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

  • He was not the adman's adman. He wasn't a hipster like William Bernbach, who tapped into youthcult with the "Think Small" campaign for Volkswagen. He wasn't an elegant rationalist like David Ogilvy, whose ads famously advised the rich that a Rolls-Royce was the sensible car to buy. He didn't even work on Madison Avenue, but in Chicago's Loop instead. But Leo Burnett, the jowly genius of the heartland subconscious, is the man most responsible for the blizzard of visual imagery that assaults us today.

    In a career that spanned nearly six decades, his aptitude for inventing evocative, easily recognizable corporate identities spawned the Jolly Green Giant, the Marlboro Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony the Tiger, among other familiar icons of commerce. By the late 1950s Burnett had emerged as a prime mover in advertising's creative revolution, which grew in the glow of television's rise as America's consummate commercial medium. By 1960 Burnett's roster of clients had grown exponentially; at the time of his death the agency's billings exceeded $400 million annually. By last year that figure approached $6 billion.

    Burnett's creativity was in stark contrast to that of some of his contemporaries, who built advertising companies around research and marketing expertise. Burnett forged his reputation around the idea that "share of market" could only be built on "share of mind," the capacity to stimulate consumers' basic desires and beliefs. To achieve this goal, Burnett moved beyond standard industry practice. Early ad schemes were based primarily on a foundation of carefully worded argument focused on the purported qualities of the product being sold. Images were mere decoration for the argument.

    The industry was already changing when Burnett joined the Homer McGee agency in Indianapolis, Ind., in 1919, after a brief stint as a newspaperman. Product claims were giving way to elaborate narratives--imaginary stories of consumers whose purchase had been rewarded with popularity, success, romance.

    Burnett moved the image to center stage. Visual eloquence, he was convinced, was far more persuasive, more poignant, than labored narratives, verbose logic or empty promises. Visuals appealed to the "basic emotions and primitive instincts" of consumers. Advertising does its best work, he argued in 1956, by impression, and he spent much of his career encouraging his staff to identify those symbols, those visual archetypes, that would leave consumers with a "brand picture engraved on their consciousness."

    Burnett did not originate this conceit. In his classic 1922 study Public Opinion, journalist Walter Lippmann maintained that pictures are "the surest way of conveying an idea. A leader or an interest that can make itself master of current symbols is master of the current situation."

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