Confessions of an Advertising Man, by David Ogilvy

Monday, 3 February 2014

What’s most startling about reading this 1963 book on advertising is how much of the advice is still valid.


There are some elements of Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy that have aged, such as a comment that women should should leave the workplace to care for their babies. There’s also reams of name-dropping, and a cosy Old Tie Club element to sections of it which sits uncomfortably with modern propriety.

The chapter on writing copy, however, could be used word-for-word for explaining succinct writing now. Most of Ogilvy’s rules on copywriting are the same as the rules on writing in plain English. This book actually made me think on how to use it the next time I’m told plain English is some modern fad…

There are even elements that apply for writing online link bait now. Ogilvy loved a numbered list more than buzzfeed does, and he knew you had to get your keywords into the headline.

The cover of the edition I got cheekily steals its design from Mad Men, the TV series that stole its entire character from this book to start with. So here’s a bonus video.

This is the Age of the Train

Saturday, 28 July 2007

I travel by train a lot. I was, if not actually born, raised on the railways. Childhood holidays included Camping Coaches in Marizion, and trips through the Alps. So as well as doing things like the trenhotel to Barcelona, I also use the train nearly weekly, often to get up to London. Exeter has two routes up to town: the old Great Western to London Paddington and the old London & South Western to London Waterloo. I mostly use the Paddington route. First Great Western, who now run the route (and Exeter St Davids station – see fulminate’s architectures of control blog for my thoughts on that), have taken to advertising their cheap fares. When I first saw the advertising campaign they ran from winter 06 till summer 07, I burst out laughing. Here’s an example of one of the posters, along with what it instantly reminded me of:

Hitchcockian train travel ~ bass

Saul Bass is one of my favourite graphic designers, who produced many fabulous title sequences as iconic as the Hitchcock films they introduce. For example, the title sequences to Vertigo, North by Northwest and Pyscho. Bass tended to favour a limited set of bold colours (like the FGW adverts) and reduce forms to shapes (like the FGW adverts). The image is often tilted to induce a sense of being off-balance (like the FGW adverts).

The problem here is that the advertisement designed by FGW wants to entice us to use their online booking in order to get cheap fares, but it uses iconographic images which suggest the nightmarish world of Hitchcockian chaos where the everyman is confused, bewildered and caught up in a system they do not understand. A world in which Jimmy Stewart is conned and sent insane. A world in which a simple error results in Cary Grant being forced to flee on a train before being attacked by a crop-spraying plane and eventually dangled off a cliff. A world in which strangers on a train plot murders. Is that really want FGW want their potential customers to be reminded of when trying to get them to use a train booking system?

The campaign seems to be being replaced with a rather more boring set of posters which lack the same accidental subtext but also any visual flair.

Some other random train advertising fun:
The National Rail Musuem’s History of British Railway Posters
Screenonline’s history of British Transport films

You tube finds – WARNING! once you start watching old adverts on you tube, forever will you be in their thrall (due to the “similar videos” listing):
This is the Age of the Train (late 1970s)
British Rail – Relax (1980s)
British Rail – The Night Mail (1980s)
GPO Film Unit – The Night Mail (1936 – music by Britten, words by Auden)
Intercity brings something good (pre-decimalisation)
British Rail Weekend Away advert (very Benny Hill – BR appears to be a cheap date)
Cyclists’ Specials 1 Cyclists’ Specials 2

I’m not the only person to notice Hitchcock had a thing about trains.

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