David Ogilvy

About Advertising

VTR Date: June 11, 1982

Guest: Ogilvy, David


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Ogilvy
Title: “About Advertising”
VTR: 6/11/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When I began this program 26 years ago, there was a great deal of discussion at hand in what I would call concerned circles about the impact of advertising on our lives, on our politics, on what we bought and sold, on our feelings about ourselves, and about what it is important to have, to possess. Wherever intellectuals in particular gathered they took the man in the gray flannel suit over the coals if disapprobation. Meanwhile, he laughed more and more heartily on his way to the bank. Yet persuaders, mass persuasion, persuasion for profit, all of these were topics for discussion here on THE OPEN M IND during the 1950s. Even into the Sixties, one could generate much heat, maybe even a little light by regretting out loud that there would, indeed, always be an ad man. Not so today, however. Perhaps we’ve become desensitized, perhaps even co-opted by that perennial ad man. Indeed, with the exception of political advertising, selling candidates as one would sell soap, I don’t think that the decibel level of discussions, debates, even diatribes about advertising runs particularly high in American life today.

And so I’d like to change that at least here and now on THE OPEN MIND with a guest whose brilliant creative work, style, and management techniques in the world of advertising have become legendary. David Ogilvy, the author of “Confessions of an Advertising Man” is the founder of Ogilvy and Mather, one of the largest and most prestigious advertising agencies in the world. And I appreciate your willingness to join us here today, Mr. Ogilvy.

I wonder if I could refer back to “Confessions of an Advertising Man” to a quotation you have there from Franklin Roosevelt, who said, as you wrote, “If I were starting life over again, I’m inclined to think that I would go into the advertising business in preference to almost any other. The general raising of the standards of modern civilization among all groups of people during the past half-century would have been impossible without the spreading of the knowledge of higher standards by means of advertising”. You then go on to quote Sir Winston Churchill along the same lines, and I suspect you don’t belong to the school that says that advertising is wasteful instead of creative.

Ogilvy: I never thought of advertising as wasteful, because the word “wasteful” is a tricky word. Economists use it in a special sense. I suppose that most advertising is a waste of money and most advertising is a crashing bore and an intrusion and there is too much of it. And you can say all sorts of bad things about advertising. But people go on using it, you know, so it must have…perform some function. You know, Roosevelt and Churchill, while they may have…I wonder who wrote those speeches for them…they may have said those good things about advertising, but they never used advertising to help themselves get elected, nor did Abraham Lincoln. Isn’t it wonderful?

Heffner: Why do you say, “Isn’t it wonderful”? Certainly we do today.

Ogilvy: It’s so dishonest, isn’t it?

Heffner: Why?

Ogilvy: I don’t know what it is. Because it’s impossible, I suppose to boil down issues to 30 second television commercials. The political advertising is the most dishonest advertising there is. I f I wrote advertising as mendacious and crooked and misleading for products as those guys, those politicians get written for them in an election, I’d be put in prison.

Heffner: You say “mendacious” and “as misleading”.

Ogilvy: Yes.

Heffner: Not quite so mendacious, not quite so misleading for products?

Ogilvy: Oh, not nearly, not remotely. They have no rules, you see. And nobody can prosecute them. If you’re running for nomination or for election for any office and you go on the television, you can say anything you like. The stations and the networks can’t do anything about it. I forget why, there’s some Constitutional reason. And they have to take anything you give them. I remember saying to a federal, head of the Federal Trade Commission some years ago, I said, “Why don’t you prosecute Johnson and put him in prison for…”, because he would never allow me to do that thing…sort of thing.

Heffner: You know, I remember, Mr. Ogilvy, a program many, many years ago…back in the Fifties when I started THE OPEN MIND, a mutual friend of ours, Jock Elliot…Jock had been very much involved in the Eisenhower campaign…

Ogilvy: Yes.

Heffner: …in the advertising end of, of that campaign. Are you suggesting that the advertising that was used then was acceptable in politics, but not today? Are you saying…

Ogilvy: It was acceptable. Acceptable depends, acceptable by whom, not by me. But it was tolerated and it’s still tolerated. It’s not…it’s pretty near as crooked as it was then. You know, a question has been called in for a candidate by ostensibly a would-be voter. However, the questions had been written out days before and they had been called in…it ws all a set-up and it still goes on. They do it today.

Heffner: But you know, when I read your books I’m aware of the fact that you say the maker of a product, the distributor of a product has every right to put his best foot forward. Why not a political candidate then?

