Bernbach’s Insights on Advertising

William Bernbach is credited, along with fellow giants Leo Burnett and David Ogilvy, for ushering in the “creative revolution” in advertising during the 1950s and 1960s. And though that revolution has helped create a culture of self-indulgence in the industry, it also has been responsible for generating greater respect for the work of writers and artists and advancing the idea that advertising is as much art as it is science.

Bernbach didn’t rely on research. He preferred to listen to his gut and speak to people’s emotions rather than to their brains. And it worked. Doyle Dane Bernbach created some of the most successful mass market advertising in history, including the Avis “We try harder” campaign, the Volkswagen “Lemon” ad and the Life cereal television spots with Mikey.

For me, though, Bernbach was a great mind who thought a lot about advertising and what makes it work. So I would like to share some of his wisdom with you.

* “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

* “You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.”

* “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”

* “The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”

* “Properly practiced creativity MUST result in greater sales more economically achieved. Properly practiced creativity can lift your claims out of the swamp of sameness and make them accepted, believed, persuasive, urgent.”

* “Properly practiced creativity can make one ad do the work of 10.”

* “Our job is to bring the dead facts to life.”

* “Our job is to sell our clients’ merchandise … not ourselves. Our job is to kill the cleverness that makes us shine instead of the product. Our job is to simplify, to tear away the unrelated, to pluck out the weeds that are smothering the product message.”

* “It is insight into human nature that is the key to the communicator’s skill. For whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it. He therefore becomes a student of how people read or listen.”

* “Just because your ad looks good is no insurance that it will get looked at. How many people do you know who are impeccably groomed … but dull?”

* “No matter how skillful you are, you can’t invent a product advantage that doesn’t exist. And if you do, and it’s just a gimmick, it’s going to fall apart anyway.”

* “Forget words like ‘hard sell’ and ‘soft sell.’ That will only confuse you. Just be sure your advertising is saying something with substance, something that will inform and serve the consumer, and be sure you’re saying it like it’s never been said before.”

* “However much we would like advertising to be a science – because life would be simpler that way – the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason, will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.”

* “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.”

* “In this very real world, good doesn’t drive out evil. Evil doesn’t drive out good. But the energetic displaces the passive.”

* “There is no such thing as a good or bad ad in isolation. What is good at one moment is bad at another. Research can trap you into the past.”

* “There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules … but there’s one little rub. They forget that advertising is persuasion, and persuasion is not a science, but an art. Advertising is the art of persuasion.”

Those last six words deserve emphasis. “Advertising is the art of persuasion.” Despite all the research, numbers, focus groups, formulas and science, in the end, selling is a gut-level, personal skill. Never forget that.

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