Last month’s outpouring of near reverential praise in celebration of what would have been Bill Bernbach’s 100th birthday, couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
As agency people around the world continue to struggle with the redefinition of a constantly mutating ad industry, the retelling of Bernbach’s many pithy and often pointed observations, along with personal accounts of the influence he exerted over an entire generation of ad people, comes as a shot in the arm and a much-needed reminder that fundamentally maybe not so much has changed after all.
What’s most comforting, and also kind of reassuring, is the sense that if Bernbach were alive and in his prime today – saying the exact same things and providing inspiration in exactly same way – he would be equally admired and successful.
His plea, which started as a call to arms and later turned into a battle cry taken up by the true believers of the creative revolution, stands as the defining moment of modern-day advertising: “Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”
The “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen that came out of Bernbach’s agency and which managed to sell a small, ugly-looking, lumbering, German-built car to the post-war, chrome-and-power-obsessed North American car buyers of the day, is a marvel of insight, simplicity and pure art and copy craft.
The “Snowplow” commercial that captured one aspect of the VW story on film, is one of the most brilliant examples of commercial story-telling and virtuoso 30-second film-making … ever.
Bernbach’s deep understanding of what makes people tick and his thoughts on what that means to the communicator are as meaningful today as they ever were.
He once said:
“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”
The reason that the digital revolution and its many social media proliferations have so dramatically changed our world is not because of the technology itself. It’s because of the powerful human instincts that the technology has touched, enabled and, ultimately, unleashed.
Digital media and new technologies have provided human experience with new means of expression, but the impulses that drive the experience are still human.
Social media have blossomed and changed the communications universe because of the significance of the human instincts to which they are aligned – peoples’ desire to be in closer contact with each another, to show one another that they care, to love and to be loved, to feel as though we all count as indivduals – it’s these powerful human forces, magnified and emboldened by technological wizardry, that are changing the world.
We still need to be reminded of these lessons and we need people like Bernbach to interpret them for us. When, and where, do you think we’ll find our next Bernbach?