An Ad Agency Chairman Turns Thumbs Up—and Down—on the Wizards of Madison Avenue

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is estimated that every American is assaulted by some 1,600 advertising messages a day, from billboards and television commercials to giveaway matchbooks. In 1981 advertising in the U.S. was a $65 billion business. Yet as pervasive as advertising is, it is also a maligned occupation. Nearly half the respondents to a 1978 survey for Advertising Age magazine credited the purveyors of Madison Avenue with "the lowest ethical standards" of all professionals. Now, as in the past, consumer advocates define advertising as the art of "selling the unnecessary." Latest to step into the fray is John O'Toole, 53, chairman of Foote, Cone & Belding, the ninth largest ad agency in the world, whose clients include Sears, Levi's, Sunkist and Clairol. Chicago-born O'Toole, a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, has written The Trouble With Advertising (Chelsea House, $12.50), a combined defense, expose and working primer on the craft he has practiced since 1953. A resident of Greenwich, Conn., O'Toole recently talked with Allan Ripp for PEOPLE.

What is the trouble with advertising?

Unfortunately, much of it begins inside our own ranks with advertisers who aren't willing to credit the consumer with any intelligence. The results are ads that are dull and insulting, or that pander to the lowest and dumbest common denominator. I think a slogan like "ring around the collar" typifies the banality to which advertising can stoop in trying to be cute.

But don't these slogans work?

Yes, they may indeed sell the product, but I also know they turn off just as many people. I bet the ads would sell even more if they tried to evoke the quality of the merchandise, rather than condescend to the consumer.

Why does such advertising persist?

Many advertisers these days place far too much emphasis on demographics and market research, while ignoring the emotional elements. This results from the insularity of the advertising community itself. When you don't personally know anyone who uses detergent or floor wax, you view such consumers as statistics at best and idiots at worst. You can't communicate with them as real human beings.

Do you have any guidelines for reaching large audiences on a personal level?

If I am working on a specific ad, I frequently recall two very old pieces of advice. One is that a good ad should have the impact of calling a person's name in a crowded room. Those old "Call for Philip Morris" ads were a classic example. And second, if I'm in doubt about a piece of copy, I ask myself, "Would you use that line on somebody you know?" If the answer is no, the line goes out with the trash.

Isn't it deceptive for advertisers to create fantasies around their products?

Many consumer advocates attack this image-building function of advertising. As far back as the 1950s critics such as Vance Packard, author of The Hidden Persuaders, made the profession out to be sinister, like brainwashing. In fact, advertising is simply salesmanship. It is unabashedly partisan and persuasive; it doesn't pretend to be gospel. If Ralph Nader were selling his house, I doubt he would advertise the fact that his toilet leaks, any more than an auto manufacturer makes news of his car's shortcomings in a commercial. Consumers seeking objective information on a product can always test it firsthand, ask their friends about it or read up on it in a publication like Consumer Reports.

What about the charge that advertising sells people things they don't need?

It's a charge I gladly acknowledge as long as you realize that the same can be said for the majority of mankind's achievements. Did the world have any real need for Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel before he painted it? No, but now that we know what a masterpiece it is, we can't live without it. Excuse the comparison, but advertising similarly creates needs that people didn't know they had—these just happen to be for particular goods and services.

What are some of the differences between good and bad advertising?

Think back to the Timex torture tests, Esso's "tiger in your tank," the Sears DieHard battery lighting up Yankee Stadium, or the chimpanzee that could make Xerox copies—those ads were simple and fanciful, yet they packed a substantial punch. A lot of advertisers these days wrongly rely on a wall of words or pseudoscientific jargon to make a point. Another misguided policy is using negatives to make a positive—heavy-handed product comparisons, for example, that make the other brand look foolish. The idea that you can sell soap with embarrassing ads about perspiration odor is another failed strategy. Shaming a consumer will rarely win him over.

How successful are celebrity spokespeople?

It depends. Some local advertisers think they can generate sales around an oddball spokesman, often the actual owner of the business. Their pants-dropping techniques make me want to boycott them. At the national level, however, there are some excellent celebrity spokespeople: Karl Maiden for American Express, John Houseman for Smith Barney investors, Lauren Hutton for Revlon and—best of all—James Garner and Mariette Hartley for Polaroid. All add a new dimension to their products in a way that says quality, not lunacy.

Have you ever been on the losing side of an ad campaign?

It happens to all of us. One of our failures was for prepackaged cocktail mixes called Holland House. No matter how hard we played up the convenience of the product, we never found the right psychological button to boost the sales as much as we wanted. Back in 1968 we thought we had a great campaign for Falstaff beer. We called it "the thirst slaker," and backed it up with a lot of thirsty visuals—sweaty, shirtless workers and the like. Nothing happened. It took a couple of smart fellows at the McCann-Erickson agency to show us all how to sell beer—namely, Miller. Ignoring thirst or taste completely, they played up beer drinking as a form of macho relaxation—a social reward for the guys after a hard day on the shrimp boat.

What role should advertising play in the political process?

The way things stand now, none of the regulatory safeguards of commercial advertising exist in political advertising. There is no warranty to protect viewers from false and misleading claims. In some cases, a 30-second, jingle-filled cartoon is trying to sell you a President. One solution to this problem is to set two-, three-or even five-minute minimums for political ads on TV, which would make them deal with issues more substantively. These were tried during Ronald Reagan's campaign with considerable success.

What taboos still govern the advertising industry?

Advertisers have to be extra careful not to violate their status as intruders. It still bothers me to see feminine hygiene sprays and tampons advertised on TV, just as it would if the product were male contraceptives. One campaign which shows profoundly bad taste is the lurid push for designer jeans, especially the ones with Brooke Shields. Those spots come uncomfortably close to kiddie porn.

How can Madison A venue ensure both good sales and high quality?

The business has become proficient in gathering statistics about consumers, but these are wasted without good old-fashioned ideas. Advertising is much more than slick, soulless campaigns and market wizardry. As one of my early mentors taught me, advertising is nothing less than the study of human behavior. I guess that's why I've stayed with it for 30 years.

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