Revisiting the Work of One of the 20th Century's Best Ad Men

Fresh from the industry’s creative revolution in the 1960s, the art director George Lois helped make some of the greatest advertisements of the modern era.

Courtesy of George Lois / The Atlantic

Until the late 1950s, American advertising had been plagued by work that the writer Aldous Huxley referred to as possessing “a moderate excellence ... not too good, but sufficiently striking.” In other words, these ads weren’t bad, just acceptable; they were mediocre despite the awards they won. But then in the 60s came the so-called “Creative Revolution,” helmed by a new breed of daring Jewish, Italian, and Greek American art directors. Armed with artistic intelligence, conceptual sophistication and theatrical flair, they were gung-ho about going head-to-head with the industry’s white, Anglo-Saxon old guard. And their work paid off.

The 1960s was a period informed by the Civil Rights movement, the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, the Vietnam War, and other shifts during the turbulent, roller-coaster decade that altered America forever. These changes also served as  the underpinning for some of the best ad men of the time. But by the 1970s, the “big idea” creative agencies were winning their share of awards and accolades too, for commercials that won over print and TV audiences with their wit, not just their sales pitches.

But what set the 70s apart from the previous decade? After all, much of the ad work done in the 70s drew from the same cleverness and creativity that first sprang up in the 60s—a time when unconventional became memorable, and memorable meant capturing a substantial market share of hearts and minds.

It was true that by the 70s, “watching TV, you would see a damn good TV spot every night,” said George Lois, the legendary art director and a pioneer of the Big Idea, who helped emancipate advertising from the hard sell. But as ads grew more creative and alluring, said Lois, “the more the establishment agencies, including Ogilvy, tried to sell advertising as a science, not an art.” In other words, by the 70s, the industry was increasingly driven by psychological research and market testing, which contributed to large-scale shifts in product loyalty.

Another seismic shift brought on by the Creative Revolution was the introduction of the writer and artist/designer as a team. Lois, who was trained as a designer, often served in both roles.

Courtesy of George Lois

UniRoyal’s vinyl, Naugahyde, became a cultural icon after Lois created the mythical Nauga species, made into an ugly doll who shed its skin for the benefit of sitting (on a chair). Surprisingly, some people thought it was a real leather-baring creature.

Courtesy of George Lois

Royal Air Maroc’s “I’m off on the road to Morocco ... again” ad featured Dorothy Lamour 30 years after her co-starring role with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in The Road to Morocco—a memorable way to put an unknown airline on everyone’s lips.

Courtesy of George Lois

In Off Track Bettings’s NYBets ads, Lois renamed the one-time horse betting salons to sound like “NY Mets.” He also hired celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Carol Channing, Jackie Gleason, and Bob Hope to wear the NYBets shirts in wonderfully surprising testimonial photos.

Courtesy of George Lois

Cutty Sark’s defiant “Don’t Give Up The Ship” ad encouraged customers not to switch brands—and convinced Cutty not to scuttle its famous label.

Courtesy of George Lois

Lois produced the boxer Rubin Hurricane Carter’s campaign for a new trial following his wrongful murder conviction as a series of New York Times spot ads with headlines like, “Counting today I have sat in prison 3,3135 days for a crime I did not commit.” And, “When I was sentenced to 197 years in prison, even my father felt that if a jury found me guilty, then I must be guilty.” Each ad was signed, “Rubin Hurricane Carter, No.45475, Trenton State Prison.” Lois’s campaign enlisted dozens of celebrities, from Bob Dylan to Burt Reynolds, to advocate for a new trial. (Carter was released in 1985.)

Though some of Lois’s best work came in the 80s and 90s, many of the 1970s ads for which he served as art director represent a spectrum of work that helped define the decade—the kind of work Huxley called “impressive, haunting and fascinating in [its] own right.”