John O'Toole

An Adman Looks at Advertising

VTR Date: August 16, 1984

Guest: O'Toole, John


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John O’Toole
Title: “An Adman Looks at Advertising”
VTR: 8/16/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I did a program the other week with two national figures in the advertising industry. Our subject: politics in advertising. And I asked whether the ethical downside of that combination came essentially because the ethics of American politics are sinking into advertising, or because the ethics of American advertising are sinking into politics. Well, the discussion that followed was so interesting to me that I wanted to move on immediately to a more general discussion of advertising itself. Jack Elliot, of Ogilvie & Nader is abroad on this taping date, but with me again is John E. O’Toole, Chairman of Fritz, Cohn and Belding Communications, and the present Chairman of The American Association of Advertising Agencies.

I do welcome you back. Thanks for joining me again, Mr. O’Toole.

O’TOOLE: A pleasure to be back.

HEFFNER: You know, in preparation, partial preparation for our last program, I read your book, The Trouble with Advertising, and reread it last night on the plane in preparation for this program. And it’s a brilliant book. It’s written so beautifully, and it does start off with, I’m sure, what you’ve heard so often: “The trouble with advertising…”, and I wondered whether you wanted to sum up why in this day and age we so often hear, “The trouble with advertising…”dot, dot, dot.

O’TOOLE: Well, of course, that refers to comments that I receive when I’m at a party and people suddenly find out what I do for a living, and they say, “The trouble with advertising…”dot, dot, dot. And what follows is either the sort of argument that hey have gotten or picked up from, sometimes the press, academicians, consumers, the kind of argument that is not always easy to refute, that advertising makes people buy things they don’t want, which is not true; that advertising increases the costs of products, which is not true; or it is something that is a little more difficult to cope with, and it has to do with those aspects of the trouble with advertising that are our own doing. The fact that almost two-thirds of the American public, when polled of advertising in general, but television advertising specifically, will say that it insults their intelligence. Now, we can’t blame that on academicians and consumers. We have to take the responsibility ourselves. If advertising is, as they also say, boring, childish – and those are the words of the respondents – then we are doing something wrong, and we must acknowledge that and make advertising better for two reasons. One, I think it’s our social responsibility. But more importantly, advertising that people like must be more effective than advertising that insults their intelligence. I just have to believe that.

HEFFNER: Where is it written though, where is it written that you should, must, can make this turnabout?

O’TOOLE: Well, as I say, I think if we are going to maintain the effectiveness of advertising, which is essential to my making a living and those people whose livings depends on me and our agency, then I believe it is written that you must pay attention to the expressed opinions of your prospects. Advertising, in my view, is nothing more than a personal sales call multiplied by the effects of the mass communications media. If that is true then the message must exhibit the same kind of good manners and good taste and respect for the intelligence of the prospect as a personal salesman would were he making that call.

HEFFNER: Yes but you say, “It’s nothing more than the personal call of the salesman multiplied by the media at our disposal”. But that’s quite an addition. The personal call of the salesman, I would think, can be modified by what you teach the salesman, and what you, as a salesman, do. Don’t you have some feeling that perhaps there is an inner dynamic to the masses of the media that has taken us down the path we’ve come?

O’TOOLE: No, not in terms of advertising. I really believe that the essence does not change, the essence of the message. The form of it changes because of the vast multiplication of prospects brought about or made possible by the mass communications media. One insidious factor, whoever, is the fact that, while I don’t believe salesmanship changes its nature when it turns the corner from being a personal sales call to an advertising message, I think that the medium does, and particularly the medium of television. I believe that television programming becomes quite a different thing simply because the way it grew up in the United States, really essentially three networks and then all others being independents, public broadcast and everything else. But those three networks quickly began vying with one another with the identical programming for the biggest share of the total audience rather than trying to carve out a unique position for themselves as magazines do in terms of special interests or as newspapers do in terms of geography. So what has come about is an appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to get the biggest volume of viewers at every half-hour of prime time. And this creates an environment that I think many advertising people unwittingly step into when they say, you know, “If it’s that kind of program, if “The Love Boat” really represents why people are tuning in to this, why don’t I reduce the intelligence level of the prospect that I am addressing to what I perceive to be the intelligence level of the program?

