Ugly is Only Skin Deep

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When I teach an “Intro to Advertising” class, eventually we find ourselves arguing about the greatest campaigns of all time. For the purposes of the class, I defer to the ones that Advertising Age picked in their “Century of Advertising” issue: “Just Do It”, “You Deserve a Break Today”, “The Marlboro Man”, and of course, “Think Small”. The grand-daddy of them all. The one that revolutionized the business. That made Bill Bernbach a household name. That changed the world as we know it.

But why?

Because when you go to our industry’s eminence grises you are left none the wiser. Why was it so important? Because it changed everything! Well, how exactly? Because it was revolutionary! Yes, but in what way? In every way!

And when you show the car ads that existed before “Think Small” – in order to give some kind of context and frame of reference – those ads end up looking far more alien than the elegant whiteness of Helmut Krone’s design, or the sarcastic friendliness of Julian Koenig’s copy. So vast has been their influence.

Take David Ogilvy’s famous “At 60 miles an hour…” ad for Rolls Royce. What is a modern reader to make of it? It’s less an ad and more a door-to-door salesman in print. And the other car ads of the day? Glossy versions of the high octane, hard-sell pitch you’d get when you stepped into the showroom.

The “Think Small” ads don’t sound like those at all, and that’s because they’re predicated on a fundamentally different approach. Bob Levenson describes it this way:

“When you really don’t know what to put on that blank paper in the typewriter, you should just write ‘Dear Charlie’ at the top. Assume that Charlie is a neighbor of yours, a very nice, bright, intelligent guy, with a sense of humour. He’s got all the mental equipment you have, but none of the information that you have about the Volkswagen. So just put down what you want to tell him in this ad, and cross off ‘Dear Charlie’ and you’ll probably be all right.”

What makes this quotation important is not that it justifies my thinking (though it does), nor that it’s really good advice for almost any kind of writing (though it’s that too). No, the reason it’s important is that it articulates something in clear and clean terms that are not only simple to imitate, but easy to understand.

Because it reminds us that advertising isn’t only about fishing where the fish are – that’s just the media side of the equation. It’s about fishing the way fish want to be caught. And that ultimately what was so revolutionary about the “Think Small” ads was that they recognized that there was a new kind of consumer who wanted to be spoken to, who wanted to be sold to – who wanted to be caught – in a new kind of way.

And because that consumer tended to be a baby boomer, hitting that correct note in the early sixties resonated with the largest – and largest spending – demographic in American history. The demographic that would go on to dominate the economy and the culture for decades to come.

In other words, what made the “Think Small” ads so important wasn’t their “honesty” or their “sense of humour” or even their aesthetic and design.

What made them so important – and has made them the standard by which most advertising has been judged ever since – is they were the first ads that sold to baby boomers in the way they wanted to be sold to.

And that’s what makes Dominic Imseng’s terrific “Ugly is Only Skin Deep” so insightful and so important.

Curiously, however, we are currently met at a great crossroads in our culture, in which those very same baby boomers are passing away, and the millennials, the next great demographic wave, are taking their place.

Which begs a question that Imseng considers late in the book:

“Is a campaign started almost sixty years ago still relevant today? … A somewhat philosophical answer would be that to find a way forward, you need to know your roots; to have a future, you need to know your past. But studying the Volkswagen campaign is much more relevant than that. It is … a lesson in acknowledging the true place of advertising in people’s lives.”

I submit, however, a less philosophical answer and it’s this: Advertising is about selling. And selling is about communication. And what “Think Small” reminded us is that advertising, like all communication, is intimately connected to the needs, desires and even the vocabulary of the person you’re talking to.

And if “Think Small” didn’t remind us of that, then thank God Dominic Imseng’s terrific “Ugly is Only Skin Deep” does.

Ugly is Only Skin Deep by Dominic Imseng was published by Troubador Publishing on 09/28/16 – order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

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