GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
There's a scene in the TV series "Mad Men" where the characters at the fictional 1960s ad agency Sterling Cooper are discussing a rival agency's groundbreaking magazine ad. It's for the Volkswagen Beetle, and it's a black and white picture of the car with the headline: Lemon.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")
Mr. MICHAEL GLADIS (Actor): (as Paul Kinsey) It is funny.
Mr. RICH SOMMER (Actor): (as Harry Crane) It is? 'Cause I think the joke's on us. You're supposed to look at that and say it's a great car, not a great ad.
Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (as Don Draper) Well, say what you want. Love it or hate it, the fact remains we've been talking about this for the last 15 minutes.
RAZ: Now, that Volkswagen ad was real, and the company's campaign in the 1960s and '70s marked a turning point in the ad business.
Real-life ad man Terry O'Reilly describes that moment and others that shaped and reshaped Madison Avenue in his book, "The Age of Persuasion." It's also the title of his Canadian radio show. And when I spoke with him recently, he told me about a chance meeting in 1904 that would forever change advertising.
A Canadian Mountie named John E. Kennedy went to Chicago where he passed a message on to a junior ad rep named Albert Lasker.
Mr. TERRY O'REILLY (Author, "The Age of Persuasion"): He said, I have the secret to advertising and I know you don't know it. He actually sent a note up to him from the bar at the bottom of the building. Lasker was so intrigued that he invited him up, and what he said to Lasker was: advertising is salesmanship in print.
RAZ: And up until that point, nobody regarded it as salesmanship?
Mr. O'REILLY: No, they didn't. And it sounds so obvious now, Guy, but back then and put in that context, that was an epiphany.
RAZ: So, before the John E. Kennedy sort of revolution, what would a typical print ad read like? What'd it sound like?
Mr. O'REILLY: It would probably - if it was, let's say it was for Ivory soap -it'd probably say something like: Ivory Soap for you. It's here at this store for this price and it has a new packaging now. I mean, there was nothing more to say about it.
RAZ: And that was it?
Mr. O'REILLY: Yeah, and that was it, yeah.
RAZ: So, getting back to the Volkswagen Beetle that we described in the introduction, I want to play one of the TV ads you've talked about on your show. It's from the late 1960s, early '70s, and what we see in the ad is a funeral procession. It's driving down the road, and then we hear the voice of the deceased man reading his will, and then it cuts to shots of each person who was mentioned in the will. Let's take a listen.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Man #1: To my wife Rose, who spent money like there was no tomorrow, I leave $100 and a calendar. To my sons Rodney and Victor, who spent every dime I ever gave them on fancy cars and fast women, I leave $50 in dimes. Finally, to my nephew Harold, who oft-time said, gee, Uncle Max, it sure pays to own a Volkswagen, I leave my entire fortune of $100 million.
RAZ: This was a revolutionary ad, right?
Mr. O'REILLY: Well, it was a revolutionary campaign. I always say the VW campaign from the '60s changed my industry forever. Doyle Dane Bernbach was the remarkable agency behind that campaign and I call them the beetles of advertising. What they brought to advertising, which has remained to this day, was wit and humor.
RAZ: And up until that time, I mean, why weren't advertisers willing to use humor?
Mr. O'REILLY: Well, it was a philosophy. So, David Ogilvy, one of the great deans of American advertising, he said people don't buy from clowns. Bill Bernbach, his counterpart at DDB, felt the exact opposite. He felt that - and he was right in a way - all advertising is an interruption, so let's make that interruption polite and fun and give somebody a smile. Let's not barge into their living room. Let's make a polite knock on the door first.
RAZ: But today it seems like most of the memorable ads are actually funny. And I want to play one of those funny ads that is also one of your favorites. It's a beer ad. It's for Dos Equis Beer, and I'm sure many of our listeners have seen this. It features a man in his mid-50s. He's got a beard and then he has a kind of a James Bond grace. And he's doing all of these just outrageous things in these ads. And let's listen to one of them.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Man #2: His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man's entire body. His blood smells like cologne. He is the most interesting man in the world.
Mr. O'REILLY: The writing is so funny in that campaign.
RAZ: And speaking of beer ads, you've written that a lot of these ads really do influence what kind of beer a person chooses to drink, even if they can't tell the difference in blind taste tests.
Mr. O'REILLY: Well, that's exactly right. The beer category is really image and brand driven. And I've been in focus groups - very interesting - where you'll have six or seven or eight diehard beer drinkers. They'll say I only drink -whatever it is - Budweiser. Everything else is terrible, it's crap. I only drink Budweiser. Then you bring in a tray with beer and all the labels peeled off and they can't find their brand.
Cigarettes, when they were being advertised is another one where you drink the label and you smoke the advertising. Now, there are always exceptions. There are some people who love small craft breweries because they have a special taste, but the mainstream brands are all image.
RAZ: Is there anything about advertising that bothers you, that you don't like?
Mr. O'REILLY: I think there's too many ads out there. I mean, just the clutter, the congestion that is the marketing environment. There's just too much advertising. We are the only industry, I think, that creates our own problem in that we create so much clutter and then we spend every waking hour trying to break through it.
I don't like any advertising really that doesn't give something back, because that's the great unwritten contract between the public and advertisers is you will get something in return for sitting through the ad. You know, on television, the advertising revenue pays for the great programming, and in radio, it pays salaries, and in magazines, it pays for the reporters.
Billboards have to figure out a way to give back. That's an advertising medium that doesn't really underwrite anything, as I see it anyway. Ads in movie theaters - correct me if I'm wrong, I'm not sure - prices in movie theaters came down when ads went in.
So, there's some places - when advertising breaks the contract, I think people - the annoyance with advertising ratchets up.
RAZ: That's Terry O'Reilly. He's the host of the CBC radio show, "The Age of Persuasion." That's also the name of his new book. He joined me from Toronto.
Terry O'Reilly, thank you so much.
Mr. O'REILLY: Great being on your show, Guy. Really enjoyed it.
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