Martin Mayer, David Ogilvy, Gilbert Seldes

Madison Avenue–A Critique

VTR Date: March 9, 1958


Sunday, March 9, 1958

Moderator: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Martin Mayer, Gilbert Seldes and David Ogilvy

Announcer: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today, “Madison Avenue – A Critique.” Your host on the Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, author, lecturer at the New School for Social Research.

Mr. Heffner: Our subject today I think is quite appropriate, particularly in terms of the recent publicity that has been given to various attacks upon the institution of advertising on Madison Avenue.
One magazine, Broadcasting Magazine, has pointed out that the myth that all add agencies are located on Madison Avenue are not quite true. It pointed out that of the fifty major agencies only fourteen are on Madison Avenue, and yet the term has its very real meaning. The attacks upon Madison Avenue have been pointed out particularly well recently in a recent edition of Variety magazine in which George Rosen has a front page article entitled: “It’s Now Madison Avenue.” He says that the Madison Avenue agency boys are up in arms claiming that advertising has practically become a dirty word in the word of the United States populace. Well, I think that to a certain extent that description by Mr. Rosen is true. As a matter of fact, it would seem that while we Americans always have to have villains somewhere in the piece – in the 20’s Main Street was the villain and Babbit; in the 30’s Wall Street and the very very rich; and today, Madison Avenue and the people whom Tide Magazine calls the Svengalis of the supermarket.
I think the men who are here with me today are quite adept at discussing Madison Avenue and I think that they are not only going to dismiss the irate and meaningless criticism of Madison Avenue but examine what can be legitimately considered appropriate criticism. Now let me introduce my guests.
The first one is Mr. David Ogilvy, who is the President of Ogilvy, Berson, and Mather, a majority ad agency in this city.
My second guest is Mr. Martin Mayer, Author of the new book, “Madison Avenue, USA.”
And my third guest is Mr. Gilbert Seldes, Television Critic of the Saturday Review, and author of, “The Seven Lively Arts,” and currently the author of a series on advertising in Tide Magazine.
Mr. Seldes, you in Tide Magazine are criticizing the critics as well as advertising. And I wondered if I could not address the first question to you, which is why can George Rosen write about, “It’s now Madison Avenue”? Why has advertising now become more or less of a dirty word?

Mr. Seldes: Well, I think if it has it is a singular tribute to the power of the intellectuals. I do not believe it is true. I believe that the dirty word effect abut advertising and Madison Avenue is limited to a small number of people. I do not think they are so effective. I think the average person thinks that advertising is just great. He reads it without thinking about it at all. Now I can tell you, I can take a guess as to why advertising is considered below standard by the intellectuals. I would make a guess because it is psychological. I think that advertising is not addressed, with very few exceptions, to the intellectuals. The intellectual feels out of it and he resents it and he then makes advertising a sort of scapegoat for a great many other things. The intellectual is by nature critical. He does not accept the present status of anything. It is his business to undermine, and as advertising does build up the present very much—it would be new products, it would be the same social system, et cetera – the intellectual says, “Foo” on this. This has not got the equality. This has not got the intellectual stamina that a play by Arthur Miller has. And I think coming from that, the reason intellectuals have despised advertising and spread this gospel is that they do not recognize it as a great form of education; and as I treat myself, I am only interested in it as an art, as something that entertains and amuses me, and sometimes as the phrase goes, sells me.

Mr. Heffner: You mean you are not criticizing it from a moral point of view, are you amoral in this?

Mr. Seldes: In this series in Tide Magazine I am entirely esthetic, I am art for art’s sake. The advertiser is art for sales’ sake, but I have put aside my moral feelings.

Mr. Heffner: You mean your criticism in Tide is on an esthetic level?

Mr. Seldes: Yes, is this intelligent, is this effective? Is it in a sense pleasant? Does it make monkeys of us? That may be a slightly moral attitude, but that is about all.

Mr. Heffner: Well, let me ask Mr. Mayer whether he thinks that the criticism that is usually leveled against advertising is on an esthetic plane or whether it is moral, the advertisers are subverting our standards, they are doing things to us that we don’t want done to us, et cetera?

