This story concerns one of Bill Bernbach’s maxims that ordinary people use in everyday life, and really smart people use in advertising.
When my father-in-law was seven years old the area around Swatow in China was destroyed by a tidal wave, he was left clinging to a tree, all his family and 60,000 other people died.
After two days a fishing boat rescued him; he never went to school so he never learned to read or write, he certainly couldn’t speak English.
Not having any education, he grew up to be an old-fashioned, traditional Chinaman.
He didn’t know or trust western ways, the only westerners he knew were arrogant ex-pats who looked down on the Chinese as inferior.
The point of this story is to establish the problem for Cathy’s mum when she had to explain to him that Cathy wanted to marry an Englishman.
This went against all his beliefs, without question she must marry a Chinese man.
So Cathy’s mum used one of Bernbach’s rules (although she’d never heard of Bernbach): Turn a problem into an opportunity.
She explained it to Cathy’s dad like this:
“In the Chinese tradition the wife has to go and live with the husband and his parents and must obey the mother-in-law.
If you force Cathy to marry a Chinese man, that’s what she’ll have to do, you will only see her for short periods when she’s allowed to visit us.
But if she marries an Englishman, he hasn’t got any relatives here, so whenever they come to Singapore they will have to come and live with us.
You will see much more of your daughter, and any grandchildren, by letting her marry this Englishman.”
Turn a problem into an opportunity: he’s a westerner so he won’t take our daughter away like a Chinese man would.
Cathy’s mum didn’t know anything about Bernbach, but she used the same thinking when Cathy’s dad had just finished building the large office block for their company.
He proudly had the company name, TONG NAM, on the front of the building, but a beggar had taken to sleeping in the doorway and made the building look untidy.
Cathy’s dad told her mum to get rid of the beggar.
But she didn’t do that, instead she asked the beggar if he’d like a job guarding the building.
The beggar couldn’t believe it, someone giving him money to stay where he was.
Feeling immensely proud at having a job, he cleared everything away from the front of the building and during the day he kept the whole front, and himself, spotless.
Then at night he slept in front of the building while guarding it.
Cathy’s mum explained it to her husband like this:
“It only costs a few dollars, he keeps the offices and the pavement in front clean in the daytime and he’s a watchman all night.
We solve two problems and it’s good karma for TONG NAM, you know the Chinese believe it’s good fortune for a business to help poor people.”
Again, she had used the same kind of thinking Bernbach used when he did the campaign that revolutionised advertising: Volkswagen.
Turn a problem into an opportunity: previously people only wanted big, flashy cars. Bernbach turned it around, big cars were silly and wasteful, smaller cars were smarter.
He used the same thinking with his second great campaign: Avis.
Hertz was the biggest car-rental company, but he turned a problem into an opportunity.
He ran the campaign: “Avis is only number two. So we have to try harder”.
That was the thinking that Bernbach introduced to advertising, and changed it from manipulative, patronising ads to intelligent, rational, common-sense.
That’s how smart people everywhere think, why should advertising be any different?