5 Laws of Advertising and Marketing That Haven't Changed in a Half Century

The three-martini wisdom of advertising legend David Ogilvy is as relevant in our age of the internet and social media as it was in his time of three TV networks and daily newspapers.
5 Laws of Advertising and Marketing That Haven't Changed in a Half Century
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The other day on the subway, I came across an advertisement for the travel app Gett that read: “Uber surges, we don't. Now that we have your attention, sex.” I chuckled to myself and, once I got above ground, immediately downloaded the Gett App.

There’s no denying it: marketing has changed. Our delivery mechanisms, our strategies, the way in which we try to be clever (“Lucas uses Venmo”, anyone?) have all experienced a paradigm shift in the last decade or two.

But what’s even more interesting is how much marketing has stayed the same. Certain laws and practices have gone unchanged for over 50 years. In 1963, David Ogilvy wrote (arguably) the first book on modern marketing, entitled Confessions of an Advertising Man. For this, he earned the title “the father of marketing” and is most-likely the basis for Mad Men’s Don Draper.

This praise is not undeserved. It’s uncanny how much his original set of rules holds up in the modern world. From his time (when cowboys gave credibility to cigarettes) to today(with our ubiquitous Lucas Venmo ads), Ogilvy’s philosophy endures.

Here are five of Ogilvy’s Laws that live on in the modern era of marketing.

Law 1: “The consumer isn't a moron. She is your wife.”

While almost certainly sexist by today’s standards, Ogilvy was hinting at a profound truth: companies that value the intelligence of their customers will be rewarded with great customers.

This is truer now than ever before. Before buying a product, 81 percent of shoppers do research online. This means reading reviews, checking warranties, and skewering businesses for the best deals possible. It’s one of the reasons that brand loyalty is fast becoming a thing of the past.  And it’s why ads that reward viewers for stopping, thinking, and asking questions (like “what is Venmo?”) are the ones we remember.

You’re more likely to see this law play out when it backfires. A good example of this is Coca Cola’s recent debacle over a “study” that claimed you could eat or drink whatever you wanted, so long as you exercised enough. It wasn’t long before consumers called B.S. on Coke’s study, going as far as to compare that particular claim to the lies propagated by the tobacco industry.

Lesson learned: your customers are smart, don’t lie to them.

Related: 5 Things Mad Men Taught Us About Leadership

Law 2: “Don't bunt. Aim out of the ball park. Aim for the company of immortals.”

Ogilvy’s “don’t play it safe” philosophy resonates in our digital world, with its constant bombardment of commercials and advertisements. To stand out, you need to be bold.

Red Bull is a good case study. Why are they so successful? Bold branding. When Red Bull entered the United States in the late 90’s, they claimed their energy drink “gives you wings.” As this image evolved, they tapped into people’s love of the extreme. Red Bull didn’t just sponsor extreme sports, they created them. During their annual Flugtag events, people built homemade flying machines and broke world records. There was also that time when they sponsored the longest freefall in history, Felix Baumgartner's iconic 128,000 feet dive.

These kinds of bold, confident campaign moves have put Red Bull in the company of immortals.

Related: Marketers Are No Longer in the 'Mad Men' Era

Law 3: “A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”

Though this sound more like the words of Sun Tzu than of an advertising man, Ogilvy calls attention to a phenomenon that we take for granted today. Modern marketing is a long game. You have to attract customers, close them, and delight them. But before you do any of those, you have to get their attention.

Consider this: companies that publish 16 or more blog posts each month get 3.5x the leads as those that publish 4 or less. Those are some serious numbers for an organic inbound vehicle. Blogging works precisely because it doesn’t call attention to itself. Blogging is for brand awareness and credibility, not for the hard sell. It’s a slow process, one of the many touches needed to make a sale these days. If you try to sell too hard, it’ll knock your credibility level with consumers down by almost a third.

Law 4: “I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information.”

The delicate goal of advertising and marketing is to reach customers where they’re most comfortable and happy, and actually motivate them to do something. Lately, advertisers have been turning to sponsored content to accomplish that.

They inject themselves into high-traffic, high-authority sites (like Shell or Adobe in The New York Times’ T Brand Studios) and offer information, like with any other blog post, that generates more attention for their brand.

And it works. Sponsored content is already 25 percent more successful than display ad units, and generates an 18% higher drive to purchase. People are more likely to trust it because it’s actually helpful (and an ad by itself isn’t).

Related: Here's How Facebook Has Reduced the Need to Pay for PR

Law 5: “What you say in advertising is more important than how you say it.”

Of Ogilvy’s five laws, this one is surely the most controversial. Many marketers would strong disagree and say that how you brand your product is absolutely everything. But this doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. It’s both, with more of an emphasis on what you say (over how you say it).

Take Domino’s campaign to make their pizzas taste better. They acknowledged that they had been getting bad press about their pizzas, and wanted to change things. Since then, Domino’s has followed through and their stock has jumped from $7.73 to $105.11.

It goes back to the first rule: transparency is everything. If you are honest, it matters less how you spin it. Just deliver the truth. If the customer trusts you, they’re more likely to buy from you. It’s not only common sense, it’s common ethics.

What the future holds

Ogilvy’s legacy is as strong as ever. To this day, Ogilvy (the agency) uses his face and quotes in nearly all of their posts. Part of the reason for his enduring legacy is because so much of what he did was based on respect for the customer. That means respecting their intelligence, their needs, and their ambitions in life.

Sometimes marketing gets mislabeled as a form of deception. But it’s not. It’s more about empathy and psychology, and understanding how to put your best foot forward. And not being afraid to be a bit bold in the process.

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