In Praise Of Advertising's Trojan Horses

David Ogilvy once said, Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. Watching the Academy Awards, I saw a whole flotilla of such ships –  ghost vessels with no one aboard except the ship’s cat. The same was true of the Super Bowl. Surely, I thought, big events demand big ideas, especially on TV.

But not just TV. Some argue the advent of social media has reduced the need for big ideas when actually social media  is fueled by ideas. Ideas that engage, ideas that people want to share.

But that made me ponder another question, one that people seldom ask. What actually are advertising ideas?


I’m going to attempt a definition, by way of two analogies.

An advertising idea is like a hieroglyph that takes a long complicated sales pitch and compresses it into a single moment, so it can be understood instantaneously.

Alternatively, ideas are Trojan Horses used to smuggle a sales pitch past the reader’s defenses.

For centuries advertisers got along fine without ideas. A famous old Guinness poster said simply, Guinness is good for you. No awards for creativity there. It’s just a plain statement. This approach reached arguably its purest expression in the work of 1920s adman, Claude C. Hopkins, whose book Scientific Advertising purported to apply scientific method to advertising.

His number one injunction was, Don’t be entertaining. Avoid “something queer and unusual…ads distinctive in style or illustration,” since no one would buy from a “dressy” salesman. This is the complete opposite of what we attempt today.

Thirty years later, the same attitude was being adopted by Rosser Reeves who insisted that a simple slogan should be repeated endlessly without change, for years. One of his more famous commercials, for Anacin, showed an animation of a hammer banging away inside someone’s head. It was a neat demonstration of what it was like to be on the receiving end of such non-creative advertising.

In the ’50s, door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen would knock on doors and wedge their foot in to stop the housewife from closing the door. Amazingly she would then let the salesman in, whereupon he would throw some dirt on the floor and whip out his vacuum cleaner to clean it all up.

That’s pretty much how advertising used to work: force its way into the house and leave a mess on the carpet. But then at the end of the 1950s something changed. The salesman turned up at the door holding flowers.

The Advertising Idea was born. Advertising went to charm school and turned to wit, seduction, emotion, cleverness, humor, suggestion, art…and above all storytelling.

The most famous example being the VW “Lemon” ad. It’s difficult to imagine a greater heresy than an auto manufacturer running an ad saying its product was a lemon.


The ad works precisely because the readers know this. They don’t believe an advertiser would say that, so they read the copy to find out what it means. They get a story about a man called Kurt Kroner who was one of the quality control inspectors at the VW plant in Wurzburg, Germany. Without realizing it, the reader absorbs the message that VW have wonderful quality control. This is how ideas work, they tell you something without telling you it. The message slips under your defenses like a Trojan Horse.

You can see the same process at work today. Some of the ads in the Super Bowl did have ideas. The Audi R8 “Commander” spot was one example. They could have simply said this car goes like a rocket, but instead they show a retired astronaut who has his lost zest for life restored by driving the car. The Doritos spot took a familiar advertising motif – that the product is irresistible – and showed a baby deciding to be born early to get hold of one. A lot of people found it offensive, but the idea is clear enough. The Snickers’ Marilyn spot was a lovely twist on the oldest idea of all – “before and after.” Eat this and you will be restored from a grouch to your usual happy self. That’s the “sell” but you don’t notice because you are too busy being charmed by the sight of Willem Dafoe as Marilyn.

Obviously Willem Dafoe doesn’t come cheap, and that is part of the idea too: viewers enjoy the audacity of it. But the beauty of a good idea is you don’t always need big bucks. The spot for Jeep is a prime example. It features a long series of big celebrity names, even royalty. It feels like a huge expensive, commercial. But really it is just a series of black and white still shots held together with a great voice-over. The budget must have been very modest indeed.

Not that anyone analyses ideas like this, we just feel them in our gut.  Despite what Claude C. Hopkins would have us believe, it’s not a rational process, it’s emotional. Ideas speak to the heart, not the head. A great recent demonstration of this was the America commercial for Bernie Sanders. What is the idea? An inspired choice of a particular song. A choice that doesn’t immediately seem obvious, but it hit the spot, it touched a lot of people. This is the Hallmark of a great idea: it looks obvious after someone has thought of it.

In the wake of the social media revolution the need to tell great stories that touch the heart is more urgent than ever. Although I suspect there will still be plenty of foot-in-the-door guys, barging in and leaving a mess on the floor, I hope we can look forward to more salesmen turning up at the door with flowers.

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