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What if Lawyers Wrote Ads?

Lawyers are to creativity what the Gatling gun was to the Spaniards at San Juan Hill. But they weren’t always so powerful, which is why some of the best ad campaigns came out of the lawless Mad Men era of advertising. Here's a look at what some...

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Lawyers are to creativity what the Gatling gun was to the Spaniards at San Juan Hill. The amount of human ingenuity that has been killed dead, forever, by attorneys throughout history is impossible to calculate. If you asked IBM’s Watson the question, it would probably melt. But the legal crows weren’t always so powerful. Back in the good old Mad Men days of advertising imagination came before fear of litigation, resulting in some of the best campaigns ever produced.


In the spirit of the freethinking tradition that they strangled, let's imagine what the world would have been like if lawyers had always operated with their heads stuck halfway into the creative department’s office. Some of our favorite taglines would have been gutted, and advertising would be just as castrated as it is now.

[Lawyer-approved ads are on the right.]

All "lawyer" images by Courtney Nicholas

VW Moon Ad

This ad ran in Life magazine on August 8, 1969, just two weeks after the astronauts of Apollo 11 returned safely to Earth. The ad agency obviously had it in the can, ready to run, and probably sent film of it and a back-up ad to Life, just in case of disaster. Today, a DDB lawyer would have added an asterisk to the headline, or just shortened it like so, and slid it back under Bill Bernbach’s door.


First off, these classic Doyle Bane Bernbach ads would never fly today because of the New Racial Sensitivity. That aside, the brashness of the copy would have sent a 2013 lawyer to his/her thesaurus to try his/her hand at a rewrite anyway.


No nonsense print ad from the late 1960s, part of a classic Volvo campaign that launched the Swedish car in America. Lawyers would have had no alternative headline solutions here for the great copywriter Ed McCabe.

The body copy starts: “It takes about three years to go through a payment book. It’ takes about 11 years to go through a Volvo.” But this ad in today’s market would be construed as an unconditional guarantee. The in-house counselor would have said something like: “Maybe just run a shot of the car with no copy? The car already looks so solid and rugged, doesn’t it?”



One of the most famous—and controversial—copy lines in advertising history was written by a woman from Brooklyn named Shirley Polykoff in the late 1950s. But the line wasn’t turned into a full-on campaign until the 60s, by Foote, Cone & Belding. At the time, male account types thought the line was too suggestive (even though it was immediately answered by the subhead: “Hair color so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure!), but women knew immediately what the ads were talking about.

Today, lawyers would put big asterisk in the headline, and completely kill the intrigue in the subhead.


This slogan dates to the 1940s, but was abandoned long ago.

Lawyer: “’Real’ is such a strong, no-wiggle-room word. How bout, ‘It’s The Thing!’? It’s shorter, and I think it sounds hipper, more with it. Don’t you?”


In the 1950s Mars introduced what is considered one of the biggest lies in advertising history. I’m surprised the Hackettstown, New Jersey confectioner hasn’t been sued into dust by now.


This line first appeared in the 1930s, and became the best cereal tagline in the history of cereal taglines. For years, athletes weren’t considered truly great until they had made it onto a box of Wheaties. And so, so many post World War II children fruitlessly woofed box after box of the wheat and bran flakes in hopes of becoming a “champion.”

Time-traveling General Mills lawyer: “We are intrinsically implying that anybody who eats Wheaties will become a champion. I’m sorry, please find another word.”


De Beers

A female NW Ayer copywriter, Frances Gerety, came up with this empire-creating tagline in 1948. As with Coke’s line, today’s sharks would have jumped all over “Forever.” Insert question mark and BAM—instant legal insulation.


Electrolux’s story is well known by ad creatives, and they love to wax on about it at cocktail gatherings. (Not me, I don’t talk about ads, ever, outside of an ad agency. Yuck.) The tagline dates to the 1960s, and it is not a translation error: the Swedish brand meant for it to be a double entendre.

Today, “nothing” is a no good, unqualified word in legal circles. Let’s just make a shorter, stronger more positive statement, shall we?

This is of course a modern campaign that somehow slipped through the legal, creativity-killing net. Considering all the married men and women who slutted it up in Vegas and then got caught back home, how is this city not bankrupt from lawsuits?

(Inspiration for this post is via the Tumblr If Ads Were Written By Lawyers, whose author unfortunately stopped after four entries. Start it up again, Sir/Madam!)

(For more on the best ads of the Mad Men era, I suggest the book When Advertising Tried Harder, available on Amazon. It’s a fantastic book.)