Leo Burnett (1891–1971)

Leo Burnett invented some of the most enduring icons of advertising: the Jolly Green Giant, Charlie the Tuna, Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy, Morris the Cat, and the Maytag Repairman. They were all created in his Chicago ad agency in the 1940s and 1950s Mad Men era of American advertising. Burnett knew that an advertising agency in the Midwest, far from Madison Avenue’s agency conclave, was a little off the beaten track, but he made up for it by appealing to American folksiness and homegrown emotion. And he sold plenty of canned vegetables, breakfast cereal, cigarettes, and washing machines while he did it.

If Time magazine included him in its list of “The Most Influential People of the 20th Century” in 1998, it was because Burnett himself was an icon of advertising, a “sultan of sell” as the magazine called him. His genius, in a sea of advertising words and slogans, was using visuals to sell, inventing characters like the Jolly Green Giant with a story to tell, way before television came on the scene. The images became symbols of the brand, calling it instantly to mind wherever they appeared. It did not hurt that Burnett had shown an artistic side himself early on and had designed posters to promote his high school football team and for theater and opera productions at college. When he got into advertising, he vouched for the value of images and they became a signature of the Burnett agency.

Along with its appealing images, the words of a Burnett ad—what he called his “sod-busting corniness”—resonated with customers. The honesty was part of the appeal. Slogans like “When You’re Out of Schlitz, You’re Out of Beer” made the benefit of buying very clear. Some Burnett slogans have endured for years: “Fly the Friendly Skies of United,” “You’re in Good Hands with Allstate,” and “Come to Marlboro Country,” among others. Burnett said his goal was to create ads that “talked turkey to the majority of Americans,” and he succeeded by giving people a straightforward, honest pitch.

The ad campaign that is his “monument,” as another adman, David Ogilvy, said, was the one he devised for Marlboro cigarettes in the early 1950s. To that point, filter-tipped Marlboros were pitched to women and advertised as “Mild as May.” They even had a red filter tip so a woman’s lipstick didn’t leave a mark. What Burnett did was take this “sissy smoke,” this “tea room smoke” as he called it and regender it, starting with an image, the image of an American cowboy, rugged, manly, tough. Like James Arness, who played Matt Dillon on TV or Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood, the Marlboro man was the epitome of masculinity who rode through the West in freedom and self-reliance. Even the cigarette package was redesigned, now a box with bold red and black lettering. When the new campaign began in 1954, Marlboro cigarettes, a product of Philip Morris, were barely drawing 1 percent of market share. Catapulted into advertising stardom by Leo Burnett, Marlboro would become the best-selling brand in the world. The campaign was voted into the Marketing Hall of Fame in 1964.

Advertising executive Leo Burnett was known as the sultan of sell. He successfully promoted products with iconic images like Tony the Tiger and the Jolly Green Giant.

Advertising executive Leo Burnett was known as “the sultan of sell.” He successfully promoted products with iconic images like Tony the Tiger and the Jolly Green Giant. (Courtesy of Leo Burnett)

While online advertising is making the Internet go ’round, and while today Americans are exposed to thousands of advertising messages a day, advertising in the United States rose along with the rush of products the Industrial Revolution began to spawn and with the rise of newspapers. But advertising certainly did not spring full blown then for the first time. Probably even in ancient Egypt and Greece and Rome, someone was selling something, hawking his handicrafts. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century made it possible to post handbills in multiples and, eventually, to provide the print advertising that has sustained mass media like newspapers and magazines in modern times. Eventually, manufacturers needed more than word of mouth to sell goods. They had to move beyond the local to let potential customers know what was available. In the United States, purveyors of patent medicines took to the streets to sell their wares, one of the first to use clever tactics of persuasion.

The first advertising agency is said to have been opened in London in the 18th century by one William Tayler, but the story of American advertising begins in the 19th century. A small Philadelphia advertising agency opened in 1842 and another soon after in Boston, but it was N. W. Ayer & Son, founded in 1869 in Philadelphia, that is called the first American ad agency. Early in the 20th century, Ayer was already inventing the catchy slogans that would make some American brands rich and famous: “When it rains, it pours” (Morton Salt, 1912), “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” (R. J. Reynolds, 1921), and “A diamond is forever” (De Beers, 1947). Indeed, boosting the financial aspects of advertising were the creatives and copywriters who thought up these customer-winning slogans. Now-legendary copywriters like Charles Austin Bates, Earnest Elmo Calkins, and Claude C. Hopkins wrote the copy and the slogans that would make advertising history and attract writers like Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, and John P. Marquand temporarily to the trade.