Ogilvy: Well, I don’t have…remember the advertising that was done for Johnson when he…the way that advertising attacked Barry Goldwater. It was just awful. It was so crooked. A friend of mine has written a book about this…Bob Spiro…and he’s analyzed a lot of Presidential commercials in terms of the, of the standard regulations of the broadcast authority. And they’re in violation all the way through.

Heffner: Do you think that they’re effective? That’s a question that has always…I’ve always wondered about.

Ogilvy: I don’t know. I’m told that there are people who study this…who come to the conclusion that elections are now won by whichever candidate spends the most money on television.

Heffner: What would you do about that? Ban political television? Ban political advertising?

Ogilvy: I certainly would if I could, but I can’t. I won’t take it. I won’t handle it.

Heffner: You never did?

Ogilvy: No. Hell, no. I always refused it. (Laughter) First off, it’s dishonest. Secondly, it takes, it’s so unfair for people in an advertising agency. If you take a Democratic candidate, and half our people are Republican, so then they’re miserable. Why should I make half my partners miserable? And there are other reasons against it. They’re so fascinating, those Presidential candidates. And when an advertising agency does one, it’s all it does. Their top people become riveted by it and they concentrate on it for six months, and not to the great advantage of their normal clients.

Heffner: You mean they…

Ogilvy: I won’t…do it. Well, there’s one advertising agency we’re in cahoots with in Venezuela. We don’t own it. We’re minority stockholders, and they are good partners. And they did a political campaign about two years ago for a Presidential candidate and he was elected. A real good campaign. I would have stopped that if I could, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have the votes.

Heffner: You know, it’s a…it’s strange to me that you are so much concerned about the political process. What about the other aspects of our lives that are impacted by mendaciousness, by exaggeration, by advertising?

Ogilvy: Well, I don’t think advertising can be charged with being mendacious, which means lying doesn’t it? I don’t think that…that’s not what’s wrong with it. What’s wrong with it really is the volume of it. Someone said the other day, “The sound of selling is the dirge of our times”. I lived in the United States for many years and I didn’t notice it because I was part of it…I was part of it…

Heffner: You were making it.

Ogilvy: I was making it. And I saw it every day. And about 9 years ago, I went to Europe, and when I come back here as a visitor, and I see things through new eyes…And I’ve turned on the television in my bedroom in the hotel where I’m staying and I cannot believe the volume of advertising…the clutter….it is simply nauseating. I wonder how long people are going to go along putting up with it. I wonder if there’ll be any advertising on television 10 years from today. It’s an open question.

Heffner: You mean in terms of a rebellion against it?

Ogilvy: Yeah, and being able to buy television and…without having to subject yourself to the maddening, nauseating, and tedious interruption of commercials.

Heffner: but then let’s go back to whoever wrote the, these words for Churchill and Roosevelt…

Ogilvy: That, that…of course, they’d never heard of television advertising.

Heffner: You think then it’s only television? That print advertising before television…

Ogilvy: Print advertising is “skippable”, you know. If you’re reading a magazine or newspaper, you see advertisement and you don’t have to read it. It’s not anything…you turn it over. TV advertising is…TV commercials are much harder to skip, unless you’ve got one of these villainous machines in your hand that you can switch off the commercials.

Heffner: Mr. Ogilvy, I…

Ogilvy: …I’m very “heavy weather” of this…I’m the sort of a Calvinist reformer…

Heffner: And what will your former colleagues at Ogilvy Mather do when they see and hear what you have to say about this matter?

Ogilvy: Kill me, again.

Heffner: You know, I’m interested in what you say about today…you’re absent from this country by and large, and you come back…

Ogilvy: Yeah.

Heffner: …and you’re appalled by the prevalence, not of witches, but of advertising. I remember in the early 1940s, that when I was a young man we talked then about the impact of television. We talked then before television about the domination of our thinking by the, by the ad man, in the, in the mid-40s, after the war. “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” — it wasn’t yet really television time – was a bad word, a bad phrase.

Ogilvy: We’re much more respectable than we were in those days. You know “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” doesn’t exist any longer. It’s a more honest, more serious business, and there are more brainy people in it, more responsible people, more accountable people. It’s not such a shoddy thing to do, and we aren’t Peck’s Bad Boys any longer. You know when I first came to the United States a hundred years ago, Wall Street — that was the bad street. Then that went out of fashion as a whipping boy and become Madison Avenue. I think that’s going out…I wonder what street will be…I don’t think we’re quite as unpopular as we used to be, and I don’t care one way or the other.