HEFFNER: Well, we don’t need to quote H. L. Mankin’s business about “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people”. And I think that in our major decisions, when we’ve really been put to the test, we’ve disproved that notion. But when we’re really not pressed to the wall, the people who have created this medium, the aspects of the medium or the aspects of advertising that you just don’t like, they’re not dummies. They do know what they’re about And I guess the question that I ask you is whether what they’re about doesn’t come naturally from the very phenomenon of mass media.

O’TOOLE: No. I think it comes from their interpretation of it. And they aren’t dummies. Given the fact that it is economically unfeasible to create any more competition, a fourth network, for example, and the demand continues to increase for commercial time on networks as new industries come into advertising, new industries whose needs are uniquely satisfied by the massism of network television advertising and the immediacy of it, the ability to create and effect overnight new businesses like the restaurant or fast-food franchises, new businesses such as office equipment, creating this great, great demand and meanwhile there are still only three networks and only 24 hours a day. Without that false marketplace, I think another kind of competition would have ensued. The kind, as I say, you have on a magazine, you have to identify a certain kind of reader and provide that reader with something specifically attuned to his or her interests. The network doesn’t have to do that. There are just three of them, and many cities and many towns in the United States. That’s your choice. Three networks where at any given hour during prime time are airing the same thing.

HEFFNER: Okay. Here we are, where we are, the middle of the 1980s. Now, what do you suspect can happen that will change that?

O’TOOLE: We already see it happening. Every community which becomes wired for cable then exhibits a lower share of the total viewing time for the network stations. I have nothing against the network stations. I just would like to see things in perspective. I would like to see programming that is directed to the special interests of a number of groups and not just the mass, within the mass of people who have concepts, who are fascinated, perhaps, with drama, and there will be drama cable stations for them. There are people who are uniquely interested in the news. Or at least at some certain parts of the day that don’t necessarily correspond with the time of day that the networks put on the news and decide, “I’d like to see what’s going on in the world”. They can tune into the news channel. Health channels, channels for ethnic groups, channels for older people. All of those specifics are being satisfied by cable, while the networks are going after the mass audience. I think that’s very healthy, to see that kind of competition take place. And it’s growing.

HEFFNER: Okay. But when that happens, as that happens, because you say it is happening and it’s growing, let’s make that concession. Why will advertising on what remains of the mass market, why will it change its spots and become more of what you would like to see it be? Why won’t it remain what it has become because it will still be aimed at the largest possible audience at every single moment?

O’TOOLE: I suspect that it will remain pretty much the same on the networks. I think the networks will increasingly, as we go from where we are now, 42 percent of the nations’ households wired for cable, 50 percent, then it will be perhaps two-thirds, the network share will diminish. There will be a smaller percentage of the total audience watching the networks’ programming. And that is the kind of programming that will continue to interest those people who continue to watch it. And maybe that’s the kind of advertising that you will present to them. However, I can explain it on that basis but I still believe that if I am competing in what remains of the networks’ share of that audience with a competitor, and advertising competitor who is putting his message in the form of the old traditional slice of life, “Hi, Madge, Hi, Marge. Have you tried new…” you know that sort of thing, that that’s what people say insults their intelligence. If I’m the competitor, I’m going to want to do something that engages that individual in a unique way. Not a boring way, as that is, a way that really reflects the reality of this product in terms of that person’s life, and in the context of an idea that is fresh and illuminates the proposition with new meaning, rather than the tired old stereotype. I can spend less money to get the same result with that prospect when I’m in competition with somebody who is giving them the tired old formats. I believe it.

