Leo Dug Hard to Identify the Inherent Drama
in Everyday Things
(The following interview arrived in my inbox one Saturday morning, courtesy of one of the most formidable marketers in my rolodex. He made his bones and shuns the neon lights…for now. He clipped this article a long while ago and has no idea of the source. The underlinings are his.)
Leo Burnett was obsessed with finding visual triggers that could effectively circumvent consumers’ critical thought.
Through the Thought Force of Symbols, he said, “we absorb it through our pores, without knowing we do so”
Television, he asserted, “is the strongest drug we’ve ever had to dish out.”
He dug hard to identify the inherent drama that resided within a product through the conscious use of “earthy vernacular” imagery
Here are highlighted excerpts from an Interview with this legendary Ad Man from the Golden Age of Advertising.
Well, one of the things I wanted to ask you, Mr. Burnett – touching on what you’ve said – did you find writing ad copy more difficult than writing newspaper copy?
Much more difficult, yes, because it has to be so much more compact and yet it has to deliver the facts, too. I learned a lot from newspapers as to how to communicate and how to put color and interest into advertising copy. But finding the magic things to say about a product that would interest people and evoke their interest and lead them by the hand to the conclusion that they should buy something – that was another art, really.
When you went from the editorial side into the advertising side, did you find that your newspaper experience was helpful to you?
Yes, it was most helpful, because I think it taught me the importance of curiosity about things. I didn’t know beans about automobiles, but I became very curious about what made a motor run and all about it. I wrote a lot of fairly technical stuff in a popular way.
I had at least acquired the facility for putting words together and organizing facts and finding things that were most interesting to people.
Now, after all your years of experience, do you think it’s more difficult to write copy for one product over another? Like an automobile over a refrigerator, say?
No, I don’t think it makes very much difference. I think if you find the right appeal in a product – one that you can focus on – you can develop it on any product. I know in the experience of our own agency, some of our best successes have been in industries that I knew nothing about. Often our agency didn’t know anything about the project until we started with them.
We knew nothing about the railroad business until we got the Santa Fe account. We knew nothing about the petroleum business until we got the Pure Oil. We knew nothing about the shoe business and so we got the Brown Shoe Co. account. We knew nothing about the food business, until at Erwin Wasey I started learning about the food business, about the Green Giant Co. – and was responsible for all the Green Giant advertising, practically from the time it started.
Do you think a copywriter must have experience in a certain area?
Knowledge and experience aren’t nearly as important as his expressiveness, his ability to think and to marshal his thoughts into persuasive English. These things he can learn.
Do you have any specific approaches to the problem? From a copywriter’s point of view? Do you have any rituals you follow, any special methods?
No. My technique, if I have one, is to saturate myself with knowledge of the product. I believe in good depth-interviewing where I come realistically face to face with the people I am trying to sell. I try to get a picture in my mind of the kind of people they are – how they use this product, and what it is – they don’t often tell you in so many words – but what it is that actually motivates them to buy something or to interest them in something.
Mr. Burnett, you’ve talked with many people and you’ve edited many pieces of copy from many different writers. Have you ever discerned any thread winding its way through all these people? Do you see any qualities common to all of them? Or do you think copywriters are made up of all sorts and all types?
Well, I think they come from all sorts of places and are made up of all types, but I think among the best ones there’s a flair for expression, of putting known and believable things into new relationships. We try to be – which I think typifies the Chicago school of advertising, if there is one, and I think there is one – we try to be more straightforward without being flatfooted. We try to be warm without being mawkish.
I believe that today visibility, sheer visibility, is more important than it’s been, speaking of printed advertising – and that applies to television, of course, too. Sheer visibility is important with today’s rising advertising costs; if you don’t get noticed, you don’t have anything. You just have to be noticed, but the art is in getting noticed naturally without screaming or without tricks.
Putting eye-patches on fire hydrants?
Obvious tricks, yes. Of course, we, over and over again, stress this so-called inherent drama of things because there’s usually something there, almost always something there, if you can find the thing about that product that keeps it in the marketplace. There must be something about it that made the manufacturer make it in the first place. Something about it that makes people continue to buy it… capturing that, and then taking that thing – whatever it is – and making the thing itself arresting rather than through relying on tricks to do it.
I have just one quick question for you. And that is: David Ogilvy says that he heard – we were talking about using vernacular and expressions like “Winston tastes good ‘like’ a cigarette should” and all that – he said that you are alleged to have a little box in your desk or on your desk, and when you run across a new figure of speech or an expression that strikes you as smart or unusual or offbeat, you write it down.
I have a great big folder – and it’s getting bigger all the time – in the lower left-hand corner of my desk. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, ever since I started the agency, and I call it “Corny Language.” Whenever I hear a phrase in conversation or any place which strikes me as being particularly apt in expressing an idea or bringing it to life or accentuating the smell of it, the looks of it or anything else – or expressing any kind of an idea – I scribble it down and stick it in there.
Then about three or four times a year, I run through there and throw a lot of stuff out and pick out things which seem to me to apply to some of the work that is going on in the shop and write a memo about it. So my ear is always tuned for putting usual things in unusual relationships that get attention and aptly express an idea. I call this Corny Language, and I have always done that. I also have another file which is a bulging one – Ads Worth Saving – which I’ve had for some 25 years. I go through them.
Here’s a space ad typical of Leo Burnett’s Chicago School of Advertising.