Bob Levinson DDB ad Do This Or Die


In 1960, Bob Levenson from the DDB advertising agency (Doyle Dane Bernbach), submitted an ad for a contest organized by TIME INC. and won. The following is the complete text of that advertisement:


Do This or Die


Is this ad some kind of trick?  

No. But it could have been. And at exactly that point rests a do or die decision for American business. We in advertising, together with our clients, have all the power and skill to trick people. Or so we think. But we're wrong. We can't fool any of the people any of the time. There is indeed a twelve-year-old mentality in this country; every six-year-old has one. We are a nation of smart people. And most smart people ignore most advertising because most advertising ignores smart people. Instead we talk to each other. We debate endlessly about the medium and the message. Nonsense. In advertising, the message itself is the message. A blank page and a blank television screen are one and the same. And above all, the messages we put on those pages and on those television screens must be the truth. For if we play tricks with the truth, we die.  

Now. The other side of the coin. Telling the truth about a product demands a product that's worth telling the truth about. Sadly, so many products aren't. So many products don't do anything better. Or anything different. So many don't work quite right. Or don't last. Or simply don't matter. If we also play this trick, we also die. Because advertising only helps a bad product fail faster. No donkey chases the carrot forever. He catches on. And quits. That's the lesson to remember. Unless we do, we die. Unless we change, the tidal wave of consumer indifference will wallop into the mountain of advertising and manufacturing drivel. That day we die. We'll die in our marketplace. On our shelves. In our gleaming packages of empty promises. Not with a bang. Not with a whimper. But by our own skilled hands. 





Brief description about the author


Levenson worked many years for Scali, McCabe, Sloves, Inc. that was an advertising agency in the U.S. Later he was hired by Bernbach (of Doyle Dane Bernbach) in 1959 and after that, he became one of the most successful executives in the advertising industry between the years 1960 and 1970.


Bob Levenson was called “the best print copywriter ever”[i]. He was a close friend of Bill Bernbach. So close that in 1987 he wrote a book about him entitled: Bill Bernach’s book: A History of the Advertising That Changed the History of Advertising, where he described Bernbach as “a visionary with a visionary’s zeal. And he was a worrier. It was a killer combination.”




Brief description of the company that made the ad 




The men at DDB office


The DDB (Doyle Dane Bernbach Inc) is an advertising agency funded in 1949 by Bill Bernbach, Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane.


Not many advertising companies would have published a text criticizing the same field they work for. But this was not the case with Doyle Dane Bernbach Inc. (now called DDB Worldwide Communications Group Inc). Since the early years of its formation the company had distinguised itself for its philosophy that had an approach into human nature, respect for the consumer, and the belief that “creativity is the most powerful force in business”[ii]. Beliefs that they have continued applying until now. Counting actually with 13,000 employees distributed in branches in more than 90 countries. It is considered the advertising agency with the highest revenue in the world according to Advertising Age Magazine’s rankings of 2008 [iii] with an income of US$12.69 billion. Their work has been recognized with awards such as the International Advertising Festival at Cannes, Clio Awards, D&AD, The One Show and the Effies. Among some of their clients figure McDonald’s, Unilever, Volkswagen, ExxonMobil, Philips Electronics, Hasbro, Kosiuko Jeans, Clorox Global Brand, Johnson & Johnson, Centraal Beheer, Bud. TV and Henkel.


It’s founder Bill Bernbach described the ideology of the company in the phrase "All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level."


According to the New York magazine  “DDB was the rare agency to succeed time after time, generally because it turned its back on advertisingese and the safe way. Often it turned to humor and poked fun at the products it pitched, with the goal, as Bill Bernach phrases it, “of stating the product’s advantages in a way never stated before.”[iv]


Bill Bernach was considered one of the most important motors in the formation of  the “Creative Revolution” [v] of the 60’s decade.Among those visionary people, that tried so hard to deviate as far as possible from the conventional styles of the period, it can be found George Lois with his provocative Esquire covers. He was also an employee at DDB, hired in 1959.

Another one of the thoughts inside DDB is that they “...are guided by playbooks, not rule books. Rigid methodologies minimize creativity. Paint-by-numbers gets you the same painting every time.”


Not to forget the influence the Swiss Style had on the designs of the sixties, due to the movement duration for more than two decades from 1950 to 1970 with its internationalization around the world in 1960. From this style the admen of the period took its simplicity and its principle of communicate the message as clearly and objective as possible without distracting the audience with a lot of ornaments around, like in the illustrations from the past.


Knowing DDB’s philosophy explains how it was possible that a company with so well known reputation at that time submitted an entry entitled “DO this or Die” for a contest. This text was not even an advertisement but a critique to the companies. It raise the subject of focus in offering good products to the market that are valuable to make publicity of, instead of tricking the public advertising products that are bad from the beginning.



Influence it had in future things


In 1959, DDB created the famous Volkswagen campaign "Think Small" where the automobile was called a “lemon” because of its size, and they told people to think on an VW as a reliable, simple, different and honest car. This campaign became so popular that it has been “imitated, mimicked, swiped, copied, misunderstood and admired more than any other campaign before or since”, Bob Levenson wrote on his book. It was voted the No. 1 campaign of all time by Advertising Age in 1999. 




The simple idea behind the campaign was so effective that it increased the Volkwagen sales for the company and it also influentiated the design of the 1998 campaign for the launch of the New Beetle. It was basically the same ad with only minor changes, demonstrating the superiority of the old campaign.


Other of the influences of DDB was to change the hierarchy and bureaucracy of the big agencies and allow more freedom to the workers to develop their ideas and let the creativity break the rules. As Bob Levenson described in an interview made in 1969, the company work environment wasn’t highly disciplined and supervised[vi]. “It had the air of a creative zoo” [vii]. One of its copywriters, Phyllis Robinson, expresed this when he recently moved to work from another agency to DDB: ”we just felt very free, as if we had broken our shackles, had gotten out of jail, and were free to work the way we wanted to work”.


This new work model created by Bernbach changed the management style of the publicity agencies in the later years. And also guided the way the advertisements appeared and were made, and beyond that, the way the American capitalism perceived itself.


The second important innovation the company apported to the world, was its  organizational model of having the writer and the artist working close together, instead of how it used to be before, where the copywriter had the entire responsability and power to write the entire content of the advertisement and then sent the copy to the artist to elaborate the ad, sending it through pneumatic tubes they were used in department stores before. So this didn’t allowed too much communication between both creatives. As Robinson also described, after Bernhard share his ideas with other agencies, these ones introduced their copywriters to their art directors, because they have never meet before. And they gave them freedom as well, and a lot of good ideas started to come out.

This work model continues being applied among the companies nowadays.




[i] CMYK. Issue 4. 1997: page 50


[iii] Advertising Age Magazine. Article “Family Trees 2008. Primary holdings of the world’s top four agency companies by 2007 worldwide revenue”

[iv] New York Magazine. Article ”You Don’t Have to be an Adman to Love Doyle Dane Bernbach. October 19, 1981: page 24

[v] New York Magazine. Article ”You Don’t Have to be an Adman to Love Doyle Dane Bernbach. October 19, 1981: page 24

[vi] Bob Levenson and Len Sirowitz, interview by Henry Lee, Madison Avenue, June 1969, p.28.

[vii] New York Magazine. Article ”You Don’t Have to be an Adman to Love Doyle Dane Bernbach. October 19, 1981: page 24







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