Heffner: You say “one way or the other”…

Ogilvy: Yeah.

Heffner: …and yet when you come back here…

Ogilvy: …and if we’re popular or unpopular…I don’t particularly care how my profession…how my trade is regarded by the public at large.

Heffner: Aren’t you concerned, though, about the validity to what the public’s attitude might be?

Ogilvy: Toward those in general?

Heffner: Yeah.

Ogilvy: Well, you know, the, the general public, 99% of consumers don’t sit around and discuss whether advertising is having a baleful impact effect on the body-economic. They couldn’t care less. They don’t think in those terms. And this discussion, this…whether advertising is an economic waste, or whether it’s socially undesirable, this is confined to a…and always has been…to a pretty tiny minority of high-brows.

Heffner: Alright, now let me ask you the question as to whether…within that circle of high-brows you agree or disagree about the baleful impact effect of advertising on creating demand.

Ogilvy: No, I’m all for creating demand. When I was a little boy people stank. And then somebody invented deodorants and some advertising people got together, and persuaded people to use them. It created a demand. I don’t know what’s wrong with that. I think that’s a good thing. And, I don’t mind creating demand. I mean Burns, who is really the founder of the Labor Party in England, said about 80 years ago…”The tragedy of the working class is the poverty of their desires”. I don’t mind creating demand…I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Heffner: Creating “demand” – aren’t you really talking about recognizing “need”, rather than creating “demand”?

Ogilvy: Yes, I think so. I don’t think you can create demand…

Heffner: But doesn’t advertising go further…which would be my point…further than recognizing need, doesn’t it, indeed, create demand? I mean they’re two different things…

Ogilvy: See, I’m not…when I’m writing advertisement, I’m generally not creating demands for glasses of water, I’m trying to persuade people to buy Brand A-X of this kind of water. I’m not busy trying to create a demand for things. And…whether the high-brows say that advertising makes people want things they don’t need…

Heffner: And you don’t believe that?

Ogilvy: …besides what people need or not… I claim the privilege, the prerogative of deciding whether I “need” a deodorant or glass of beer, of motor car, and I don’t want some bloody prophet at Harvard to tell me that I don’t need that. And I’d be much better living in the woods with a simple life. It’s a very aristocratic point of view. You don’t need…people don’t need these things…that we…wicked ad men are making them want. It’s ridiculous.

Heffner: “Aristocratic point of view”…what do you mean?

Ogilvy: Well, I am an upper class, I’ve got a big income, I’m a professor of Economics at Harvard…my name is Galbraith, or whatever it happens to be, and I think you, David Ogilvy, are very wicked to persuade those unemployed coal miners in some town in Pennsylvania that they need deodorants, because they don’t really need them. He’s got them in his bathroom cabinet. What right has he to say…it’s an aristocratic point of view. The lower classes, the working classes don’t need these things at all.

Heffner: Question, aristocratic or otherwise…is it right or wrong? Is there a point that Galbraith is making that you could agree with?

Ogilvy: I don’t deal in rights and wrongs. I’m not a philosopher and I don’t know what the Hell is right or wrong.

Heffner: Oh, come on, Mr. Ogilvy, as I read “Confessions of an Advertising Man” and “Blood, Brains and Beer”, I’m reading a philosopher, someone who has ideas, intellectualizes about them…

Ogilvy: But I don’t know about whether it’s right or wrong. I don’t see anything wrong with it. You know people are such solemn asses that…who is it…Toynbee…the Englishman…Toynbee once said “The whole future of our civilization depends on the issue with Madison Avenue”, or something like that. “The whole future”…not the nuclear holocaust, the population explosion, or dis-edification, turning one…but “our struggle with Madison Avenue”. Really pompous, isn’t it?

Heffner: And yet, you come back from your off-shore, or on-shore because we’re talking about the continent now, your, your home in France, and you’re appalled by what you see.

Ogilvy: “Appalled” is an exaggeration. I don’t…I take a lofty point of view and say, “This is a very bad thing for…”. I’m just bored to death by it, and, and I think it’s too much. But I don’t…I don’t think it’s very important.

Heffner: Then why do you say…why do you say at the very end of your book, “Advertising should not be abolished, but it must be reformed.”? What do you mean?

Ogilvy: Well, there are certain specific reforms…and I’ll read off some that I would like to see. I would like to see the amount of time devoted to advertising on television and radio, particularly radio, reduced. I think it’s too much.

Heffner: Not in print?

