, and now

relatively unimportant, sector of market research called motivation


Pointing this out when Madison Avenue was published a year later, Mayer

tore into Persuaders with gusto: ‘Packard classifies as motivation

research the entire work of the advertising business, from copywriters’

horse-sense hunches [Ted Bates’s ‘Cleans your breath while it cleans

your teeth’ is attributed by Packard to motivation research done some 16

years after the slogan first made its appearance] through to Dichter’s

Freudian analysis.’

Well said, Mart. And Madison Avenue, unlike Persuaders, is a model of

the journalist’s art. It nimbly blends anecdote, character sketch, case

history and theory into an immensely readable picture of the US

advertising scene at that time.

But it is more than that. To the best of my knowledge, Mayer was the

first to publicise the theory of ‘added value’. Like Reeves’ doctrine of

the USP, the belief that advertising can add value to a product or brand

- in my view, the most significant social and economic consequence of

all advertising - is now commonplace. Before Madison Avenue, this wasn’t

so. Indeed, Mayer only advanced the theory as a tentative hypothesis.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it was seminal.

Ogilvy wrote in his foreword to Mayer’s first edition: ‘If I were the

head of an advertising agency in London, I would give copies to every

member of my staff, and all my clients. It would teach them more about

advertising than they could learn by spending an entire sabbatical year

in New York.’

Still true. Ogilvy also wrote: ‘This is the best book on advertising.’

But he effectively withdrew that compliment five years later when he

published his classic, Confessions. I can never decide which of the two

is the best book on advertising. Both are spiffing, and still worth


But Confessions is an easy book for the practising adman to underrate.

Ogilvy’s relaxed style quickly begins to seem glib. As a result, within

the business, his neat aphorisms have pretty well become jokes. ‘The

consumer is not a moron, she is your wife,’ or ‘The two most powerful

words you can use in a headline are ‘free’ and ‘new’.’ (How about


That they have become frayed with repetition is unarguably a tribute to

their memorability. And we now find it difficult to take such slick

maxims seriously. But there are few fundamental questions that

Confessions does not answer with penetrating insight. It is much more

profound than it sometimes seems.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Reality. This is partly because Reeves

shares many of Packard’s naughty habits. Indeed, in many ways Reality is

a mirror image of Persuaders. Both exude absolute certainty and

confidence. Like Packard, Reeves incessantly quotes anonymous products

that achieved mountainous sales increases through following his gospel.

Some of his charts are plain silly. And one of the key planks of Reeves’

theory collapsed when it was shown that people who buy a brand are

always far more conscious of its ads than those who don’t, so the

awareness of users is not a reliable test of ad effectiveness.

Nonetheless, Reeves propounded an important advertising doctrine which

has largely stood the test of time. So did Mayer. So did Ogilvy (lots of

doctrines). So, in his way, did Packard - although he was playing a

different game. No-one in the business tries to advance major, original

and profound theories about the way advertising functions these days.

Maybe that is why there hasn’t been a truly influential advertising book

for so long.

When advertising emerged from its wartime cocoon, everyone believed it

would soon be possible to discover a coherent ‘scientific’ theory of the

way it worked. Freudian psychology, claimed Packard; added value said

Mayer; the USP opined Reeves. Ogilvy, in his way, was the closest. He

advanced no universal theory but instead put forward a plethora of

quasi- scientific rules.

Slowly we discovered such generalised theories and rules were all

codswallop. Or, to be more generous and accurate, they usually contain

grains of truth - but often they don’t. As the business boomed and

diversified, we learned that advertising is not a homogenous entity,

that retail advertising does not work in quite the same way as packaged

goods advertising and that direct response ads do not work quite like

brand awareness ads.

Our response, particularly in Britain (the home of pragmatism) has been

to give up searching for universal theories altogether. This is the

essence of the IPA Effectiveness Awards. Each case history is unique.

The assumption is that each new campaign must be addressed afresh - that

creativity and originality permeate the entire advertising process.

There are no immutable rules or scientific laws - only systems,

experience and talent.

But have we thrown the baby out with the bath water? Yes, those great

books of 50 years ago over-simplified things. Advertising is not a

science like physics or engineering. But it may be like biology or

botany - there are species of creatures which behave more or less alike.

Identifying these species, categorising them and defining how they

function will be the next big step forward in advertising theory. It

could make the fifth great book. But we still have a long way to go.

Winston Fletcher is chairman of Delaney Fletcher Bozell


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