HEFFNER: Okay, but the tired old formats, you’re suggesting, will still have their place, and they’ll have their place in, I guess, what looks most like majority programming. Is that fair?

O’TOOLE: I’m not so sure I believe that they will have their place. I’d say people will be using them. People who are still not convinced, as many of us are, that the consumers’ intelligence is not to be underestimated, that the consumer is saying, is not merely expressing vague irritation when they say in these polls, “You are insulting my intelligence”. They’re getting close to the point where they might start rejecting the product’s message because we’re doing it.

HEFFNER: Yes, but when you talk about a growing diminution, if that’s the right combination of words, of network audiences, that hasn’t happened as dramatically now as some people were prophesying, if I understand correctly.

O’TOOLE: No, and I carefully said there’s a smaller percentage of the total audience watching when cable enters. The fact of the matter is cable enters and the total audience grows. The finite number of people watching the network stations decreases slightly. What happens is more people are watching more television as the result of cable.

HEFFNER: So there isn’t an enormous push in the direction then, or there isn’t enormous motivation for your colleagues in the advertising world to move in the direction that you’d like to see them move in?

O’TOOLE: Strangely enough, there is, and it comes from another area. Well, it really comes as a response to the growing number of people who say, “Television advertising insults my intelligence”, in these polls. And it is growing. We’ve practiced every year now since, I believe, 1965. And, horrifyingly enough, the figure keeps growing. One estimate now, or one, the last poll I saw asking that question, is up to 70 percent. In our industry association, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, we have a special committee now, a committee of the board, to address this issue of, we call it the image of advertising. And one of the three areas in which it’s expending most of its time and dollars is the recognition of this kind of advertising, particularly on television that elicits that response, and an attempt to research, which should have been done a long time ago but is just being mounted now, an attempt to show the relationship between the liking of a message, the positive response to the message itself, and the success of that product in the marketplace.

HEFFNER: Now, I have to ask you a question though about that. Talk about the level of dissatisfaction…“This is insulting my intelligence”. What about the level of effectiveness?

O’TOOLE: Sometimes it’s effective, sometimes it isn’t. The trouble is we have never tracked it sufficiently to know. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with this research project that the image committee of the AAAA is mounting. Track the effectiveness. We have seen time and time again, I guess the commercial that keeps coming up over a period of 15 years as the one that irritates people most was “Ring around the collar”, that famous “Wisk” commercial.

HEFFNER: The one that worked.

O’TOOLE: Worked beautifully. And the client was reluctant to give that up, even in the face of a different interpretation of the role of women in our society. However, other arguments can counter that one of the success of the campaign. The product was successful. It was, I believe, the only liquid detergent of its kind to be introduced at that time.

HEFFNER: Don’t you believe in success?

O’TOOLE: I certainly do.

HEFFNER: So what are the complaints?

O’TOOLE: I wouldn’t be in this great business if I didn’t believe that more success were possible through the better use of our skills.

HEFFNER: That, you know, once you say that there’s very little that I can say.

O’TOOLE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: You’re saying, however accomplished, or however much this level of advertising has accomplished, you really believe you can accomplish more for your clients by doing things that you’d be more proud of.

O’TOOLE: I am totally convinced of it. Not necessarily that we would be more proud of; that the consumer would welcome and want to see again. Look, it just stands to reason; frequency of message is a tenet of advertising. You don’t run a commercial once. There are ways of computing how many times an individual who is a legitimate prospect for the product has to see that message in order to be convinced to try it or to open his or her mind. What kind of frequency are you going to get with a commercial that elicits that response, “That insults my intelligence”? I mean, they’re not going to want to see it again. “That’s ugly, that’s dumb, that’s stupid”. The next time they can identify in the first few seconds that commercial coming on the air, I believe, they’re going to turn off an ear or an eye or something. And I may be wrong. But enough evidence in 30 years of practicing this trade that advertising that people like is more effective in the same marketplace, more effective than advertising that they don’t like, or can produce similar results with the expenditure of fewer media dollars.