Ogilvy: No, it doesn’t matter, as long as you’re strong enough to lift the newspaper on Sunday. I’d like to see the amount of commercials reduced. Secondly, I would like to see billboards, posters abolished. What else do I think? Those are two of my hobby-horses.

Heffner: If we were to take the, the gross amounts that go into advertising…

Ogilvy: And they’re very gross.

Heffner: …by how much would they be diminished if your…if these reforms were to take place?

Ogilvy: Not much. In the United States today about $50 billion dollars is spent every year on advertising, of which less than 2% is on billboards.

Heffner: Television?

Ogilvy: It there was less advertising on television, I suppose the rates would go up. But the big issue for television is not how much commercials really…the question is whether there are going to be any commercials, because now some people are getting into the habit of paying to see programs without commercials.

Heffner: Do you…

Ogilvy: This is an open question.

Heffner: …do you think that we will have commercial-less broadcasting?

Ogilvy: I, I don’t know. I’m not a futurist. I don’t predict. I don’t know. But it seems to me open to question. Well, I know a lot of other people who think so, too. And an interesting thing has happened in advertising since television became all the rage for advertising: The number of people who can make good advertisements in newspapers and magazines is disappearing. Everybody in my trade wants to dot the TV commercials. That’s the exciting, glamorous thing. And they’re forgetting how to make good advertisements for newspapers and magazines. I’m not a philosopher, I’m an advertising technician, that’s all I am. And I’m on very shaky, uncertain ground, if I’m discussing the rights…moral rights and wrongs of these things, the ethics of it. If they’re discussing the specific techniques of advertising, I’m on much surer ground. I’ve never really had time for the philosophy of it, the ethics of it, or interest in it, or indeed the brain for it because I’m an uneducated man.

Heffner: You say “Not the time for the ethics of it”. What are the ethical considerations, though?

Ogilvy: Well, such as we’ve been discussing here…the ethics of whether we’re trying to…whether we’re creating demands for products which people don’t need, and, and so forth.

Heffner: You think we are better off for having such a huge advertising establishment?

Ogilvy: What do you mean by “establishment”? Lot of people?

Heffner: A lot of people, a lot of advertising.

Ogilvy: No, I don’t think so…I think it’s too big, it’s swollen, it’s grotesque.

Heffner: Well, I really…I really didn’t mean that. I meant that taking the, taking the Roosevelt quote…

Ogilvy: Yeah.

Heffner: …or the Churchill notion…

Ogilvy: Which I agree with them…I agree with them. I think that on the whole advertising has helped create a demand by poor, un…underprivileged people for a better life, and I think it’s helped to get them a better life, and I’m all for that. Because it’s pretty cruel if you have a city where everybody’s unemployed, where there’s a hell of an unemployment rate, and they’re watching TV commercials every night showing them glorious, wonderful things which they can’t possibly afford. I suppose it makes them more miserable than they would otherwise be. But again I say that the tragedy of the…what we used to call in England when I as a boy…the working class…the tragedy of the working class ahs been the poverty of their desires.

Heffner: So that it is not cruel.

Ogilvy: No, I don’t think so. Well, I think it is…I think it’s cruel in certain…when things are totally beyond people…in India, for example, and Indonesia where the poverty is just awful, and, and beyond belief, and then we’re putting commercials on the air now which must be pretty cruel, I think. I’ve never been in India. I’m going in September…I shall see.

Heffner: You talk about cruelty. You say you’re not a philosopher. You say you’re a technician…

Ogilvy: It’s all there.

Heffner: How, how adequate are the techniques that have been developed?
Are they foolproof…when you say you are a technician…are you satisfied that you are able to identify those techniques that can move products, can move people to buy products?

Ogilvy: Not entirely, but this happens to be my special subject. This is what I do. And more than anybody else, I think. And I’ve been trying for some years now to build a corpus of knowledge as to what works in advertising and what doesn’t work. And I think I’ve…I know more about that than anybody else, and of course, we, we still make mistakes, but we don’t make as may mistakes as we used to make before we did this. I’ll give you one example…

Heffner: Please.

Ogilvy: …in advertising on TV…sometimes you people have celebrities giving commercials. Is that a good thing, or bad thing?

Heffner: I have to ask you.

Ogilvy: Well, I…depends what you want. When we average the research costs of all celebrity commercials, we find that celebrity commercials are far above average in being remembered, and being recalled. But they’re far below average in persuading people to buy the product. The celebrity commercials sell us celebrities, but not the product. I never used them. Some of my partners do, but I wouldn’t. That sort of thing. And I can give you one other simple example. People sometimes set type…white on a black background, you know, we call it reverse plate. That’s done a lot in advertising. It is physically impossible to read it…it’s a mistake to make…any magazine you go through you find 20 or 30 advertisements where the type is set white on black. It’s impossible to read…even if you want to. It’s been done wrong…common mistake. And I’ve got hundreds of things like that.

