AdMan: What you can learn from Marilyn Monroe's rear

Marketing guru Steve Henry looks to Marilyn Monroe and her affair with JFK as the ultimate lesson in advertising

It’s struck me after working in this industry for a very long time, the thing which is wrong with advertising is… advertising. Advertising, per se, feels desperate.

This used to be a problem just for luxury brands.

Because luxury brands always struggled with the conundrum of doing adverts, while looking down their noses at it – a bit like those sales assistants whose role is to make you feel you shouldn’t be in the store because you’re not posh enough.

The danger was that advertising could look slightly “desperate” for a luxury brand… whereas now it can look desperate for virtually all brands.

Because increasingly it’s seen as a tax on an inferior product.

The theory goes like this: if a product is good, people talk about it and you get to hear about it. If it isn’t, it advertises.

But before we dispatch the entire industry to second careers in property development and alternative therapy, let’s draw a distinction here between publicity (which is gold-dust) and advertising (which by and large these days, is not.)

So, when Marilyn Monroe said “Chanel No. 5”, after an interviewer asked her what she wore in bed, that’s fantastic publicity. If you were Chanel No. 5, you couldn’t buy publicity like that. 

The trouble is that these days you would try, and, as a result, it would be advertising and it wouldn’t be a tenth so effective.

As Douglas Coupland wrote once, “purchased experiences don’t count”. And advertising is a paid-for experience inviting you to pay for another experience.

But the answer to this problem is disarmingly simple: be entertaining. Advertising button-holes, while publicity seduces. Publicity engages, but advertising… bores.

Increasingly, it’s about being entertaining enough to get into mainstream culture – to be the stuff, not the stuff that interrupts the stuff.

So let’s focus on another area of Hollywood history. Marilyn Monroe’s bottom.

I’m thinking particularly of the time when she kept John Kennedy waiting at a party for two hours. And the reason she was late? Because a friend of hers was helping her into “the tightest god-dam dress I have ever seen on a woman”. The quote comes from the friend in question, a certain Milt Ebbins. 

When she arrived at the event, the guests apparently “parted like the Red Sea”. One guest described her staged entrance as being “magical … Everything stopped. Everyone stopped.” 

By the end of the evening she and JFK had swapped phone numbers – and later went on to sleep together.

In marketing terms, she achieved impact, awareness, desired customer response, trial, sampling and an ongoing interactive relationship. She went all the way down the funnel of response. Which is essentially what people in marketing all want to achieve through their creativity.

(I’m not sure they had loyalty card in those days. But I suspect JFK would have given her one.)

What can we learn about this, in terms of creativity in marketing?

1. She aimed high. Don’t try to pull the guy in accounts. Pull the President.

2. She didn’t care about deadlines. It was more important to be right than to be on time.

3. She really cared about initial impact. First impressions count. 

4. She realised she would only achieve her target by doing something extreme, “The tightest god-dam dress” etc., in any creative endeavour, you need a first or a most.

Of course there are a series of other questions which are raised.

Like, who is Milt Ebbins, and how did he get that job? And was it polite for everyone to stare at her entrance?

But essentially MM was demonstrating the sheer chutzpah needed to achieve ambitious targets. Then again, her stated ambition was “to be wonderful”.

Is that something which most brands would be brave enough to claim ?

In a highly competitive business world many clients are incredibly risk-averse – like a bunch of Nice Knievels trying to reverse a double decker bus over some rather sexy motorbikes.

I’m not sure that image works. But it’s probably lodged in your head. Sorry about that.

I’m also reminded of Otto Rehhagel, the German football coach employed by Greece for a while. His philosophy was ultimate safety and caution, at all costs, but don’t lose. It worked for a while, but it was dire to watch. 

Now if nobody wants to watch you play international football, maybe that doesn’t matter. But if you play safe with your advertising, nobody will want to engage with it and then you’ve got a problem.

Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in Campaign Magazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising over the past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.

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