The great Bill Bernbach and his regrettably-pernicious legacy

Try this simple test.  Ask someone to gather together some samples of current print work from a handful of major financial services providers, and hide the logos;  then see if you can tell which item came from whom.  I think you’ll get most, and probably all, of them right.

Now ask someone to show you a Word document made up of debranded samples of the copy from the same range of providers.  Without the identity of the organisation, and without the visual clues of the design style, I don’t think you’ll have the faintest idea which is which.

I know, I know, my little test isn’t going to happen.  No-one reading this is ever going to ask anyone to prepare the material as I’ve described.  You’d feel like an idiot if you suggested it.  But that doesn’t matter.  Even without ever happening, my hypothetical exercise makes its point:  that designers and art directors care incredibly much more about developing distinctive visual identities than copywriters do about developing distinctive verbal identities.

Or to put the same point in plain English, all copy sounds the same.

Which is where Bill Bernbach comes in.

You remember.

Sure you do.

New Yorker, heyday in the sixties, wrote all those great ads.  VW.  El Al.  Purdue’s Chickens.  (I think it was Purdue’s.) 

Very short.


And paragraphs. 

And always a joke at the end.

Hugely influential.  And hugely successful.

That’s right.  His heyday was the agency’s make-hay day.

Look, sorry, I can’t keep this up.  This sort of stuff is too boring to write, let alone read.  And anyway, it’s getting in the way of the point I’m trying to make – which is, in short, that verbal identity matters at least as much as visual identity.

In fact, in a field like financial services where writing is still so important, I think I could make a case that it matters more.

And yet as far as I know, almost no-one – not the writers who should be fanatically fired-up about the possibilities, not the brand consultants who should understand the potential and not the clients who should be just the teeniest bit concerned that their stuff sounds exactly and precisely the same as everyone else’s – seems to be in the least bit interested in doing anything about it.

There are actually lots of very different reasons for this, and I might come back to this subject another day and suggest some of them.

But for the time being, let’s leave this piece to concentrate on one of them – giving a gentle kicking to one of advertising’s most sacred cows, even if a somewhat unusually Jewish sacred cow.  Thanks for nothing, Bill Bernbach.


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