Leo Burnett: Sultan Of Sell

He launched today's visual assault on the senses by proving that images, not words, were the nuclear power of advertising. TV proved him right

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Burnett was exactly that. Creativity, he advised, called for an intuitive ability to identify the inherent drama that resided within a product through the conscious use of "earthy vernacular" imagery. To explain his concept of inherent drama, Burnett repeatedly cited a 1945 print campaign for the American Meat Institute. After careful consideration, he related, "we convinced ourselves that the image of meat should be a virile one, best expressed in red meat." At the time it was highly unusual, even distasteful, to portray uncooked meat in advertisements. Enthusiastically breaking the code, Burnett produced full-page ads depicting thick chops of raw red meat against a bright-red background. "Red against red was a trick," he explained, "but it was a natural thing to do. It just intensified the red concept and the virility and everything else we were trying to express. This was inherent drama in its purest form."

Reviewing his agency's work, one is struck by Burnett's penchant for employing a range of masculine archetypes. Some were designed to appeal to female consumers. With the Jolly Green Giant, he resurrected a pagan harvest god to monumentalize "the bounty of the good earth"--and to sell peas. Years later, with the creation of the Doughboy, Burnett employed a cuddly endomorph to symbolize the friendly bounce of Pillsbury home-baking products. Aiming at male audiences in the '50s, a time when filter cigarettes were viewed as effeminate, Burnett introduced a tough and silent tattooed cowboy on horseback, "the most masculine type of man," he explained, to transform the image of Marlboro cigarettes--for better or worse, one of the most enduring advertising icons ever devised.

Like many other persuasion professionals of his generation--most notably Edward Bernays, the patriarch of public relations--Burnett was obsessed with finding visual triggers that could effectively circumvent consumers' critical thought. Though an advertising message might be rejected consciously, he maintained that it was accepted subliminally. Through the "thought force" of symbols, he said, "we absorb it through our pores, without knowing we do so. By osmosis."

With the arrival of television in the late '40s--an electronic salesroom going into nearly every American home--Burnett believed merchandisers had found the Holy Grail. "Television," he asserted, "is the strongest drug we've ever had to dish out." It marked the moment when graphic representation arrived as the lingua franca of commerce.

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