Advertising and Humanism. An Oxymoron? Interview to Giuseppe Mazza, Advertiser

“Advertising is neither moral nor immoral. Only people are.” This is one of the final statements in the book  Bernbach Pubblicitario Umanista (2014), which in English would be translated as “Bernbach, a Humanist Advertiser”, about one of the greatest and most enlightened advertisers of the 20th century. To talk about advertising, ethics, talent and the importance of having a mentor as a point of reference I have interviewed Giuseppe Mazza, curator of the book and director of the Tita advertising agency as well as the Bill magazine on advertising.

- Advertising and ethics. Why and when is this combination not an oxymoron?

There’s no natural contradiction between advertising and public ethics. It is language spoken by human beings and human beings can always decide how to behave. Personal choices create advertising, with decisions made by a large team of people including clients, consultants, researchers, media planners and various managers. The problem is that it isn’t easy to spot the good and the bad. I mean, if we say that we must respect the public, who doesn’t agree with that? However, as we go into detail, things get complicated and you realise there’s no awareness about language or its consequences and a shared professional culture is missing.

Every brand and every advertiser, for instance, should know that if you really wnat to connect with the audience you can’t do without the truth. How could trust be generated otherwise? Only thus can equal, authentic, genuine conversations be built without patronising tones. Only thus do you not speak a language of power. Yet, not many – from the large group I was describing before – actually accept to follow this rationale.

Luckily, today’s and yesterday’s mentors teach that advertising can become one of the best things in modernity. When I see certain wonderful campaigns, I think that advertisers should be blamed for not making the most of the possibilities they have.

Can we say that advertising is an art form as it seizes the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age? And that, as such, advertising can have an educational role as it directs choices and tastes?

Of course, advertising can seize the Zeitgeist, even though some limit themselves to chasing and replicating it. The difference lies in how in depth you are able to read it. If advertising is observed with critical competence, it can turn out to be a very deep text, whether its authors are aware or not, which also happens with literary texts anyway.

The word art often make people frown – I think that many have a 19th-century definition of art in mind  – but there’s no doubt that, when time has swept away the bulk of the campaigns we see today, the average product, only the real masterpieces of public conversation will be left. Time will judge.

Then, advertising language can take part in the change, we see it all around the world. After all, a magazine like Bill, documents this transformation of a language that is no longer limited to the supermarket. It’s no longer a docile tool of commerce and it embraces the most various causes. I don’t believe it has an educational role, and I don’t trust educational media in general or patronising teachings, but in my opinion advertising should be part of the world as much as the other languages of modernity, such as cinema, photography, design, comics… If you’re there, taking part in the change becomes natural.

 

- You have written a book about Bill Bernbach, one of the 20th century’s greatest advertisers. Why did you choose him as a point of reference? What made him stand out? In general, in any human activity, how important is it to have a mentor or a point of reference?

Initially, I thought about Bernbach simply as an inspiration for the magazine. At that time, I knew his wonderful campaigns, but I’d never have imagined what his stature was. Little by little, as we collected and translated his speeches and interviews, did I realise that I was standing before a real cultural protagonist of the 20th century. That way, issue after issue, the corpus of his texts was created which were published in the book you mentioned.

It’s strange that Bernbach’s contribution hasn’t fully been appreciated so far. It’s as if, according to mainstream culture, the depth of thought and the role of the advertiser could not get along with one another. The truth is, for those working in communication, that Bernbach is like a great mother. He has created the consciuous communicator and on the other hand he has imagined the public as an active interlocutor at the centre of advertising mechanisms totally innovative at that time. He was the first to produce advertising as an equal dialogue between the brand and its audience. In the 1950s, the age of a commercial global spree, he was the first to understand that advertising language would go beyond capitalism.

Today, we find the same advertising mechanisms in rebelling squares and we don’t know to which extent they were already present in his vision. Maybe only Howard Gossage, another independent thinker from the same period, could see so far into the future. In conclusion, mentors are crucial and must be looked for very carefully, in your profession, today and next to you, but even in the history of your profession, because there’s a lack of communication culture. The problem is that without mentors you can easily lose your way due to the problems and urgencies you find in your job every day.

 

What’s your advice to a young professional who has just entered the world of coywriting? Sometimes, the message that is passed is that creativity is a flash, which you have or you don’t, but actually how much work is there behind a flash of genius?

You know, after all giving advice is useless, because unfortunately or luckily experience can’t be transmitted, but I can give some warnings. Looking for a mentor is the top priority. Remember that, when you do a job interview, we as applicants are being evaluated but at the same time we as applicants are evaluating the interviewer. Are we going to enjoy working for the person who is examining us? Do we have a high opinion of this person? I know it sounds daring these days, but without these human bonds professional paths have a short duration and no value.

This is still a beautiful job – for example I like it even more than when I started – but attention, please. It takes a lot of efforts, much more than what you think. The production of a campaign involves so many people and so many opinions that preserving an idea without distorting it is already, as it were, a job in itself. You have to be driven to such an extent that sometimes you may have the feeling it’s an effort out of proportion. I’ve always thought that everything is decided at the beginning when the art director and the copywriter sktech out their ideas on a blank sheet. That is the moment when everything needs to be thought over. It’s in the solitude of the project that you verify how solid the idea is. From that moment onwards, you start with the presentations to the creative director, the client, the production company, the director… And everything can happen to that original idea.

The better the start, the better the journey, which leads me to the other question. Yes, you shouldn’t idealise the moment of the flash of genius. It’s not even a matter of time. There’s a lot of work before that single idea, whether it’s immediate or it has taken time. A famous anecdote we often evoke in our agency is always true. Its protagonist was the great painter Renoir, if I do remember. After completing a quick, beautiful portrait of a good-looking woman, the painter asked for an adequate fee, thus upsetting the lady who burst out ‘How’s that possible? It took you so little time!’ ‘No, madam,’ replied Renoir ‘It took me my whole life.’

Drawing by Rocio Canero

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