big ideas for the collective desire

by Art Chantry (

when advertising and marketing began, it was a really simple proposition and contrivance. basically, you placed a sales item out there (a sign, a newspaper ad, a magazine ad, a billboard, etc.) that stated what your product was, why it was so great and why you needed it (more than whatever it was that you WERE already using). for centuries, this is what advertising looked like: who, what, when, where, why. exactly like journalism (aka ‘gossip’) – except with a price tag.

after WW2, the entire ad industry went through a massive gyration. a new victorious and peace-hugging group of tired ex-war vets (abroad and at home) wanted to dig into having a real life. since we ‘won’ that war, we needed to sort of start from scratch but with a massive amount of money, power, war-effort invention, goodwill, and new talent fresh from other countries. so, advertising took a new twist. it wasn’t so much of an introduction or description process or a “sworn testimonial to the product’s effectiveness” any longer. it was about a bigger thing, that larger idea of “WHY?” it centered around unspoken psychological desire rather than need. advertising drilled into our psyche in a new way – it sold us things we actively did NOT need and made us WANT it. this was eventally nicknamed the “BIG IDEA.”

the heyday of the ‘big idea’ advertising was the early-to-mid 1960′s (that same period depicted in ‘mad men.”) the “big idea” was king and it ruled the world. also along for the ride was a plethora of wonderful new inventions – television, primarily. the two went hand in hand. but, now when the academics talk about the ‘big idea’ they generally refer to it as an old period advertising style that was quickly outmoded by the advent fo the baby boomers changing the rules of the game with ‘lifestyle’ ads. not true, though. the boomers love to think they re-invented the modern world – but nothing is further from the truth. the boomers simply mastered accepting it as ‘real.’ we still live in a ‘big idea’ world today. just look around you.

this little ad i show you here (it’s from the early 60′s) is what i’m talking about. it’s selling booze. nothing else. something we really don’t need. it’s something we desire that makes our lives “better” (somehow.) the product has status (it’s an ‘upscale’ scotch blend with a ‘higher than the other guy’ price tag.) when you think about it, there’s nothing special about this product at all that just about any other brand can match (alcohol). yet, here it is selling itself as socially desirable, status enhancing, high quality (therefore levitating of you). but, it’s just booze – not even a very special  well made booze. so, why do you want this stuff? what’s the big idea?

it’s simple brilliance is in it’s BIG IDEA sales pitch: “this stuff is too cool for school”. the message behind the ad is so brilliantly simple – “ignore our bullshit, you know you want it, go for it.” the big idea is that you all know it’s the best, so why bother with this sales pitch? then they CROSSED IT OUT! (in RED ink,no less.) a self-negating advert that points out that YOU are too sophisticated and way too smart to be tricked by their own little trick . this is what is meant by “BIG IDEA.”

the best way that a big idea ad was made was through really clever and smart graphic language. nobody really actually reads these things anyway, you have to get the message at a glance – the magic 3-second attention span. the best and most penetrating way is to speak to the viewer through a hidden language they all know, but don’t realize they know it – graphic design. a big red ‘”X” crossing out an ad will immediately grab your attention and convey a specific message. then you read that killer headline (not even the “BIG type” usually associated when we think “BIG IDEA” advert, either. then we see the words “chivas regal” and we instinctively know what it is saying – without even reading it. we already KNOW the message of “too cool for school” that chivas based it’s entire sales mystique upon. so, why bother with the details? you wannit – go git it. ’nuff said.

this sort of advertising has become more and more sophisticated over the years (especially through television). over and over, it’s pounded into our heads like an army drill seargent at work on our collective desires, until we now have ads that don’t even mention a product, but still sell us that product. or we have an ad that simply shows us the ‘logo’ and the brand and sales pitch comes through loud and clear. we watch it, we buy it, we understand it and we give our net worth over readily to possess it (and thereby BE it). we even WEAR it and covet it to the point of committing crimes gainst our collective society to obtain it. we even KILL for it. the power behind the ‘big idea’ is one of the most profound creations of the 20th century.

of course, part of the success of the big idea is the downplaying of that concept. it’s most effective when it’s invisible to those people who even create it. they don’t even really teach it in school anymore, because the BIG IDEA is considerd OLD SCHOOL and tired out. we’ve ‘moved beyond it” into a realm of new terms like ‘branding’ and ‘message” and crap like that. but, it’s all the same thing. it’s our lives now.

the other night i was watching TV and realized that all evening, i had not seen a single advert that was actually trying to sell me anything i actually needed or even wanted. yet, th

sire to possess everything presented was so hammered into my skull over and over that i accepted all that ‘big idea’ world as my reality. i desired everything shoved at me. then i had my epiphany – all of it was crap. not a single thing was of real use to me or my life at all. nada. amazing to realize that not one single thing sold to me all evening was anything that i even wanted at all.

another one of the reasons that the ‘big idea’ has been downplayed in our educations in the sales biz (and all the consumer masses) is the deep irony that it’s most articultate and prominent and successful practitioner was a little outfit that emerged just before WW2. it as a little weirdo crackpot political organization in germany now refered to as ‘the third reich”. hitler (and goebbels, the branding genius) called it “the big lie”. it’s exactly the same thing as ‘the big idea’. the lesson they taught the rest of the world was simply pointing out how well this stuff worked on all of us. and we learned that lesson well – to the point where it is NOW our very model of reality.

whenever i see the word “cool” i respond with repulsion. ‘cool’ is a commodity that has gone out of control. if everything is cool and you MUST have it, then ‘cool’ has no meaning at all. the desire to gain status among our species in a genetic given – we’re all just big naked monkeys, anyway. and “monkey see: monkey do.”

we need to realize our weaknesses here. it’s an election year.


---Read More:

see link at end:The ’50s and ’60s saw advertising transform into a modern approach in which creativity was allowed to shine, producing unexpected messages that made advertisements more tempting to consumers’ eyes.

The Volkswagen ad campaign—featuring such headlines as “Think Small” and “Lemon” (which were used to describe the appearance of the car)—ushered in the era of modern advertising by promoting a “position” or “unique selling proposition” designed to associate each brand with a specific idea in the reader or viewer’s mind. This period of American advertising is called the Creative Revolution and its ‘archetype’ was William Bernbach alongside the DDB agency.
Think Small was an advertising campaign for the Volkswagen Beetle, created by Julian Koenig at the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency in 1959. It was ranked as the best advertising campaign of the 20th century by Ad Age.
The campaign has been considered so successful that it “did much more than boost sales and build a lifetime of brand loyalty [...] The ad, and the work of the ad agency behind it, changed the very nature of advertising—from the way it’s created to what you see as a consumer today.”

And what a concept… At a time when the US consumers were being urged, cajoled and ‘persuaded’ to “think big” along comes this one ad suggesting the opposite. Looking back at the context of that time, it appeared ludicrous. Why? Simply because Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) essentially took a German car originally created for Adolph Hitler (the Volkswagen Beetle) and sold it to post-war Americans through radically styled advertisements. Read More:…/

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