Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the trouble is I don’t know which half…
David Ogilvy remains the undisputed king of Madison Avenue. No one besides the fictional Don Draper has garnered the same kind of prestige synonymous with success in advertising. But before Ogilvy had ever written his first headline, he trained as an apprentice chef in Parisian kitchens, sold stoves in Scotland, and later fell into audience analytics. It was while working under Dr George Gallup at Princeton University that Ogilvy discovered the fabled secret to potent copy: research and testing.
Throughout World War II, he worked in British Intelligence, but his true calling saw him emigrate to America, where he founded the advertising agency: Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather. Today, the great-grandchild of that first agency, rechristened simply Ogilvy, still stands as one of the largest and most influential advertising agencies in the world.
Ogilvy’s combination of creative genius, professional discipline, and ingenuity allowed his agency to succeed where others had failed, although even he wrote the occasional stinker. Take the following ditty, composed for a Lever Brothers campaign, which Ogilvy himself later admitted was the “silliest copy in the history of advertising”:
“Rinso white or Rinso blue?
Soap or detergent – it’s up to you!
Both wash white and whiter than new,
The choice, dear lady, is up to you!”
Today, we look at a trio of Ogilvy’s best work, three unique successes from his storied career as a copywriter and advertising man. He produced ad campaigns for KLM, Dove, Schweppes, Campbell’s Soup, Mercedes, and myriad other household names. Success like that is hard to come by.
Rolls Royce: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this New Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”
Honesty is Doing Your Homework
Great advertising, but more specifically, great copywriting, demands understanding. Not just of the product and the client, but also the consumer, the client’s competitors, and the power of promise. Homework may be tedious, but there’s no substitute.
Ogilvy understood consumer psychology. He drew on personal experience, wrote in the vernacular, and appealed to customers with honesty, albeit his own persuasive brand of honesty. Ogilvy was no snake-oil salesman. He understood the tug-of-war between need and want in consumer purchasing, yet he always wrote copy grounded in facts. In his own words, “Factual advertising […] outsells flatulent puffery. The more you tell, the more you sell.” But his real creative power was in the headline: the short, often witty, selling point with which he captured the reader’s attention.
Ogilvy spent a good three weeks reading about the Rolls-Royce Silvercloud until the basis for his now famous headline jumped out at him. An innocuous statement about how “at sixty miles an hour, the loudest noise [came] from the electric clock.” He followed the headline with 607 words of factual copy broken into thirteen points about the vehicle’s strengths and selling points. Not once did he mislead the reader, nor was he touting a product he didn’t believe in — Ogilvy drove a Rolls-Royce himself.
Ogilvy’s ad only ran in two newspapers and two magazines at a total cost of $25,000, and yet, it was a triumphant success. So successful, in fact, that Ford, the following year, based their own multi-million-dollar campaign on the promise that their automobile was even quieter than the Rolls.
Schweppes: “It’s mutiny to mix a Gin-and-Tonic without Schweppes!”
Headlines and Brand Image
Image is everything these days, so much so that people can become brands. Social media is a fascinating example of how we market ourselves as products. Look no further than YouTube or Instagram to see for yourself. People tend to reserve their trust for handsome, wholesome people. The right face can be very persuasive, a fact that David Ogilvy understood when he managed the Schweppes account through the fifties and sixties.
The product a person represents takes on the personality of its representative. Ogilvy sold Schweppes tonic water as a whimsical yet sophisticated mixer and people believed him. This also goes to show why celebrity endorsement tends to succeed (something we intend to cover in part two of our Ogilvy retrospective). We associate certain types of people with quality and trustworthiness, but voice and tone also go a long way to crafting copy that sells. Tone creates mood and mood influences a reader’s feelings about a product. Your tone and style of writing can either welcome or alienate.
Take a look at Ogilvy’s copy for Schweppes again: “It’s mutiny to mix a Gin-and-Tonic without Schweppes!”
Funny, no? Humour is earnest and grabs your attention. We trust funny people. Ogilvy pressed the importance of humour because, for him, a funny idea was often a good one (although the less said about that Lever Brothers copy the better). Headlines are critical to earning your readers’ trust. Specificity is the key to achieving this. If the headline doesn’t pique their interest or provide the right information — in other words, if it doesn’t help sell your product — you will have wasted ninety percent of your time, money, and energy. According to Ogilvy, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.
Writing in the active voice creates a strong call to action. We recommend you avoid writing in the negative, too, because readers will almost certainly take it the wrong way. Instead of marvelling at how your steam iron does nothing but make ironing easier, the only two words your customers will recognise are does and nothing. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Write in the affirmative to give your copy a positive mood. Be upbeat and upfront about your product. Tell the truth, but make it fascinating.
The Schweppes headline and copy demonstrate such playful command of wit and style that it’s difficult to resist the brand’s allure. The Schweppes prestige didn’t happen by accident. It happened by Ogilvy.
The man in the Hathaway shirt
Hooking the Reader
Photographs and headlines arouse a reader’s curiosity. This is true for both print and digital media. Ogilvy tells us, “[The customer] glances at the photograph and says to himself, ‘What goes on here?’ Then he reads your copy to find out.”
One of Ogilvy’s key ingredients to potent copy is story appeal. You have to inject the essence of the product and what it means into the copy. Images contribute to crafting the perfect advertisement. Photographs and headlines suggest the story but the copy relates the story. Photographs and headlines are the traps copywriters and advertisers set. Make them too obvious and consumers will avoid your copy at all costs, but if you work subtly, and layer the call to action under a blanket of intrigue, then they’re sure to bite. This was true in Ogilvy’s day and customer psychology hasn’t changed much since then.
When Ogilvy presided over Hathaway’s advertising debut, he endeavoured to produce a campaign that would outdo Young & Rubicam. The trouble was that Y&R had a $2,000,000 advertising budget to work with, while Hathaway could only afford $30,000. In Ogilvy’s words, “A miracle was needed.” He concocted and threw out seventeen separate campaign ideas before landing on the eye-patch gimmick, at which point he ducked into a drugstore and bought one for $1.50, and then, after spending one-hundred-and-sixteen years tiding over in obscurity, Hathaway became a household name and a national brand overnight.
“The man in the Hathway shirt” made Ogilvy famous, and for good reason. His copy appealed to middle-class American businessmen, pushing the homespun honesty of the Hathaway brand, the quality of materials and manufacturing, and the suave satisfaction that comes with wearing such a shirt. The eyepatch was a nice touch. Not only was it eye-catching and mysterious, but it sold Hathaway as a prestigious and exciting competitor to Young & Rubicam. Arrow shirts? Never heard of them.
Read the next post in our Ogilvy retrospective series here: Puerto Rico, Dove Soap, and Good Luck Margarine.
Written by Michael Conroy.
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