Here’s a Radical Idea. How About Being Honest?

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“That the best you got Felix? Not very radical is it?”

Well, it’s not a new idea. Bill Bernbach started the whole “honesty in advertising” thing way back in the sixties, and then, it really was radical. The very idea that you would devote a full-page ad to a car that was inferior, or a “lemon,” well that was shocking.

Back then, traditional car ads went on and on about how awesome the cars were. Any flaws were overlooked. Any problems were locked away in deep, dark dungeons, never to be talked about again. The ads painted picturesque Norman Rockwell images of nuclear families, in pastel tones, all ready to take a drive after a good ol’ steak ‘n’ taters dinner. Sure, the husband was beating his wife and kids behind closed doors, drinking bourbon and fingerbanging the secretary at work, but that’s all laundry that wasn’t aired. Happy, blissful, unfettered motoring was all that needed to be talked about.

So, the sheer nerve of saying “hey, some of these cars have problems, so we recall them” was mind blowing. It was…honest. You know, not lying, not “exaggerating the benefit,” but really saying something pure. And the public lapped it up. They loved being treated with that kind of respect. Volkswagens could not be built fast enough. Who’d a thunk it?

Then, Avis came out (courtesy of Bill B.) saying “we’re number 2, so we try harder.”

“Number two? Are you fucking insane? Don’t ever admit that, it will never wor…oh, it worked. Shit. Wow. What the hell is going on?”

Honesty, for a time, was in. It was bold, fresh, different and absolutely wonderful. Even now, I bathe in the glory of those ads. If I was slightly more perverted I’d rub one out to them, but even I have my sick and sordid limits.

Here’s the tragedy, though. Honesty is still a radical idea, right now. In fact, it may be even more radical that it was back in Bill’s day.

Can you imagine, for one tender fucking moment, that those DDB ads would make it past the uptight, creatively-baron boardrooms of today’s neurotic, moneygrubbing corporations? There are shareholders to please. There are corporate standards (oxymoron) to uphold. There are lawyers to contend with. Think about it.

“Christ, what if we put out an ad saying we have to recall some cars, and then the cars that make it to the showroom end up having a mechanical failure? We’re wide open for a goddamned lawsuit, we’ll be ruined. Which twat came up with this stupid fucking idea anyway?! Fire this old-school fucktard, hire an art director to show a pretty picture of the car, throw in a pithy headline if you must – it’s ok to stare – and slap our logo in the corner. That’s it! Anything else is leaving us wide open. Now, I have an enormous bonus check to deposit so leave me the fuck alone.”

Take a quick look at and scour the hundreds of pages of ads. When you find one that’s even trying to be honest, jot it down. Actually, count them on your fingers, you’ll only need one hand anyway. And chances are, that ad is for a smaller business that’s trying to make a splash and doesn’t have corporate lawyers leeching the life out of it yet.

There was an ok-ish movie made in 1990 called “Crazy People.” The premise was great, the execution not so good. It starred Dudley Moore (listen to Derek & Clive if you want to know the real Dudley) as a frustrated creative who was sick of the glossy ads that said nothing. So, he started producing honest ads. He wanted to level with America. There were gems like:

“Buy Volvos. They’re Boxy, But They’re Good.”

“Forget France. The French Can Be Annoying. Come to Greece. We’re Nicer.”

“Quaker Oats. Does This Cereal Taste Great? Who Knows, But The Box Is Cute.”

“Jaguar. For Men Who’s Like Hand Jobs From Beautiful Women They Hardly Know.”

What happens next? They have him committed to a lunatic asylum, but somehow his ads get printed anyway, and the public goes nuts for them. Like selling out of everything, empty shelves nuts. And so, he works on more “true” ads with all the drooling vegetables in the lunatic asylum, because it takes morons to write true ads. Here’s one:

“Porsche. It’s a Little Too Small To Get Laid In. But You Get Laid The Minute You Get Out.”

And eventually, they do an ad for Sony that has the following script:

“The Japanese. They’re short, so their eyes are closer to the components than many other nationalities. Caucasians are too tall and gangly. Look how far away the Caucasian workers eyes are from the integrated circuitry. That’s why Sony products are better. SONY. Because Caucasians Are Just Too Damn Tall.”

Can you imagine, for a second, what would happen if an ad like that ran? Well, maybe not as blatantly racist, but with the honesty of the Volvo or Porsche ad? Aside from the insane amount of free PR it would get, it would be taking a stand in a place that no corporation ever goes. And as Dave Trott has said often, getting noticed is way more important than an ad being liked.

How about some honest ads for products you and I all know well? Here are a few that probably go too far, but…


Want some more? How about…

Toyota. How Big A Discount Will It Take To Make You Forget About Our Runaway Cars?

Levis. Give Your Fat Ass A Chance To Look Less Fat.

Obsession. Smell Like The Attractive Woman You’ll Never Be. It’s Dark In The Nightclubs Anyway.

Well, ok, too far. But what’s better? Blatantly misleading and grossly exaggerating the few benefits of the product, or pushing something truthful? And these days, the truth would stick out like an uncut dick at a Jewish nudist colony.

If getting noticed is key, be honest.
If being memorable is the issue, be honest.
If customer loyalty is needed, be honest.

I think a sharp, but cleverly worded, dose of the truth could really change things for the better. Honest.

Felix Unger is a site contributor, ranter and curmudgeon for The Denver Egotist. He’s been in the ad game a long time, but he’s still young enough to know he doesn’t know everything. If he uses the f-bomb from time-to-time, forgive him. Sometimes, when you’re ranting, no other word will do. In his spare time, he does not torture small animals. He has been known, on occasion, to drink alcohol by the gallon. Do as he says, not as he does.