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Who Is David Ogilvy?

The New York Times said David Ogilvy was the Father of the Soft Sell

The hard sell is the in-your-face way of selling products. It’s the strategy employed by timeshare salespeople, car dealers, Billy Mays, and the Bass-O-Matic. The hard sell’s equivalent in the music world is angry metal and the soft sell is a lullaby,

The soft sell is intended to soften us up through shrewd use of images, words, and music. This gives us good feelings about the product without even being conscious of it. Once our resistance is thus weakened, research shows the best sales technique is suggesting, persuading, and enticing. You may have seen it firsthand at high-end jewelry sellers, boutiques, and funeral homes.

The first recorded example of the soft sell in print advertising

Historians say it was in 1914 and headlined “What more is there to be said?” And they went on to say a lot. Here’s the full-page ad that ran in The Saturday Evening Post. Look how the text takes up most of the page. What was startling about this Cadillac ad was that it didn’t show a picture of the car.

Did you know Cadillac dominated the U.S. luxury automobile market for decades? 

Infiniti tried the same thing in 1989

Their first TV spot never showed the car. Instead they went metaphysical, showing only a flock of geese flying as the whispered voice-over sounds like a pretentious poet reading a poem about nature.

David Jacobson of The Hartford Courant mocked the entire notion as “Transparent transportation! The stealth sedan! The biggest tease since Gypsy Rose Lee!” Click here to see the television commercial.  

Did you know Lexus outsells Infiniti by five to one in the USA?

Britannica calls David Ogilvy the Father of Branding 

After learning from the research, Ogilvy said the next step was decide what image would be best for the brand. To him, image meant personality. “Products, like people,” he’d say, “have public personalities that define who they are and what they do.”


One of his most famous quotes is “There isn’t any significant difference between the various brands of whiskey, or cigarettes, or beer. They are all about the same. And so are the cake mixes and the detergents and the margarines. The manufacturer who dedicates its advertising to building the most sharply-defined personality for its brand will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.”

Ogilvy created two distinctive personalities known by everyone in England

Hathaway shirts used a distinguished aristocratic man with a beard after Ogilvy did his in-depth research of Hathaway customers. On a whim, Ogilvy picked up an eyepatch and The Hathaway Man was born. Did you see the man in the background looking on with admiration and envy?

Commander Schweppes was also portrayed as a man of taste and distinction, much as Dos Equis did with its Most Interesting Man in the World ads: bearded, graying, and sophisticated. Look how delighted the fashionable young café couple is to see him.

Wikipedia says David Ogilvy is the Father of Advertising*

In 1932, after a short stint as an apprentice chef, he sold coal-fired cooking stoves door-to-door. Ogilvy said of the experience, “I learned to sell, which means listening more than you talk, knowing your product inside and out, having a sense of humor, and telling the truth.” 

Ogilvy was so successful that the owner of the stove company asked him write an instruction manual

It would be the way for him to pass on his knowledge and skills for all the company’s salesmen to use. Impressed by how organized, simple, and well-written the manual was, Fortune magazine called it the finest sales manual ever written. 

The Mather & Crowther agency was impressed, too

They hired Ogilvy as an account executive. After three years in London learning as much as he could about the advertising world, David Ogilvy came to America. He took a job with Gallup’s National Research Institute. Later he called it the luckiest day of his life because it was there he learned so much about people. This learning sold him on research needing to be an essential part of his advertising. Because he had learned the value of good research, his conclusion was his ads would deal with reality. 

In 1949, David Ogilvy started his own agency

Ogilvy stood the advertising industry on its head with a novel idea “Treat customers as if they were intelligent. The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife, so try to not insult her intelligence.” 


Ogilvy stressed the importance of featuring the product’s benefits in advertising because “Consumers buy products whose advertising promises them value for money, beauty, nutrition, relief from suffering, social status and so on.” Ogilvy believed it was advertising’s job to sell and the best-selling advertisements are based on using research to know and understand customers

Ogilvy used what he learned from his research at Gallup

He decided his agency would be fully committed to creating ads that were factual and informative, relying heavily on headlines. He considered headlines to be the most important element of any print ad because his research showed five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. “The headlines which work best are those which promise the reader a benefit,” he said.

David Ogilvy’s best-selling headline

Most of us know Rolls-Royce as the expensive, high-quality automobile favored by English royalty, landed gentry, and Al Czervik. On the road it was comfortable, spacious, and quiet. In print ads the headline was “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.” 

Ogilvy’s research revealed that helpful information is read by nearly twice as many people as copy that deals only with the product

Ogilvy believed in writing lots of copy because “The more you tell, the more you sell.” He insisted his copywriters write naturally, using their everyday speech and without grabbing for a thesaurus. He liked to say he didn’t know the rules of grammar, but “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.”  

Ogilvy believed the function of advertising is to sell

He learned from his research that the most effective way to persuade people buy a product is to use the everyday language they not only speak in, but think in, too. He instructed copywriters to use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. “Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally,” he said.” They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”

Ogilvy was well-known for being outspoken and direct

For one not schooled in grammar, he knew a great deal about how to use words to sell products and fel this way about it:

“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon. Advertising is a business of words, but advertising agencies are infested with men and women who cannot write. They cannot write advertisements and they cannot write plans. They are helpless as deaf mutes on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.”  


From his JDPower experience, Ogilvy determined it was of the utmost importance that  his agency use research to understand how prospective customers think and speak. He knew research would tell him about customers’ vocabularies and how to use their language in headlines, copy, and sales letters

A final thought from David Ogilvy

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decoded enemy signals. If you’ve done the research to understand what your audience needs and the language they use when they’re speaking about your topic, you’d be a fool to ignore the information. Never stop testing, and your advertising will never stop improving.”


In the event you are tempted to say all these principles are known to everyone in and around advertising, remember David Ogilvy was the first to come up with most them.**


William Bernbach, right beside Ogilvy on advertising’s Mount Rushmore, was one of Ogilvy’s competitors. His philosophies on advertising were in many ways similar to Ogilvy’s, so he is also credited with changing the face of advertising in the United States. As the The New York Times explained in its excellent obituary, Bernbach steered advertising away from the hard sell to the soft sell.

An avid reader of sociology, philosophy, and literary criticism, his ads were sparse, believable, and broke the rules used by other ad agencies. Bernbach insisted on keeping his artists, copy writers, and graphic designers insulated from direct contact with clients, salespeople, and marketing people. The idea was the creatives (industry jargon) would be able to work more pleasantly and productively if they were kept insulated from people who not only know little about advertising, but also manage to be blissfully ignorant of their ignorance, what Daniel Kahneman called being blind to their blindness. 

Here are William Bernbach’s two most famous ads:

Everyone who read magazines back then would have seen this ad and dozens more with the same look and feel but different headlines and photos.


If you ever rode the New York City subway, you’ve seen hundreds of versions of this, with different ethnicities, jobs, and situations, all with the same headline.

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*Many consider his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, to be the industry bible.

**It all sounds so familiar now, but back then, no one else was thinking that way. Remember, these are advertising’s ancestors.

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