HEFFNER: But then I have to go back to the Heffner theory, the Heffner dummy theory. These fellows aren’t dummies. They know what they’re doing. They’re fellows who have antagonized audiences. If I remember correctly, the matter of “Just as long as they spell my name right”, or “Just as long as they buy my product”, has always been a key password for those who appeal to the public. They couldn’t have done so badly with this technique. And you’re not really positive, because you don’t have the evidence that proves they would have done better, do you?

O’TOOLE: I’m posi8tive, but I don’t have the evidence. I’m sufficiently positive that I want to…

HEFFNER: What makes you positive?

O’TOOLE: Because in my experience, fortunately, I have never been required to do that kind of advertising that I believe people are describing as insulting to their intelligence. I’ve led a charmed life. And yet there has been sufficient success attached to the campaigns I have done for my clients, or that I’ve supervised for them, or that I have been involved with in one way or another that I am convinced that advertising that is characterized by an idea, that makes people participate, that makes it unique, that makes them respond with a sort of “Ah ha!” is more effective. It corresponds with my experience. Now I have to prove it statistically to a few others, a few holdouts.

HEFFNER: You can make the guess that, since I’ve been doing this program since, oh, 28 years ago, I want to believe what you’re saying. I want it to be true. And I have to question whether you’re not talking about a certain kind of product perhaps, a certain item that you advertise in that way, the way you choose more effectively than those who advertise in the way you would prefer that they didn’t? And I wonder whether you haven’t been so graced in life by having that kind of client and those kinds of products?

O’TOOLE: We have a way of determining what the attitudes are of a consumer and the purchase decision for 200 categories of product. And there are some that cluster down in the low-involvement, kind of rational, but very low-involvement category. All household cleaning products. All paper goods. All insecticides. We introduced an insecticide in 1955, I believe. Within six moths of it going national it was in first place. It’s been at first place ever since. It has spun off a whole line of products which are among the most profitable lies that S. C. Johnson produces. And that same concept, that same advertising idea has now been extended for that product in at least 15 countries around the world. It is “Raid”. Little animated bugs that people just love to identify with and have great fun with, and “Raid” comes out and destroys them. Now, people respond very positively to that advertising. The competitor when we launched it was a product that showed dead bugs, and was very hard sell, and shouting at people and forcing them to, trying to get them involved in something they aren’t normally involved in. “Raid” commercials involved them in an emotional and pleasant way. And the sales results are exceptional.

HEFFNER: Let me turn to another subject. Let me turn to the question of the subliminal qualities of advertising that some people are so critical of. When you say in your book here, now, let’s see, on page 21 of The Trouble with Advertising, “I don’t like to destroy cherished illusions, but I must state unequivocally that there is no such thing as subliminal advertising”. Doesn’t the advertising man nevertheless deal with the unconscious?

O’TOOLE: No. I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between nonverbal communication and subliminal advertising or subliminal communication.

HEFFNER: What is the distinction?

O’TOOLE: Subliminal communication is supposed to be…and I say subliminal advertising doesn’t exist. I know of no examples of it. Subliminal communication has been identified in laboratory situations, and what that is is communicating a specific message that elicits a response on a level that is so far below the threshold of consciousness that the individual, the recipient, isn’t even conscious, isn’t even aware of receiving it. I do not believe this can happen in advertising. I don‘t believe that you can get somebody to part with their hard-earned money on the basis of some flash that goes by on a less-than-conscious level.

HEFFNER: You don’t believe it?


HEFFNER: Once again, based on research and…

O’TOOLE: This time, based upon discussions with a number of colleagues and responses to that book which was read, thank heavens, by many of my colleagues. And they all say, “Yes, you’re right. We have never in all our years of advertising heard anybody say, ‘Hey, let’s do a subliminal commercial’”.

