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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    Evaluating Leo Burnett's contribution nearly 30 years after his death, one is of two minds. There is something both old-fashioned and timeless in the slightly homoerotic repertoire of corporate images he fathered. Born during the springtime of American consumer culture, when sales pitches were infused with an unfettered sense of optimism, a booming-voiced tiger like Tony and a benevolent Green Giant today come across as quaint throwbacks to the time when sugared breakfast cereals could still claim to provide an ideal start to the perfect day, and when mushy canned peas nestled alongside a piece of fat-marbled beef represented a healthy diet. Though Burnett's corporate talismans endure, they occupy a world where consumers are increasingly caustic about the products that they purchase. The effort by marketers to capitalize on the cynical mind-set of an mtv generation has overwhelmed the quest for universal human archetypes. Jadedness and sarcasm are becoming the dominant argot of advertising.

    On the other hand, the central principles that guided Burnett's practice remain prescient. His celebration of nonlinear advertising strategies, characterized by visual entreaties to the optical unconscious, continues to inform the strategies of adcult. In advertising copy, the conspicuous triumph of typography over text, of catchphrase over explanation, reflects Burnett's admonition that--to the public mind--visual form is more persuasive than carefully reasoned argument.

    Burnett's thinking has come to define much of our mental environment beyond advertising. He saw advertising as the "fun" side of business, but the historical repercussions of his wisdom can be disquieting. Amid the present-day flood of images--each designed to rally emotions for a social, political or commercial goal--the notion of an informed public, once a cherished cornerstone of democracy, may be passing into oblivion.

    Stuart Ewen, professor of film and media studies at Hunter College, is the author of PR!, a social history of spin

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    What becomes a pitchman most? The ingenuity to sell anything, including one's self, as evidenced by the careers, contributions and legacies of three men who helped define the industry.

    The father of P.R. was instrumental in the use of polls and spokesfolk. Bernays understood the power of public opinion and staged events to shape it. He threw "green" parties to make the color of Lucky Strikes' packaging fashionable to women and sent Al Jolson to the White House to lighten Calvin Coolidge's image.

    Dismissing such sacred conventions as repetition and the hard sell, Bernbach led a velvet revolution in advertising at Doyle Dane Bernbach in the '60s by relying on creativity, sly humor and instinct. Characteristically clever campaigns included "Hey Mikey" for Life cereal and Avis' "We try harder."

    The urbane Brit's early job with Gallup informed his much dispersed advertising dogma: treat research like a religion, stick to the facts and avoid adjectives. Ogilvy only took on clients whose products he felt were beyond reproach and worked to establish enduring brand images like the eye-patched Hathaway shirt man.

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