Sex Doesn’t Sell! (But it Does!) – Book Review of David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising

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ogilvy_on_advertising_250Ever since Bewitched I always fancied myself an adman. The glamour. The excitement. The rush of adrenaline as the client smiles and accepts your big idea that just oozes with creativity. The beautiful wife who summons up your every delight with an alluring twinkle of her nose. Ah, what a life…

I never did end up in the field, but I’ve spent the better part of my life marketing one thing or another. You have to do that whether you’re an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur, whether you’re working in a non-profit or for-profit organization and, most especially, if you volunteer for a community organization. So when the man hailed by Time Magazine as “the most sought-after wizard in the advertising business” published a virtual how-to book on the subject (indeed, six of the first ten chapter titles contain the phrase “how to”), you just know I’m buying it and absorbing every single word.

Well, imagine my surprise when, in the very first sentence of David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising, the author slaps my fanciful perception across its imaginative face with “I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information.” Several chapters later he slams his own first advertisement, which included a reproduction of Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe. Ostensibly written to hawk a kitchen appliance (the AGA Cooker), Ogilvy, famous creator of the “Man in the Hathaway Shirt” eye patch campaign, deplores his use of gratuitous nudity. Irrelevant sex doesn’t sell, says the master. And he keeps this theme throughout the book: any advertisement whose creativity outshines the product, by definition, fails. To prove the point, he devotes pages 27-29 with graphic samples of advertising containing full frontal nudity.

At first glance, David Ogilvy’s Ogilvy on Advertising appears a mere sequel to his classic Confessions of an Advertising Man published twenty years earlier. In fact, each of the first ten chapter titles in Confessions contain the phrase “how to.” Furthermore, Ogilvy on Advertising repeats no less than three of those chapter titles. Yet, in comparing the two, one quickly sees Ogilvy wrote the earlier from the point of view of a still-selling practitioner. Written ten years after his first retirement, Ogilvy on Advertising, on the other hand, comes from a self-described old man who understands his legacy will not rest on his past triumphs, but in the continuation of his school of thought.

If you’re a student of marketing – and especially advertising – you need to read Ogilvy on Advertising. Compiled like a collection of disparate blogs of useful lists and juicy real-life stories, the author takes the reader through a practicum that includes both hands-on illustrations as well as in-depth (if not highly opinionated) case studies of other recognized advertising leaders. Oddly, Ogilvy notes only one major change in his long career: television. He offers an entire chapter devoted to the subject of TV advertising.

As more and more advertising moves to the web, it’s therefore instructive to note how Ogilvy handled the transition from radio/print advertising to television advertising. (For some thoughts on this, see “Ogilvy vs. Godin: Is The Big Idea In Advertising Dead?” by DJ Francis, Fast Company August, 29, 2008.) Ogilvy may have been pleased by the greater reliance on copy found in web landing pages. The viral hook, conversely, may have intrigued his “big idea” bias. Most obviously, though, his complete understanding of the power of small percentages presages Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail by decades.

In either case, his preference for fundamentals speaks both to his wisdom and the timeliness of his book. Like Victor Schwab’s How to Write a Good Advertisement (Schwab wrote the famous Dale Carnegie headline “How to Win Friends and Influence People”), Ogilvy on Advertising must be read if you’re at all interested about how to motivate people towards action.

There are three ironic codas to Ogilvy’s masterpiece. The first appears in the layout of the book’s cover, which you’ll understand once you have read the book. The second occurred less than a year after its publication. Apple’s “1984” motif introducing the MacIntosh computer – aired. The ad violated almost all of Ogilvy’s tenets, yet, many now consider it the most famous Superbowl ad. Ogilvy might have rightly argued as to the effectiveness of the ad (early sales of the Mac failed to meet expectations). Third, and perhaps more telling, Mr. Ogilvy may have known more about psychology than he’s let on (which is why it’s important to read between his lines). After all, when Ogilvy on Advertising first appeared in bookstores – with the author striking a Hugh Hefner-like pose on its cover – many a pubescent boy no doubt flocked to the business book shelves. Why? Pages 27-29.

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