Then We Set His Hair on Fire

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Then We Set His Hair on Fire

by Phil Dusenberry

Portfolio © 2005, 290 pages, $24.95 (ISBN 1-59184-082-1).

Insights and Accidents From a Career in Advertising

One big insight is worth a thousand good ideas, according to advertising industry guru Phil Dusenberry. That big insight can initiate “a chain of events that impels you to do something no one else is doing.” A good idea might be a clever commercial, but a big insight can define a brand for years and affect an entire industry. Dusenberry led the team that created such big insights as the slogans, “We bring good things to life,” “It’s not TV, it’s HBO,” and “Visa: It’s everywhere you want to be.” In Then We Set His Hair on Fire, Dusenberry shares his advice and experiences as the chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America, the leading creative shop on Madison Avenue and the flagship of the Omnicom empire.

Pepsi in the News

In an entertaining and often hilarious memoir of his experiences at the top of the advertising game, Dusenberry describes the most memorable moments in his career. These include the event that gave him the name of his book — a day in 1984 when a 26-year-old Michael Jackson at the height of his fame had the misfortune of having his hair catch on fire (started by an errant spark from a stage pyrotechnic) while Dusenberry’s team was shooting its commercial for Pepsi. Dusenberry explains that although Jackson’s injuries were relatively minor, within hours the accident was front-page news in every newspaper around the world and led the evening newscasts.

Although Jackson had to spend a few days in the hospital, the incident ended up having many positive effects — Jackson’s record sales jumped, news coverage gave Pepsi $3 million in free TV airtime and $10 million in newspaper and magazine exposure, and awareness of Pepsi’s advertising went up 24 percent with no spending increase for media. Plus, Jackson won 74 major creative awards for the endeavor. It was also around this time that Pepsi’s competitor lost ground by introducing New Coke — “the greatest marketing blunder of all time.”

Dusenberry explains that his job at BBDO was to “create campaigns that our clients absolutely love. Campaigns that drive sales, change the image, shift attitudes, sometimes alter the entire revenue landscape of a corporation.” The purpose of any business insight is to improve conditions so the business performs better, he writes, so his goal has always been to create great ads for the client that increase sales.

A Phrase That Pays

When discussing the importance of a phrase that pays, Dusenberry offers these elements of a good company slogan:

• It has to be memorable — and force the reader to recall the brand name, either by rhyming (“The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup”) or spelling it out (How do you spell relief? R-O-L-A-I-D-S”) or employing a pun that works for the brand without eliciting a groan (“The Citi never sleeps” for Citibank).

• It has to differentiate: Miller Lite’s “Everything you always wanted in a beer ... and less.”

• It has to be strategic about the product’s use or benefits: Puppy Chow’s “Don’t treat your puppy like a dog.”

• It has to reflect the brand’s personality: Volkswagen’s “Think small.”

• It has to be original: “Nothing else is a Pepsi.”

• It has to be simple: Nike’s “Just do it.”

• It has to make you buy: Frito Lay’s “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

• It has to be extendable into a long campaign, such as the Absolut vodka series. ~

Why We Like ThIS Book

Trying to make headway in a consumer’s mind is difficult business, but Dusenberry describes how it can be enlightening, exciting and fun. By showing how his ideas apply to politics (Reagan’s re-election campaign), golf, spirit (his team created the TV campaign to reinvigorate New York City after 9/11), and selling products, Dusenberry opens up the possibilities of advertising while describing a career that we have all watched unfold. ~

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