One day, when I was at art school in New York, I walked past a newsstand.
The booths where they have all the magazines hanging outside.
I glanced at it and I stopped dead.
I promise you I nearly fell over.
All over the newsstand was that month’s Esquire cover.
The entire front page was a photograph of a smiling Lieutenant William Calley with several little Vietnamese children sitting on his lap.
That doesn’t mean much nowadays.
But Lt. Calley had been in charge of the platoon that went into a Vietnamese village and murdered 250 defenceless women, children, and old people.
The entire platoon had gone insane with blood lust.
One soldier ran out of ammunition, stripped naked and jumped on an Ox’s back, stabbing it to death with his bayonet.
Because he’d run out of things to kill.
At the time, we couldn’t comprehend it.
It was beyond horrific, it was surreal.
And here was the man in charge of the platoon who did it.
Like a family photograph.
There was no such thing as Photoshop in those days, so this was real.
The first question that jumped into my mind was how the hell did they get Calley to do that?
What did they do?
Years later I read the answer in George Lois’s book, “The Art Of Advertising”.
George Lois was one-man creative hurricane.
As well as advertising, he designed restaurants, packaging, interior design, magazines, and anything else he could get his hands on.
For two decades he designed Esquire covers.
His single-story front cover visual changed magazine design ever since.
Dozens of them are in the permanent collection of MOMA.
In his book he writes about what he said to Lieutenant Calley to persuade him to do the cover.
He said, “Look, some people will look at it and think you’re guilty, some people will look at it and think you’re innocent. But, either way, it shows everyone that you’ve got nothing to hide.”
And it worked, Calley posed for the cover.
You can’t imagine the shock value now.
Just the same as you can’t imagine the shock value of seeing the Esquire cover with Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Tomato Soup.
Those covers have been so imitated, it’s not unusual anymore.
That’s what happens when you change things.
And George Lois was always desperate to change things.
To challenge conventional thinking, wherever he found it.
Even something as small as a half page ad for Renault dealers.
Every year the dealers wanted to clear the showroom, to make way for the new models.
So they normally knocked a few hundred dollars off the price of the cars.
The problem was no one wanted to buy an old model.
So Lois had a better idea: everyone loves a bargain.
He bought a couple of packs of Band-Aid.
Then he took a penknife and made a tiny nick in the paint of each car.
And put a Band-Aid over it.
He ran the half page ad saying “If you can spot an imperfection in our cars, we’ll give you $250 off.”
All the cars sold out in a day.
People thought getting that much money off for such a tiny blemish was in incredible bargain.
Instead of thinking it was just money off last year’s model.
George Lois had reframed the whole problem.
Much later, this kind of thinking would become known as Behavioural Economics.
Or Choice Architecture.
To Lois it was just street smarts.