Mr. Mayer: I think it is on both. I think that the esthetic plane is very common and is what is most offensive to the people who do the criticizing. On the other end of it I think advertising is a scapegoat and almost pure and simple. People do things that the intellectual does not like every day; he has to find a reason for it. Advertising is a very convenient, very easy reason, and one that seems to work. I think it was John Dollard of Yale who said a little while ago that if only advertising was as effective as all of its critics say it is the advertiser would be so delighted with the results of his work. I think it is as good a scapegoat as any other. I do not think that it has terribly much relevance to the phenomena which are being criticized by the intellectual critics. I think advertising fits itself into the culture, tries to tag on to whatever tendencies are currently visible in the culture, and to make use of them. I do not think it is in any way a creator of cultural tendencies.

Mr. Heffner: Doesn’t it try to create desire for products?

Mr. Mayer: Sure, but what it tries to do is to tag on to those desires which appear to be there. The advertising man going out – well, during the 1920’s when they were selling dry cereals at a great rate what they did was to tie in to the health fad. That was also true when they were first selling orange juice back in I guess it was the 101 There is always an effort to tie a given product into what seems to be exorcising the populace at this particular moment. It is so costly and probably so impossible to get the public exorcised by means of advertising without something there already that I do not think advertisers attempt it.

Mr. Heffner: Yes, but don’t you think that Mr. Ogilvy, for instance, has created demand with some of his more status advertisements in ”which one gets the feeling of being raised to a certain level by participating in the product he advertises? How do you feel about this, Mr. Ogilvy? Is this an overstatement on my part?
Mr. Oglivy: I am completely out of my depth hearing you theoretical analysts discuss the thing that I do every day for a living. I really don’t know what you are talking about. Except perhaps in one or two ways. Most of our advertising, almost all of it is not addressed to you; it is addressed to women, housewives, and not to men. We do try not to insult their intelligence – I am afraid we do not always succeed. I have a motto which is this: “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.” And we must try not to insult her intelligence. But we do insult her intelligence; never on purpose.
As to whether advertising can create a demand for something where there is no demand I do not think so. I have never tried to do it. I have always tried to satisfy demands which already existed, to exploit them.

Mr. Seldes: Well, Mr. Ogilvy, you admit that there is occasionally a bit of an insult to the intelligence.

Mr. Ogilvy: Yours, yes.

Mr. Seldes: The ad which impressed me very much is for a hair spray, a thing I do not understand very well myself, but they go like that (indicating) and women’s hair stays. At the end of one — this is a television commercial — the announcer says no prescription needed. Now to my mind this is absolute silliness because the first thing that comes I would think to everybody’s mind is, “Well, gee of course not.” Now isn’t there a definite insult in the sense of saying we will get the boobs who think that this is somehow superior and yet you do not need a prescription for it? Aren’t you insulting people’s intelligence by doing that?

Mr. Ogilvy: Perhaps you are, but rather harmlessly. I once did it myself.

Mr. Seldes: Oh yes, I think harmlessly.

Mr. Mayer: It is perfectly harmless. Who cares really about that?

Mr. Seldes: Well then take it this way – I am sorry I have become a moralist.

Mr. Heffner: I gathered that.

Mr. Seldes: Is it harmless to engage people’s minds with something that doesn’t mean anything really and keeps their minds at that level as long as you can?

Mr. Ogilvy: l do not think you will ever succeed in doing that for very long, you know. I predict that that will n become a unique selling proposition for that particular hair spray. It seems to me a marginal postscript which they won’t make much of.

Mr. Heffner: Yes, but you begin by saying that you feel there is none, and then you say there is a little of this, and then I think Mr. Seldes asked the question whether there is a little or a lot. Whether there is not something essentially dishonest about this. And I would ask whether this is not one of the reasons why at least amongst the intellectuals — and you limit your estimate of where the criticism comes from.

Mr. Seldes: Just my folks, that’s all.

Mr. Heffner: All right. Whether that is not one of the reasons why there is some mud-slinging upon Madison Avenue.

