There’s nothing like the real thing

I ripped out a newspaper ad the other day for Sony. It was a good ad, despite a slightly formulaic approach of 'Here's the exaggerated hard way to do it, our product gives you a much easier way, go buy it.'...

I ripped out a newspaper ad the other day for Sony. It was a good ad, despite a slightly formulaic approach of ‘Here’s the exaggerated hard way to do it, our product gives you a much easier way, go buy it.’

The headline was ‘THERE’S AN EASIER WAY TO MAKE GREAT HOME MOVIES.’ The photograph showed Dad at home, reaching out toward a diapered toddler, with a busy film crew of nine behind him. (Only nine? Must have been a non-union job).

The ad was warm and fuzzy, and communicated pretty well, but what I really liked about it was the ambition of the photograph. I don’t see much ambitious photography anymore, and I miss it.

In the Sony ad, somebody had taken an enormous amount of time in casting the shot, propping the set, positioning the performers, lighting the action, and so forth. If you take the time to look at the photo, you’ll be rewarded; I particularly like the guy just behind the baby whose only visible functions are to read a paper and eat a doughnut. I’ve worked with him often.

In the years since the computer took over the world, very few advertisers do ambitious photography. Instead, they take a photo – often not even an original, something lifted from a stock disk – and they toy with it.

They mess with the colours. They change facial expressions into distortions that only Jim Carrey could accomplish in real life. They paint-box four extra clouds into the background, to make sure the viewer feels properly threatened. They suffer an attack of political correctness, and retouch two Jamaicans and a Pakistani into the crowd scene.

The trouble is, they are not really creating their own idea. They are playing around with somebody else’s. The photograph they’re using, even if it was just shot for stock, is built from another guy’s efforts, another guy’s brain, another guy’s DNA. It’s a bit as if Mozart had said, ‘Aaaaahh, screw new symphonies, I think I’ll just fiddle around with what Bach did.’

I once had the immense privilege of working on an account that totally believed in ambitious photography. It was called ‘Sanforized’ and it sold the value of its name to manufacturers in the New York garment business.

Sanforized had to create impact, because all its actual patents had expired, and their customers could use their machinery free. They had to convince the rag trade that the general public would pay more for blouses or underwear with their label attached. As a comparison, imagine if Intel had to stop manufacturing and could only sell that little sticker that says ‘Intel Inside.’

Anyway, we and Sanforized set out to own the New York garment trade papers. And we did… through the power of ambitious photography. There was one campaign with the continuing headline, ‘Don’t Fight The Battle Of The Blends Alone’ (i.e., mixed-fibre fabrics).

We would stage major wars in the streets of New York, generally around 4 a.m., each for the sake of a single photograph. We would have machine-gun nests, mortar explosions, foxholes (well, New York streets already had those), even apparent wrecked planes. Imagine how your average rummy felt, staggering out of the Blarney Stone in the wee small hours and thinking he’d walked into World War One.

It all worked. Garment-industry people looked for the Sanforized ads, talked about the Sanforized ads, kept paying their fraction-of-a-cent-a-yard to use the Sanforized label. It didn’t last forever, but ambitious photography kept Sanforized going for probably 15 extra years. And I came home from Cannes with a Gold Lion, thank you very much.

Forgive me, but here comes Burghardt Speech #764C. Computers are wonderful, but we still sell to people. And one of the things people respond to is ambitious photography, with an idea in it.

Thanks, Sony, for trying to keep it alive.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING • CREATIVE THINKING’. He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072, by fax at (416) 693-5100 or by e-mail at