The Sound of Progress: Ep 1: Bill Bernbach

In the 18th Century, philosopher George Berkeley raised a question that we’ve all come to know:

“If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Anyone in the communications world can confidently answer, “Nope.” There are countless things happening at any given time — loads of noise pouring into every possible channel — but if no one reacts or responds, they may as well have never been. One key job of any marketer or advertiser is to get brands noticed and talked about; or, thought of another way: To persuade people to listen.

In that respect, really good marketers are — and always have been — the behind-the-scenes engines that power the world’s most progressive leaps forward. For every great inventor, scientist, musician, artist, etc., there was a communications wiz who made sure that critical invention, breakthrough, song, painting, etc., didn’t die unnoticed in the woods. The creator gives a thing birth; but the marketer gives it life.

Which brings us to this column: The Sound of Progress.

In it, we will periodically celebrate some of the greatest marketing and advertising minds of our time, and honor their contributions to our world. First up, the man who lured me into advertising not just through the genius of his work, but by showing that it could be as viable and meaningful an art form as any other: Bill Bernbach.



Why he matters:

AdAge called Bernbach “the single most influential creative force in advertising’s history.” And with good reason.

In the late 1950s, print and TV advertising content was largely over-the-top bluster, rife with gimmicks:

A gleaming sports car with features screaming out in starburst form (“375 horsepower!”); cigarettes square dancing (no, really); and goofy jingles that were employed to help you remember things you could care less about.

Bernbach shattered all that.


He was one of the first ad pros who understood the importance of starting with the customer. What could you say about a product that would really matter to them? Great communication is about more than grabbing attention with gimmicks; it’s about having something important to say. This was a revelation in 1949, when Bernbach — along with Ned Doyle and Mac Dane — opened their would-be legendary agency, DDB.

By focusing on the customer, and the customer experience, Bernbach understood the first part of great advertising. The second part is crafting a message “memorably and artfully and persuasively, so that it is remembered and acted upon.” Determining a product’s or brand’s differentiator is part of any modern creative brief, and has been for years. But it didn’t exist before Bernbach. He emphasized the importance of knowing what made a brand different, and then saying so “in an original, fresh and imaginative way. [Because] as soon as you say it in a way that has been said before, you reduce your impact.”

More bits of wisdom, from the master himself:

“Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.”

“An important idea not communicated persuasively is like having no idea at all.”

“The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”

“Getting your product known isn’t the answer. Getting it WANTED is the answer.”

“It is insight into human nature that is the key to the communicator’s skill … The writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings, [but] the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it.”


A case study in transformation:

The iconic Volkswagen “Think Small” campaign.

In 1958, Volkswagen came to DDB, looking to market its Beetle in the U.S. The car had no position in the marketplace; it was small and ugly, in an era when desirable cars where big, fast and beautiful. Even worse: This was a German car company trying to sell in America while World War II was still fresh on everyone’s mind; the Nazi’s surrender has happened only 13 years before. Wait, it gets even worse: The development of the VW was actually a pet project of Adolf Hitler himself; his goal was to create a “People’s Car” that would be accessible and affordable to all members of the Third Reich and their families.


Faced with these near-impossible challenges, what did Bernbach do? Turned the very standard of car advertising on its head.

He wrote a counterintuitive headline, “Think small,” that turned one of the product’s chief negatives into a positive. He stripped away all of the color and gimmickry that was common in modern car ads; instead, he delivered a thinking-person’s approach that had never been seen before — focusing on how small cars were becoming the new norm, due to their low maintenance and cost-effectiveness.

The result is one we all know: A brand that has achieved a level of loyalty with its audience that is borderline cult-like.

The VW badge reflects the identify of its drivers arguably more than any other car brand. Driving a Volkswagen isn’t just a choice in vehicle, it’s a statement about who you are* — a smarter driver, a progressive thinker, an iconoclast. And the DNA of that very concept can be sourced all the way back to that first ad in 1959.

VW Think Small

*In the late ‘90s, an account exec gave me a ride to our agency’s holiday party. It was an unusually bitter December night. She pulled up in a 1968 VW Karmann Ghia. The car was a beater. There was a hole in the passenger’s side floorboard; I could see the street zipping by under my feet. Shivering, I reached for the temperature gauge. “Oh no, forget it,” she waved me off. “Heat doesn’t work.” My eyes popped out. “Seriously?!” I said. “How can you drive like this? It’s freezing in here.” She shrugged and said, “Those are the sacrifices you have to be willing to make to drive a Volkswagen.” WOW. Talk about an aspirational brand, to suggest that YOU should sacrifice for IT. Now, granted, this co-worker of mine was a little nuts. But, still: You’ve probably known people who’ve had similar feelings about their VWs. And you would never, ever hear some Toyota or Honda owner say something like that. Those are great brands, to be sure; but Volkswagen is something else altogether. And in creating that brand, Bernbach set a standard that we still reach for today.

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