Mr. Mayer: Yes, of course, and always. And it goes all the way back. It goes back to the very beginnings of advertising when advertising was much more untruthful than it is today. The advertiser is arguing a case. He is paying money to put that case before the public. He is not obliged to give the other side of the case. He is attempting to get people first interested in his product and then desirous of buying it. I think that is a very wholesome thing that we have laws against outright lies, but beyond outright lying when you get into shades of claims and shades of truth you get into the kind of minutiae which you can pick on any business. This one just happens to be the most visible. I would hate to get into an argument on the defining of truth just as I would be to begin to criticize advertising on the basis of is it effective from the point of view of my observation of an individual ad, because what makes an ad effective is terribly complicated and in many instances an undiscoverable item.
I am now going to take after you. In your first column in Tide Magazine you went after a phrase something like “Delivers less tar,” or something of that sort, and you felt that this must be a very silly ad and that the man who wrote it — I believe your phrase was either you don’t know how to communicate or he doesn’t. You should not put yourself in that position. This is a man who started this cigarette — I am saying that you should not give that particular either/or to people because this is the man who began with a virtually unknown product. He has now written all the ads for it for fourteen years. The budget has gone up from something like fifteen thousand to something like fifteen million dollars a year, and it is the second largest selling filter cigarette in the United States.

Mr. Heffner: Who is this?

Mr. Mayer: Ross Sarick, and I would perfectly agree with you that as a matter of the English language it is quite unfortunate, but as a matter of whether he is getting that particular message across to people–

Mr. Seldes: He is not necessarily getting it by this particular group of words. It is part of a big message.

Mr. Mayer: It is hard to say.

Mr. Heffner: Mr. Seldes, don’t you think you in a sense get yourself in a bad spot when you start off by saying you are just an esthetician and that you are not talking about the morality of it, you are talking about the art form? Because it seems to me you did come to the point here where you were talking about–

Mr. Seldes: Just a moment ago on this matter, in this matter my point was the man has a cigarette and he says it delivers less tar. Now deliver to me is a positive word. This boy can deliver. And you say delivers less tar and nicotine and at once the person thinks it must deliver some. If you said it stops more tar and nicotine than any 0ther cigarette you have a positive statement. I was just criticizing the phraseology. Can I put it to you, Mr. Ogilvy? Am I right?

Mr. Oglivy: I am not sure whether you are really criticizing the phraseology or questioning the integrity.

Mr. Seldes: No, no, no, purely the phraseology.

Mr. Oglivy: Well, I think you are wholly wrong. But I want to pursue you down the road of morality a minute. You know former Senator Benton has had three jobs in his life. He was in advertising on Madison Avenue, then he went to the academic cloister, to the University of Chicago, and then he went into the United States Senate. And he was asked few years ago in which of these walks of life he had observed the greatest morality of behavior, in politics, in advertising, or in the University, and he said that the standards of ethical morality were far higher on Madison Avenue than they were in politics or in the University.

Mr. Seldes: Does that account for the fact that Senator Benton is now announcing that he wants to return to the Senate?

Mr. Oglivy: Well, I can suspect why he doesn’t want to return to advertising because all the money has gone out of it since he ornamented it.

Mr. Mayer: I just did a profile of Senator Benton to be published sometime in the early summer. During the course of it I talked to Mr. Albert Hutchins, the former President of the University of Chicago, who said that after Benton’s first meeting with the faculty at the University coming straight out of the advertising business, his comment to Mr. Hutchins on the way out was, “I have never seen such a sordid thing in all my life.”

Mr. Heffner: It is a fine statement, a fine statement to make. Well, let’s put it this way. As an ex-professor of history I will say maybe Mr. Benton was right and maybe he was wrong. But I do not think this is quite the issue. I think the criticism has not been of the art form. I know Mr. Seldes this w s your major concern in the first article in Tide not so much in the second. Let’s go back to the question of the value inherent in advertising. If it has been criticized so much what about the economic function? What about the role that i.t plays in terms of our economy? The advertisers have said that it has built up a dynamic economy and that in time of recession continued or expand d advertising will increase selling and we are going to get back on our feet. Do you think that this is true, Mr. Mayer?

