Confessions of an Advertising Man

November 28th, 2009

This morning I finished reading Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.

Early in the book, after discussing his strategy of being a publicity hound, he writes (page 32):

Gentle reader, if you are shocked by these confessions of self-advertisement, I can only plead that if I had behaved in a more professional way, it would have taken me twenty years to arrive. I had neither the time nor the money to wait. I was poor, unknown, and in a hurry.

I found this interesting because none of his “confessions” even raised an eyebrow, which is probably a testament to how influential this book was. While it was apparently shocking to buddy up with people who are influential in your industry for the sake of getting attention, it’s now called networking and people in most professions are urged to do it.

While my feelings on advertising are known, he strikes me as a decent guy.

  • He entreats advertisers to address the consumer with respect. On page 65 he writes, “The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.”
  • “The product must be one which we would be proud to advertise.” He writes on page 46; he reiterates a similar principle on page 65, “I also resign accounts when I lose confidence in the product. It is fragrantly dishonest for an advertising agent to urge consumers to buy a product which he would not allow his own wife to buy.”
  • He uses the words “intellectual honesty” many times, both when referring to an advertiser’s dealings with their client, and that client’s potential customers

In short, he wants to tell consumers why his client’s product is the best product on the market, as opposed to just make a stack of cash on a pack of lies. I found this a little surprising. It had never occurred to me that honesty might be part of an advertisement.

I giggled along with the following passage from page 127:

As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one which was improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard. When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel about the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship?

I wonder how he rectifies such powerful distaste with the fact that he/his agency must surely create the occasional billboard. I wonder how he would have felt about the proliferation of advertising into more and more places. He may say so in his later books, but not having read them I am free to wonder. I wonder if, besides billboards, any other new places to advertise would have struck him as an intrusion. I suspect that, as a businessman, he would understand that finding new and novel places to advertise was a necessity of continuing to create effective advertisements, even if he hated it to the point of destruction, he would still do it, as he did with billboards.

It seems that he opposed gimmicky advertising, but only because it was ineffective. On page 151, in his final chapter, titled “Should Advertising be Abolished?”, he writes:

My own clinical experience would suggest that the kind of informative factual advertising which dons the endorse is more effective, in terms of sales results, than the “combative” or “persuasive” advertising which they condemn. Commercial self-interest and academic virtue march together.
    If all advertisers would give up flatulent puffery, and turn to the kind of factual, informative advertising which I have produced…they would not only increase their sales, but they would also place themselves on the side of the angels. The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.

This book paints a much more innocent picture of advertising than the one I hold. I don’t know if that’s because I’m especially cynical, or if the advertising industry itself has changed in this respect. I tend to believe the latter, but surely there are still some advertisers who are sincerely believe their client’s product is best just as surely as some of Ogilvy’s contemporaries’ advertisements were based on lies.

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