Do This or Die

I recently finished Terry O’Reilly’s book Age of Persuasion – How Marketing Ate our Culture (from CBC’s Age of Persuasion). If you’re looking for a nice, quick, history of advertising (with some great new and old examples) it is worth picking up. It’s also quintessentially Canadian which is a nice change considering the majority of ad related books come out of the States or the UK.

At the conclusion of the book, O’Reilly recounts a contest that Time magazine held in the 1960’s. Time asked people to create an ad that was for the public interest (ie. not a product). DDB writer Bob Levinson won with the print ad above. I’ve captured the full copy so that you can read it – trust me, it’s worth it:


Is this ad some kind of trick?

No. But it could have been. And at exactly that point rests a do or die decision for American business. We in advertising, together with our clients, have all the power and skill to trick people. Or so we think. But we’re wrong. We can’t fool any of the people any of the time. There is indeed a twelve-year-old mentality in this country; every six-year-old has one. We are a nation of smart people. And most smart people ignore most advertising because most advertising ignores smart people. Instead we talk to each other. We debate endlessly about the medium and the message. Nonsense. In advertising, the message itself is the message. A blank page and a blank television screen are one and the same. And above all, the messages we put on those pages and on those television screens must be the truth. For if we play tricks with the truth, we die.

Now. The other side of the coin. Telling the truth about a product demands a product that’s worth telling the truth about. Sadly, so many products aren’t. So many products don’t do anything better. Or anything different. So many don’t work quite right. Or don’t last. Or simply don’t matter. If we also play this trick, we also die. Because advertising only helps a bad product fail faster. No donkey chases the carrot forever. He catches on. And quits. That’s the lesson to remember. Unless we do, we die. Unless we change, the tidal wave of consumer indifference will wallop into the mountain of advertising and manufacturing drivel. That day we die. We’ll die in our marketplace. On our shelves. In our gleaming packages of empty promises. Not with a bang. Not with a whimper. But by our own skilled hands.

It’s been almost 50 years since this ad was published and I can’t think of something more relevant that encapulates the state of the industry better. Everyone seems to say that digital has changed everything. That consumers want real products that help them (functionally and emotionally) and they don’t want to be lied to or tricked in any way.

But still marekting trickery we see banners, site experiencesces and Tweets. A line of micetype legal below the fold of a website clarifying the offer or a ‘see in store for details’ message that makes us think twice about what we are actually being sold.

Digital hasn’t changed the fact that if we aren’t honest in our communications and with our clients, the consumers will see through it and we will fail.

Somehow the industry has chugged along since Levinson wrote this execution. But if we don’t step up our game, think differently about what consumers actually want (hint: it’s not a contest) and focus our efforts on products and services that are worth talking about, we won’t have another 50 years to get it right.

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