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How A Beetle And A Mountie Shaped The Ad Business

Take one look at the cover of Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant's new book The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture and it's obvious the publishers are going for that Mad Men appeal.

But unlike the fictional 1960s ad men of that TV series, O'Reilly and Tennant are the real deal. They've been in the business for decades, and in recent years, O'Reilly's taken to sharing the secrets of the ad world on his Canadian radio program also called "The Age of Persuasion."

Take beer, for example.

"I've been in focus groups, very interesting, where you'll have six or seven or eight diehard beer drinkers," O'Reilly tells NPR's Guy Raz. "They'll say, 'I only drink,' and they'll -- whatever it is -- 'Budweiser, everything else is terrible, it's crap, I only drink Budweiser.' Then, you bring in a tray with beer and all the labels pulled off, and they can't find their brand."

There are some exceptions, O'Reilly says -- craft brews, for example -- but in the mainstream categories, it's all image.

"You drink the label and you smoke the advertising," he says.

Advertising wasn't always this way. O'Reilly recounts a turning point at the beginning of the 20th century when a Canadian Mountie named John E. Kennedy approached Albert Lasker, a junior partner at one of the biggest agencies of the day.

"He said, 'I have the secret to advertising, and I know you don't know it,' " O'Reilly says. The secret? "Advertising is salesmanship in print."

Before that, the standard approach to advertising was strictly informative: An ad would reveal how much a product cost, where you could buy it and what it did -- but not much else.

These days, of course, emotional and humorous appeals are the norm, and O'Reilly is never left wanting for material to cover in his CBC radio show. If anything, he says, there may be too much advertising in the world.

"We are the only industry, I think, that creates our own problem in that we create so much clutter, and then we spend every waking hour trying to break through it," he says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.