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A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 4 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959

This week, President Obama made one of those statements he probably wanted to retract as soon as he expressed it. He was lauding Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California, for her many accomplishments and her legal experience, when he did something guys of another era used to do all the time — he complimented Ms. Harris for being attractive. Instantly, attractive women felt marginalized (He only admires her for her looks.), unattractive women felt even more marginalized (I bet he’d never say that about me.), attractive men were confused (What’s wrong with that?), and unattractive men were also confused (What’s wrong with that?).  Surely, the President got a later earful from the First Lady and his two daughters. All around it was an awkward moment that momentarily tilted the world off its access.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=EQTyxNTQTtk&noredirect=1

Meanwhile in the world of advertising, super models are the daily norm and sensitivities be damned. Attractive people have always been used in commercials and catalogs to build brands and sell products. When that dynamic is tampered with, as GoDaddy did in their commercial during the last SuperBowl, having super model Bar Refaeli soulfully kiss computer nerd Walter, to illustrate the blending of sexy and smart, something doesn’t feel right (maybe having Danica Patrick announce the moment?). In this case, the situation was meant for comic effect, but there was something cruel about it. I know the young man wasn’t complaining about having to do take after interminable take to get the camera angle right, but he was clearly the butt of a joke in front of that audience of 108.4 million viewers. At times, we are overly sensitive, while at others like this one, we aren’t nearly sensitive enough. Take Target this week and their “manatee grey” plus size dress. Did they think anyone (everyone?) was going to miss that inference?

The Lonesome Girl learns how to make a dress.

All of which brings me back to the “100 Greatest Advertisements” collection, which features some ads that play on sensitive subjects, especially on women’s insecurities. “The Diary of a Lonesome Girl” makes every other copy-heavy ad seem like haiku. But it is worth a read to get a sense of the pitch for the Woman’s Institute, which is a mail order teaching curriculum. In this case, the course is on dress-making and it is the salvation of the Lonesome Girl from the headline. The ad is a diary account of a young lady who is practically destitute, living at home, sequestered in her room because she can’t afford to go to her neighbor’s parties, tormented because she can hear those parties and knows that her neighbor is dancing with Tom, and embarrassed that she only owns that old blue crepe dress. Since President Obama wasn’t around at the time to lift her spirits by calling her attractive, the narrator of the ad has to turn to the Woman’s Institute, which she does, discovers the art of dress making, and eventually she throws her own parties and wows Tom and her neighbor. I’ll never worry about over-promising in one of my ads again.

You may be attractive, but it's actually your breath that's stopping traffic.

You may be attractive, but it's actually your breath that's stopping traffic.

There are two ads that follow, further unnerving women readers who are unattached. An early ad for Listerine reveals why one woman is often a “Bridesmaid but Never a Bride.” Evidently, because she cannot smell her own breath, the thought of halitosis has never occurred to her. The ushers’ shriveled-up boutonnieres from the last 8 weddings never raised a red flag?

Pepsodent was on teeth film long before white strips.

Pepsodent was on teeth film long before white strips.

Meanwhile, if we think teeth whitening strips and treatments are a recent obsession, Pepsodent can remind us that we’ve been concerned with dingy-colored teeth for a very long time. Once again, a woman’s appearance is hugely important to her. And sometimes it is a matter of Presidential importance.

Diamonds. Attracting women since forever.

Diamonds. Attracting women since forever.

Finally, this N.W. Ayer ad for DeBeers was one of many to launch a long association between diamond jewelry and advertising (1939-1947), and the famous slogan, “A Diamond is Forever.”  One thing we can all agree upon when it comes to the word “attractive,” it is safe to say in public that women find diamonds very attractive.

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Ad great Albert Lasker, The Man Who Sold America

Ad great Albert Lasker, The Man Who Sold America

Ever hear of Albert Lasker? Me neither and I’ve been in this profession longer than I care to admit. After reading a book review for “The Man Who Sold America” in Friday’s print Wall Street Journal, and a book excerpt from WSJ.com, I am embarrassed by my ignorance but excited to have a new addition for my summer reading list. I also think there is good reason for Lasker’s low profile (more on that in a minute).
First, Lasker and his incredible resume.
• In 1898, joined the Lord & Thomas advertising agency as a teenager, winning many new clients, and becoming a part owner by the age of 24.
• Helped transform the agency business from media space brokerage to creative “reason why” advertising development.
• Built brand concepts that would last into modern times: Quaker Oats Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat (“foods shot from guns”); Palmolive soap’s beauty appeal; the “Sun” brands of fresh foods, Sun-Maid California raisins and Sun-Kist California oranges; the transformation of Kleenex tissues from cosmetics removers to disposable handkerchiefs; and Goodyear all-weather tires.
• Helped make Pepsodent toothpaste a household name, and in the process, the sponsored radio show’s host, Bob Hope.
• Convinced a certain chewing gum magnate and personal friend to change the name of Cubs Park to Wrigley Field. Later, when the Black Sox scandal erupted, it was Lasker’s plan that was adopted for restructuring major league baseball and appointing Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as its czar.
• Managed the 1920 campaign that put Warren Harding in the White House, considered a landmark in political advertising.
• Served under Harding as chairman of the Shipping Board.
• Reshaped philanthropy, using radio to reach more people and influence how America though about cancer and other diseases.
• Suggested the Birth Control Institute change its name to Planned Parenthood.
Looking back, some of Lasker’s work, like MadMen’s snapshot of the sixties, is interesting for its depiction of his time. His agency got Kotex to put its tampons in plain-wrapped packages on store counters, so as not to embarrass the ladies who asked for and purchased them. His “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” campaign turned a lot of women into smokers, specifically Lucky Strike smokers, and ticked off the candy industry (and maybe Bill Wrigley?).
So why isn’t Albert Lasker better known? Advertising, like pop culture, is pretty much “of the moment.” The MadMen period brought more recent fame to many well-deserving creatives from David Ogilvy, to Geoge Lois, to Bill Bernbach, to Jerry DellaFamina. Today, beyond Wieden and Kennedy and Crispin Bogusky Porter (now sans Alex Bogusky), the absence of memorable shingles sadly reflects the commoditization of this business.
Advertising has always been about individuality and ideas and enthusiastic creative selling. In Lasker’s case, he built his agency Lord & Thomas into a powerhouse of his time, but by 1942, he kept that name and sold its assets for a small amount to Emerson Foote, Fairfax Cone, and Don Belding. Now, we’re getting somewhere. For my entire career, Foote Cone and Belding was an agency of national and eventually international stature. In the 90s, they acquired Philadelphia’s largest agency, Lewis Gilman & Kynett (and the granter of my own first ad job interview), and went through several additional transactions and name changes (some helping Brian Tierney make a name for himself). Nationally, Foote Cone Belding became True North Communications for awhile. Today, as units of Interpublic, the reminders of the Foote Cone Belding brand and the 20th century advertising juggernaut that Albert Lasker helped build have been reduced to acronym-based entities: Draftfcb and Draftfcb Healthcare. Go to Interpublic’s pulldown “Choose a company” menu and be disheartened about the obscurity of this legacy. Or be awed by the size of the global modern enterprise that Lasker’s insightful, ground-breaking creativity helped build.

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