Marketing Icons: Legendary Ad Man Leo Burnett

Marketing Icons: Legendary Ad Man Leo Burnett

There are few figures in the marketing industry more influential than legendary advertising executive Leo Burnett, whose Chicago-based ad agency, Leo Burnett Worldwide, still bears his name.

Burnett was the man responsible for some of the most iconic advertising campaigns of the Twentieth Century: the Marlboro Man; Tony the Tiger; Charlie the Tuna; Pillsbury Doughboy; and the Jolly Green Giant. And he also coined some of the most memorable marketing slogans of all time, such as United Airlines’ “fly the friendly skies”.

His approach tapped into American values and employed a style of dramatic realism that sought to build brand loyalty from a more ‘soft sell’ approach than audiences of the 1950s had previously been used to. It was a style that tapped into shared emotions and experiences that would have been familiar to the post-war generation, but it also portrayed a masculinity that was reflective of the times. The latter was typified by the portrayal of the Marlboro Man as the very embodiment of American machismo.

[Go to Youtube and view the Doughboy’s first commercial aired on November 7, 1965]

Burnett learned his craft at General Motors, but he left to form his own agency and was credited with creating the ‘Chicago school’ of advertising that blended a certain sentimentality that was drawn from the American heartlands, with which he was intimately familiar.

Far from embodying the ‘Mad Men’ image of fictional slick ad agency executive Don Draper, instead Burnett was somewhat overweight and often disheveled, but the advertising copy that he wrote has earned its place in advertising history and his influence is felt to this day. While the Marlboro Man was credited with helping to build a global brand, it was not without controversy and came to represent a somewhat insidious side to advertising as a powerful force in people’s lives. Despite the success of the Marlboro Man, it also became the focus of anti-tobacco groups and legislative action against the damaging effects of cigarettes, before finally being withdrawn in late 80s.

In 1999, Time Magazine included him among their list of the 100 most influential people of the Twentieth Century – a list that also included great figures such as Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. Burnett’s legacy endures and for anyone wishing to understand the history of advertising and the power of marketing to inspire and influence its audience, then the lessons and the principles that Burnett pioneered remain as relevant today as they were when he first applied them more than half a century ago.

Will Trevor is AMA New York Capital Region's EVP of Programming. He has a background in sales and marketing, where his experience spans both agency and client-side positions. Will also worked in a range of industries, from the public sector, to manufacturing and recruitment. Most recently, he has applied his practical experience to the field of education and training, where he teaches in higher education, both in the UK and the USA. Find out more about Will on LinkedIn.

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