HEFFNER: Okay, you don’t say that. No one says that then. Do you deal at a lower-than-rational level?

O’TOOLE: See, I don’t believe that nonverbal communication is irrational. I don’t believe that it is insidious at all. If we put a music track…

HEFFNER: You say it’s college professors who feel that way, people who deal with writing words.

O’TOOLE: I think they look at it in verbal terms and say, “If you don’t explicitly say in words what the promise of this product is, than that’s subliminal”. I think they’re misusing the term, and I think it’s a serious misuse. If, however, we are selling, for example, a greeting card, I mean, it’s very difficult to find a rational reason for somebody to choose one greeting card brand over another. But there is a reputation and an association with Hallmark, for example, that can be communicated through music, through the look that one person gives another, through the colors, and through a number of things that go far beyond the…Many of our Hallmark commercials don’t have any words until the very end when they say, “when you care enough to send the very best”.

HEFFNER: Of course, when, in the Johnson/Goldwater campaign when that little girl picking daisies commercial came on, you were totally upset about that. It didn’t say anything about Goldwater really. It did communicate on a something less than fully rational level. And you were disturbed by it.

O’TOOLE: Something less than a verbal level.


O’TOOLE: And that is what enraged me. What they were communicating is quite clear. And if I had to put it into verbal communication, you know what it would be: “Don’t vote for Goldwater. He’s got his finger on that button, and he’s going to destroy your children the moment he gets elected to office”. The fact that it wasn’t expressed verbally, I think, made it a little more acceptable to a lot of people who were willing to go along with that message. But still, it was pulled off the air.

HEFFNER: So, it was simply the message, not the technique that bothered you. And the technique, the nonverbal technique, doesn’t bother you at all?

O’TOOLE: No. Well, sure it bothers me if it is communicating false information, as that was.

HEFFNER: Right. No. I understand that.

O’TOOLE: And I don’t think that we can excuse false and misleading advertising on the basis that the false and misleading claim was made graphically rather than verbally. And I don’t think anyone would try.

HEFFNER: You are the head of the AAAA now. A decade from now, as you look back, what do you really think? And you’ve told me what you hope, what your wishes are, what your fondest wishes are. What do you think we’ll see in the world of salesmanship by something other than the direct visit on the part of the salesman?

O’TOOLE: Well, I think we are going to see far more of the kind of communication we were just talking bout that is nonverbal.

HEFFNER: The good or the bad part?

O’TOOLE: We’ll probably see both, but I think we’re going to see much more good. There are two reasons that I say that. One is I know there’s going to be more nonverbal communication because the strongest trend in advertising right now is multinationalism. One of the few products exported by the United States that is gaining world share of market is advertising. We are still the acknowledged leaders, although there are others making inroads in global advertising. To avoid language difficulties, to avoid difficulties in communicating across cultures, emotional advertising, nonverbal communication with music and symbols, becomes far more useful, more expedient, more effective. I think that’s the kind of advertising that is also more pleasing to people, rather than the shouted verbal claim, the verbal excesses of many American commercials. And I think that advertising is going to be better received abroad, and, therefore, since we’re going to be running global campaigns, in this country.

HEFFNER: You blow a whistle, you and your colleagues, when you say “Advertising that you think is inappropriate”. It’s going to be a lot more difficult, isn’t it, to blow a whistle on an innuendo in an advertisement?

O’TOOLE: When it’s nonverbal?


O’TOOLE: Yes, it is more difficult, but it is being done right now in our self-regulatory mechanism, the National Advertising Review Board. Those are called in even for graphic excesses.

HEFFNER: You know, we’re going to have to do another program, because our time is up.

O’TOOLE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: thank you so much for joining me today, Mr. O’Toole.

O’TOOLE: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And I’m going to read The Trouble with Advertising once again.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I do hope you will join us here again next time on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We’d like to know your ideas and your opinions on the subject we’ve just discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of THE OPEN MIND at this station.