According to Time magazine’s list of the 20 most influential
businesspeople of the century, advertising is represented by ... Leo
Burnett. That’s right, Leo Burnett of the mom’s apple-pie school of
advertising. Not Bill Bernbach, not David Ogilvy and not, even at a
pinch, Rosser Reeves.
Time’s choice, one suspects, won’t go down too well with adland. To most
insiders, the adman’s adman would be either Ogilvy or Bernbach, with the
latter just shading it on the grounds that, well, Ogilvy was a bit too
good at publicising himself.
Why Bernbach? Well, he represents advertising of the kind most people
who work in the business would like to be associated with: witty,
subtle, strategic, creative, erudite, genuine and emotionally touching.
It’s the kind of work you could take home to your mother and she’d think
advertising was a noble profession.
By contrast, the campaigns with which Burnett is most closely associated
- the Marlboro Cowboy, Tony the Tiger, the Pillsbury Doughboy and the
Jolly Green Giant - were none of these things. They were trite,
juvenile, brash, gimmicky, sentimental and emotionally cloying. I don’t
particularly like them and nor, I suspect, do people outside their
target markets, but these images remain locked in our minds. Outside of
adland, I’m not sure you could say the same about Bernbach’s work.
Although legions of creatives claim to be influenced by Bernbach (I’ve
not heard of a single one who claims to be influenced by Burnett) this
is, I think, more a case of wishful thinking than reality.
And even though Time didn’t express it like this, its reasoning was
probably that Bernbach may have been the adman’s adman, but Burnett was
the public’s adman. If Bernbach appealed to our higher instincts,
Burnett’s work, as he himself put it, was designed to appeal to ’the
basic emotions and primeval instincts’ of consumers.
Perhaps Burnett’s most important legacy to today’s advertising was to
understand the supremacy of the visual image or metaphor over the
written word and reasoned argument - and this at a time when TV was in
Unpalatable as this may be, it is nonetheless true. Burnett’s secret,
perhaps, was to adapt faster and better to the TV revolution than any of
his peers by grasping the inherent power of TV to imprint images, not
arguments, on the consumer’s mind.
All of which begs a suitably futuristic question. If, assuming it still
exists, Time carries out the same exercise in 100 years’ time, what sort
of person would the Leo Burnett of the 21st century be? A creative, a
planner or a media strategist? Or will it be someone in a function we
can’t even imagine today?
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