Mr. Mayer: I think it has been a very considerable help over the years in building up the economy. I do not think, and on the basis of the evidence I do not think it can successfully be argued that advertising is very powerful in a depression. I have not noticed automobile budgets going down a great deal this year, and the same advertising which can be monstrously effective in 1955 and build up everybody’s concern over consumer credit to a very high point of fear somehow just doesn’t sell cars this year. It is not the fault of the advertiser. Trends in the financial economy and in the national culture go far deeper than these matters. I think it is probably folly for a company to decrease advertising expenditures in a depression. I think that they are probably digging themselves deeper into the hole; but I doubt very strongly that any considerable result can be achieved by increasing them.

Mr. Heffner: You really don’t think that advertising can make someone buy something, can make them want to buy something they do not want to buy?

Mr. Mayer: Oh sure it can make him want to buy, but this exists in a context, and if the guy is afraid that his job is going to disappear next month he is not going to commit himself to an automobile on the installment plan whatever an advertiser says on it.
Mr. Heffner: Let me ask you this further question. If it cannot in certain circumstances make him buy isn’t this one of the reasons for the criticism of advertising, that it can–

Mr. Mayer: It can make him want to buy. There is a question of the extent of his fiscal responsibility at any given moment also. And when you have a down turn situation people want money in the bank. And they are since July of last year, they have been putting money in the bank in considerably increasing quantities. They have been buying government bonds and they have been generally hedging. And they have also had a pretty sound instinct because we have had fairly classic crises of over-production in the last six months.

Mr. Seldes: You said something about advertising in 1955 bring effective and building up the economy. Is it possible that one reason there is a great deal of criticism is the suspicion that advertising has been used as lever on everything?

Mr. Mayer: It did not invent the business cycle.

Mr. Seldes: No.

Mr. Mayer: If you want a really serious criticism of this, whore I think it can quite validly be made, to a certain extent the automatic checks and balances in a capitalistic system depend on price economy. Advertising has been a strong force in moving the area of competition from crisis into a faintly psychological, sociological area where those particular checks and balances do not operate. If we have a condition of administered prices today, and I think we do, and if this is creating as a drag on our recovery, which I think it will during the course of this year, then I think advertising bears part of the blame for that.

Mr. Heffner: Of course that reminds me of that quotation in your book from John Wanamakor when he said I know that half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, but I can never find out which half.

Mr. Ogilvy: Who is also quoting from Lord Leverhulme.

Mr. Mayer: Oh really? Well there you go–

Mr. Heffner: You will have to revise the book when it gets out.
Let me come back to this point that you made, Mr. Mayer, about advertising making a man want something. Now I put my emphasis upon doesn’t advertising make the man want? And you put your emphasis on the fact that he wants when the process is over.

Mr. Seldes: Mr. Ogilvy says it is making the dame, not the guy want.

Mr. Heffner: OK, fair enough. Now isn’t there something akin to what we called in the twentieth century brain­washing?

Mr. Mayer: No.

Mr. Heffner: Why not? What is the difference?

Mr. Mayer: Because he is in a very independent position. He doesn’t have to want it. Brain-washing takes people under a condition of stress when they are all locked up in one room and people work over them. Advertising operates in a very free society where the community pressures are quite real but they are to a very rare extant the creation of the community itself. Advertising ties in with these pressures. It may, probably docs to some extent, reinforce them. This is from an intellectual point of view quite unfortunate because most of those pressures are unfortunate. But even to say that it makes him want something, you can also put this in a whole educational context. I wouldn’t, I would go somewhere in between it, but I think a very good argument could be made that these people are being educated to the good things of life.

Mr. Heffner: Well, that brings up Mr. Seldes’ point again.

Mr. Mayer: I would not agree with it.

Mr. Heffner: You don’t agree with it?

Mr. Mayer: No. I think they are being educated to those things in life which the society at this present moment values most highly because we advertise the thing to tie in with the existing phenomenon all the time.

Mr. Heffner: Mr. Ogilvy?

