The creator of advertising ‘story appeal’

The fame of David Ogilvy was eventually eclipsed by flashier advertising men in the 1960s and 1970s, but Kenneth Roman’s new book “The King of Madison Avenue” (Palgrave Macmillan) shows how Ogilvy’s revolutionary campaigns for Hathaway shirts and Schweppes sparkling waters changed the whole business of selling in this country.
The book gives us great insight into the workings of Madison Avenue ad agencies in the long-ago era of three-martini lunches and secretary-chasing chronicled in the popular AMC series “Mad Men.”
Ogilvy was born in Scotland, went to work for the London ad agency Mathew & Crowther in 1935, and moved to the United States to seek his fortune in the burgeoning business of selling products (and ideas) in the mass-circulation magazines that dominated the culture in the years before and after World War II.
Ogilvy’s first triumph came in 1951 when the C.F. Hathaway shirt company in Maine wanted to begin competing with giants like Arrow but only had $30,000 to spend.
Ogilvy was still an agency research director at the the time, but he cooked up the idea of putting an eye-patch on model George Wrangel during the photo shoot.
There was nothing wrong with the model’s eye.
“The patch was there to imbue the advertisement with what Ogily called, ‘story appeal,’” Roman writes. “The reader wonders how the arrogant aristocrat lost his eye.”
The first ad in The New Yorker only cost Hathaway a little more than $3,000, but within a week “every Hathaway shirt in stock was sold out. The advertisement caused such a stir that it was reprinted alongside articles in Life, Time, and Fortune. It was imitated around the world.”
“Story appeal” rather than a factual accounting of the virtues of a product would soon become a central element of advertising. Flash forward 40 or 50 years and you’ve got those Bruce Weber campaigns for Abercrombie + Fitch (above) in which it’s hard to spot the “products” being sold in the middle of all that “story appeal.”
Ogilvy eventually became a critic of ads meant to “entertain” rather than sell, and he never really fell in love with TV advertising, so he was viewed as a bit of a dinosaur when sizzle replaced the steak in the slick and elliptical landmark ad campaigns for VW and Alka-Seltzer in the 1960s and ’70s.
Roman points out that Ogilvy was highly prescient in his firm belief in direct marketing campaigns, however. The sort of research-driven, targeted-market ad that Ogilvy believed was the most effective form of salesmanship is now, of course, the foundation of advertising and marketing on the Internet.