Thursday, November 18, 2010

Don't-Miss Book: The Man Who Sold America

Let me recommend a fascinating new book for everyone interested in communications or the art of persuasion – “The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (But True) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century.” It makes a compelling case that Lasker was not just the father of advertising as we know it today, but also an important pioneer in political campaigning, management consulting and philanthropy – all without any formal education.

Lasker joined a Chicago ad agency, Lord & Thomas, straight from a Galveston, Tex., high school in 1898, a time when agencies did little more than purchase newspaper space for bland ad copy typically written by the client. He realized that more creative copy emphasizing the benefit to the buyer – “salesmanship in print” – could get greater results for the client and expand revenues for the agency. His emphasis on research, targeting, testing and “creative” soon turned small struggling clients into powerful national brands – Palmolive soap (emphasizing beauty over mere cleanliness), Puffed Wheat (“shot from guns”), Goodyear tires. He rolled independent orange producers in California into a single brand, SunKist, and got Americans drinking OJ. He turned a funny-tasting condensed milk made by Van Camp into the market leader by telling buyers to insist on its special “almond flavor.” And he created a dominant brand out of Lucky Strike by promoting benefits for the throat and weight-loss.

Through the new medium of radio he got Americans to begin brushing their teeth, which most had never done before. The client was a relatively unknown toothpaste. Lasker identified unknown artists, bought time for them to appear regularly on radio shows, and soon the entire nation was eagerly tuned in to Pepsodent ads on “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and a new comic named Bob Hope.

At the request of the Republican Party, he essentially redefined political campaigning. His innovative P.R. helped get Warren Harding elected, and Lasker played a leadership role in defeating the socialist/author Upton Sinclair in his bid to become governor of California. He also mounted a major campaign – enlisting Adolph Ochs and his New York Times, among others – against Georgia in its perceived railroading of Leo Frank, a Jewish accountant convicted of raping and killing a young girl in Atlanta, with essentially no evidence. The national spotlight condemning Georgia probably led to the lynching of Frank by a Ku Klux Klan mob, and left Lasker wondering about his role in the tragedy.

Lasker’s friends and colleagues formed a Who’s Who of the first half of the century: Walt Disney, Wendell Willkie, Joe Kennedy, William Randolph Hearst, Will Rogers, David Sarnoff, Henri Matisse, William Wrigley Jr. (with whom Lasker shared ownership of the Chicago Cubs and helped baseball recuperate from the devastating Black Sox scandal of 1919).

Despite it all, he agonized that he had never really accomplished anything of importance; he was driven to be “consequential.” Late in his life, that came to pass. With his dynamo of a third wife, he turned his attention to charities, and in his last decade created new fund-raising strategies that began attracting tens of millions of dollars into planned parenthood and other “consequential” causes. Their work resulted in the first federal funding for cancer research and, in effect, the current versions of the American Cancer Society, National Institutes of Health and National Institutes of Mental Health.

The book is written by Jeffrey Cruikshank and Arthur Schultz, who was CEO of the agency that succeeded Lord & Thomas. It’s a fascinating insight not just to a single man, but to the formative years of modern media and modern communications.

- Potomac Communications Group

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