Mr. Oglivy: It is not language in which I can deal. I watch women reading the Sunday newspaper. Ours was late this morning; it did not come until ten. Awfu1 trouble in the house. Why? Because the ladies of the house wanted to read the ads. They wanted to read the department store ads. There is no question of making them want anything. They know what they want. They want a new hat or dress or suit, whatever it is, and they want to shop the ads. It is fine. Why is there so much heavy weather about it?
I want people to go to Puerto Rico, a beautiful, wonderful country. Why shouldn’t I use advertising for that purpose? I hope it works. It is meant to work, it is meant to make them want this. I do not think a visit to Puerto Rico is an unworthy thing. I think that sometimes advertising is used for unworthy things. I do not think advertising should be used in politics to try and elect politicians, and there a few other things that I don’t think advertising should try and sell, but by and large it seems to me to be a rather innocent way of selling merchandise.

Mr. Seldes: Mr. Ogilvy, you are in the business of saying that people do already want to travel and people already want to use shirts, buy your brand of travel and buy your brand of shirts, and you do very well at it, by the way, because you are amusing with your ads. But when you pull it all together is it possible that you are asking people to buy certain things, for instance, to cure imaginary ills?
This country is probably more soap and smell conscious than any other country in the world.

Mr. Ogilvy: And therefore its inhabitants are the most fragrant. God bless the soap manufacturers!

Mr. Seldes: I have nothing against it.

Mr. Mayer: Yes, I would say that this is one of the places we can say advertising has done positive cultural good.

Mr. Seldes: You have mentioned this in your book, Mr. Mayor, you scared people into a kind of mortal terror of themselves of what we used to call B.O. a long time ago; that is a bit of advertising with the past. And you quote other people as going farther than yourself; I’m saying that the implication is that all advertising is based on frightening people. You have got to do this or else. This is not your point, and heaven knows it is not mine. But there is a certain area in which this docs work, and it is the area in which I think you yourself are most vulnerable because you say that the young girl who is afraid to be left on the shelf if she buys a lipstick at the five and ten does not feel prettier to the extent that she does if she buys a brand lipstick for sixty-five cents. My figures may not be accurate. You say then that the advertising of the brand has given this girl an added value. And I think the next thing you do is say you sell a medicine which promises a cure for cancer and the man thinks that he is cured, and he certainly is not.

Mr. Mayer: I think there are two comments on that. One of them is where this gets into areas of public policy then you have laws. You cannot advertise medicines as cures for cancer.
I do not think anyone would be opposed to those laws. And the other one is that you cannot protect the neurasthenic element from the community itself at best.

Mr. Seldes: You can increase neurasthenia.

Mr. Mayer: I wonder.

Mr. Seldes: Well, this is the accusation made.

Mr. Mayer: Yes; I don’t personally believe it. I think that people have pretty wholesome and healthy attitude toward advertising on the whole. I don’t think they believe everything that is said.
As a matter of fact, I have sat in places where advertising is being tested and I have heard fantastically knowledgeable comments on it – I am sure you have too – by the people in the audience. This is kind of a game to most people, and by the sheer repetition of it and by cert in arguments which are in it and by certain connotations which are in it people are influenced, yes, toward brands and toward kinds of products and toward consumption products. But this is part of a community context and while I find much advertising quite effective I don’t think that it is a serious moral issue.

Mr. Heffner: You mean you are now talking about that other half that Mr. Wanamaker was talking about, the half that was wasted?

Mr. Ogilvy: If you want to find advertising, specific advertisements in television or in the newspapers to attack as being contrary to the public interest today you will not find it very easy. I do not think you are finding it very easy in those articles you are writing. There are still left a few malefactors but fewer and fewer every year.

Mr. Seldes: Yes. Let me again say — this is in sheer self-defense — that I am not trying to find advertising in any way against the public interest. I do not think it is. I trying to find where it is ineffective and stupid, but the basic question that comes up is whether we can get along without any advertising, and I myself can’t see the possibility. At the present time we are geared up to it.

Mr. Heffner: Which is a good note to end on. Thanks so much, Mr. Ogilvy, Mr. Mayer, Gilbert Seldes. We will be back in two weeks on March 23 with The Open Mind on the subject, “America and the Uncommon Man.”