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,
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
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