Heffner: Do you feel that your profession itself is sufficiently involved in what can be known about the proper way…

Ogilvy: Indeed, indeed, it is not. Most of the people in the advertising business don’t know anything about it, and aren’t interested in it. And I had the extraordinary good fortune, when I first came to this country, to get a job with Walter Gallup at Princeton, and he got me interested in this…he was then the Research Director of Young & Rubican, and it’s been an obsession ever since. And I’ve written as much advertisement as almost any man alive…I’ve done an incredible number of advertising campaigns…and I’ve always been guided by this research, and it’s been extremely helpful to me.

Heffner: You, you quote in the book…one of the books…that old business about probably only half of advertising is effective. The question is which half?

Ogilvy: I know.

Heffner: How do you, how do you make your judgment there? And why, why would…do you say…why can you say that so many of your colleagues in the advertising profession are not sufficiently concerned with the research?

Ogilvy: Well, because they believe in Divine Inspiration, and that person…infallibility, and they don’t have a sort of scientific, pragmatic view of life in general, and because they’ve been to school, and some…many of them college and been bored to tears by all forms of education, and decided to eschew everything which remotely smacks of reading a book or reading a research report. They prefer to rely on their own intuition. I always pity their clients.

Heffner: Would you say that the most successful advertisers have not been “seat of the pants” men, but…

Ogilvy: Of course…

Heffner: …research men.

Ogilvy: Of course they have. And today the most successful advertising companies, like Procter and Gamble are not “seat of the pants” people, they’re…they’re pretty serious about it. But most advertising all over today is guess work, even here in these United States. And bad guessing.

Heffner: Why do you say…what do you mean “bad guessing”?

Ogilvy: I live in France, and there’s no research there in advertising. The advertising people do anything that appeals to them, and I watch it on my television at home. And their commercials would enchant you. They’re witty, they’re low pressure, they’re charming, and I watch them and I purr…and then I watch them and say to myself “I wonder if my cook understood that commercial. I bet she didn’t. It would be way over her head”. In the United States those commercials have to be researched, and you…they’re not so charming to people as well educated as you are, even as well educated as I am, they’re not so charming. They don’t have so much wit, but they hit more people that we want to hit…they’re understood by more people because they’re researched.

Heffner: But then that seems to be an indication that your colleagues though…

Ogilvy: Oh, they’re not as bad as I, as I made out…and some of them are pretty hot stuff and that. But I’m evangelical about this, and I seize the scourge from the hand of God at the slightest provocation to beat them up.

Heffner: we just have a couple of minutes left, and I, I’d just like to come back to what I gather is the fact that you don’t feel that persuading a mass of people has anything particularly immoral to it, per se.

Ogilvy: No, I don’t think it has any immoral…anything immoral to it whatever provided you do it honestly and decently without offending anybody’s susceptibilities, including religious susceptibilities.

Heffner: What about openly? What about convincing them, persuading them in a way that they know exactly what you’re doing, what you’re appealing to?

Ogilvy: It’s the only way I know how to do it…openly…I do it always with facts, and then that’s all, on the assumption that people…the consumer’s not a moron, you know…she’s your wife, and you must try not to insult her intelligence.

Heffner: And the advertising community, in general, does it use that approach, or…

Ogilvy: Turn the “telly” on and watch, and you tell me.

Heffner: Then again, then again the question is “why”, why are you…

Ogilvy: Stupidity, stupidity. I’m almost as stupid as any man alive, but I’m not so dumb as…

Heffner: You mean what they do doesn’t work?

Ogilvy: Most of the time it doesn’t work, but they never get found out. If we know what works in advertising…the people with coupons in their ads, you see, and every month they can count the coupons…they’ve either got your list, or they haven’t got your list. And they know what works. And what they do in their advertising is very different from what ordinary advertisers do…they follow up their commercials and their ads and here and they can’t see the target. They never know what the sales are. Sales go up; it may be the advertising, it may be a lot of other things. Awful lot of guesswork, even in these United States where most of the research is concentrated.

Heffner: You know, I’m, I’m fascinated by that subject and the question of research and what it is we can know about human motivation. It should form the basis for another program. Right now I want to thank you for joining me today, David Ogilvy. Thanks so much for joining me on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.