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  • Thinking Smaller:Bill Bernbach and the Creative Revolution in Advertising of the 1950s
  • Lawrence R. Samuel (bio)

Let us blaze new trails. Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, good writing can be good selling.

- Bill Bernbach, 1947

One day in 1949, readers of the New York Times flipped a page of the newspaper and could not help but notice a large advertising headline in capital letters, LIBERAL TRADE-IN." The ad was for Ohrbach's, the department store in Manhattan (as well as Los Angeles) that sold moderately priced clothes and accessories. "Bring in your wife and for just a few dollars we will give you a new woman," the ad copy beneath the headline ran, not the kind of sentence typically used to sell dresses, shoes, and handbags at mid-century. The large visual in the ad was no less controversial (and sexist by today's standards). In the black-and-white photograph that ran to the borders of the page, a happy, energetic young man carried a well-dressed woman under his arm like a package, the kicker being that the smiling woman was a cardboard cutout.i

Sixty-plus years ago, virtually everything about this particular advertisement was, to use one of its creator's favorite words, different. (Apple's slogan of the late 1990s and early 2000s, "Think Different," clearly traded on Bill Bernbach's first rule of advertising—"Do it Different.") Few if any ads then featured such a bold visual style. Integrating the headline with the photograph in such a synergistic manner was also new, as was the ad's brash form of humor. Finally, other ads did not "talk" in such a plain, vernacular style; all the usual "puffery" and braggadocio typical of advertising at the time was nowhere to be found. This ad, and others for Ohrbach's, got attention from those in the advertising business, especially because there was no mention of prices or sales— one of the first rules of retail.ii Even better, the campaign worked. Sales at Ohrbach's were up, meaning the advertising for the store was more than simply clever.iii The innovative approach to selling schmatas would soon become known simply as "new" advertising, a clear break from the kind of selling techniques that had been around since the birth of modern consumer culture in the late nineteenth century.

The Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) advertising for Ohrbach's and for other clients marked nothing short of the start of a revolution in the business. What would by the mid-1960s come to be called the "Creative Revolution" in advertising had begun, marking a radical transformation in the way products and services were sold in America and around the world. Through the 1950s and beyond, DDB and other groundbreaking ad agencies would lead this revolution, changing not only consumer culture, but also Americans' attitudes and behavior in general. A simple ad for a local department store would serve as the spark for something much bigger—the way we thought and acted would never be quite the same again.

Yet Another Clever Idea

DDB's campaign for Ohrbach's was perhaps even more remarkable given the fact that the shop had just hung out its shingle. The 13-person agency was founded on June 1,1949 when Ned Doyle, Maxwell (Mac) Dane, and Bill Bernbach left Grey Advertising to take a chance in the increasingly competitive world of advertising in New York City. (Bernbach had worked on the Ohrbach's account while at Grey and brought it with him to the new agency.) Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach brought different, complementary skills to the startup business located at 350 Madison Avenue, the space Mac Dane's agency occupied. The new agency took up 1,800 square feet in an office a flight-and-a-half above the last elevator stop in the building, an odd but entirely appropriate place to do business given its outsider status. Ned Doyle was a gregarious 43-year-old ex-lawyer who had become a star magazine-space salesman in Chicago and New York during the Depression. After the war, Doyle decided to work on the agency side...