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More Classic Ads Ruined by Lawyers

Last month, I speculated what would have happened if legal eagles had flown unimpeded through the creative halls of the great 1960s ad agencies by presenting ten of the greatest campaigns in history as they would have looked had they been gutted by...

Lawyers kill things. It's what they do. They kill humans, justice, investigations, freedom, legitimate elections, fetuses, souls, and breakthrough ideas. Unfortunately, because of their elevated levels of education and John Grisham, most lawyers think they are fantastic writers, when in reality they wouldn’t know a creative idea if it took a dump in their mouths.

Last month, I speculated what would have happened if legal eagles had flown unimpeded through the creative halls of the great 1960s ad agencies, and presented ten of the greatest ad campaigns in history as they would have looked gutted by lawyer rewrites. That little exercise pissed off a staggering number of attorneys, so I decided to create another collection of classic ads, theoretically rewritten by lawyers.


[Lawyer-approved ads are on the right.]

Western Union

New York ad agency Benton & Bowles (which was swallowed into nonexistence by Publicis) brilliantly used the printed page as a product demonstration for their client, Western Union. The negative psychology challenged—nay, dared—the reader not to read the copy. Today it remains one of the most powerful print ads ever created.

Here’s the imagined conversation between an in-house crow and the ad’s copywriter, garnered from years of experience in these idiotic conversations myself:

Lawyer: “You’re telling people to not read the ad. So they won’t. It will fail, epically.

CW: “Did you read the copy?”

Lawyer: [hesitantly] “Yeah… But if the headline said “Read It” I would have read it… in a more positive light.”

CW: “Positive how?”

Lawyer: “Just change the fucking headline, Kerouac.”


In 1962, Avis was in fact not actually number two in the car rental industry. They were number four or five, depending on the source. They were failing, terribly. Enter Doyle Dane & Bernbach and their legendary “We Try Harder” ads. This was the original great “challenger” brand campaign.

The ugly, type-heavy layouts that delivered uncomfortable truths tested miserably. Research overwhelming indicated the campaign would fail. Once the ads started running, the actual number two and three car rental companies threatened lawsuits. If lawyers had wielded power at DDB, the ads never would have even been presented to the client. But they were, and they were bought, and they launched a company.


Anyway, this would have been the legal rewrite, which lists Avis’s real market position at the time and eliminates the impossible-to-prove “try harder” claim.


Another in-your-face, negative tone ad from a great barebones campaign via New York agency Ally & Gargano that launched the Swedish car in America. This ad was probably written by Advertising Hall of Fame copywriter Ed McCabe, who never graduated high school.

Here’s part of the (probable) agency lawyer’s conference room soapbox speech, killing the ad:

“You’re fucking kidding, Ed, right? Forgetting for a second that you put “hate it” and our client’s product in the same ad, let’s talk about the legal implications. If people were to actually “drive it like they hate it” [uses air quotes], they would at best not perform basic maintenance on the car, rendering it less long-lasting, and at worst, drive it off a cliff or something and maybe hurt themselves or others. So let’s go with my tweak on the headline.”


George Lois created this 1966 lipstick ad while he was a partner at Manhattan agency Papert Koenig Lois. Lois is correctly considered the original Mad Man, but he doesn’t like the show, or Don Draper:

All that’s on the minds of the characters on the show is getting laid, screwing their secretaries, and drinking all day. They don’t talk about anyone having any type of talent. I told somebody that maybe I criticize it in a way that Mafia guys probably criticize The Sopranos.

In this ad Lois spoofed the instant glamor approach that was (and still is) popular in beauty product advertising using comedian Alice Pearce and sultry model Joey Heatherton, probably best known for her Serta commercials.

In-house counsel would have just ripped the indefensible (legally speaking) ad in half, and told Lois to rewrite the copy.