The American advertising business took off in the 1920s. By mid-century, major agencies like J. Walter Thompson, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO), Young & Rubicam, McCann Erickson, Doyle Dane Bernbach, and David Ogilvy were making the advertising profession and Madison Avenue look exciting and prosperous, though writers like Vance Packard, in his The Hidden Persuaders, questioned their methods. The 21st century hit TV show, Mad Men, offers a glamorized look into 1950s advertising history, when agencies were learning new strategies like market segmentation, demographics, and positioning. Advertising, which was all about moving goods into the hands of the consumer, sought to give brands a personality that would make the product desirable and trustworthy, and make it meaningful to the customer. Creating a character to stand in for the product gave it a meaning and an enduring narrative appeal.

This was Leo Burnett’s forte and his genius. It was his idea that products are sold as much on “share of mind” as “share of market.” If advertising is the language of capitalism, visuals would get through to the consumer’s “basic emotions and primitive instincts.” The advent of television in mid-century put images front and center in every living room (as Burnett said, “Television is the strongest drug we’ve ever had to dish out”). In the archives of advertising, these images provide as good a history of the United States as any book, documenting a culture created by consumer desire.

When he founded his own agency in Chicago in 1935, Burnett had only one client, the Minnesota Valley Canning Company, but, intent on upgrading its advertising, he invented the Jolly Green Giant, an image so successful that the company changed its name to the Green Giant Company. For the American Meat Institute, another early client, Burnett devised a print ad that posed a hunk of red meat against an even redder background, a seeming clash that effectively emphasized in an image the whole idea of red meat. Burnett’s agency came up with another creature, Tony the Tiger, for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes in 1949, a cartoon mascot that has sold many boxes of cereal ever since. There would be more of these characters, attesting to how much they appealed to customers: Toucan Sam for Fruit Loops, Morris the Cat, Charlie Tuna, the Pillsbury Doughboy. Even the slogan for Burnett’s agency evoked images: “When you reach for the stars, you may not get one, but you won’t get a handful of mud either.”

Burnett had gone into the advertising business (“I am often asked how I got into the business. I didn’t. The business got into me,” he claimed) during the Great Depression, a time of “advertising in overalls,” as Roland Marchand put it in Advertising and the American Dream. Americans’ buying power was limited, but they still wanted things and aspired to a better lifestyle. Advertising educated them on what to buy. As the country emerged from the Depression and World War II, a new prosperity fueled consumer desire and brand competition. The Leo Burnett Company prospered as well, becoming known for its major advertising campaigns for Kellogg’s cereals, United Airlines, Marlboro, Allstate, and other brands. It became the 10th largest agency in the world and the 8th largest in the United States.

Today, the agency, still on Wacker Drive in Chicago, is a global one, Leo Burnett Worldwide, with agencies in Europe, Asia, Australia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and South America. The company was sold to Publicis Groupe in 2002, a holding company that ranks third among advertising’s Big Four agency groups. Although advertising revenue fell for all agencies in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008, digital advertising and marketing are now providing a major boost, and the current Burnett agency, recognizing that some 50 percent of American shopping is taking place on a mobile device like a smartphone, has made Internet and mobile device advertising a major focus. The company has won prestigious awards for its creative work, including seven Grand Prix and 104 Lions at the 2011 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, and 30 of the coveted advertising Clio awards in 2011. It was voted “Best Place to Work” in 2011 by Advertising Age. The company celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2010.

Leo Burnett had started out as a journalist, graduating from the University of Michigan with a BA in 1914 and going to work as a police reporter for a Peoria, Illinois, newspaper. He was born in St. Johns, Michigan, on October 21, 1891, the eldest child of Rose Clark Burnett and Noble Burnett, owner of a dry goods store. In high school, Leo had helped his father design ads for the store. After college and his job on a newspaper, in 1917, he moved to Detroit where he became a copywriter for the Cadillac Motor Company and, eventually, its advertising manager. At Cadillac, he met a legendary copywriter, Theodore McManus, the man who had written a famous ad and slogan for Cadillac, “The Penalty of Leadership.”

The dye was cast. After a six-month tour of duty in the U.S. Navy and marriage to Naomi Geddes, Burnett became advertising manager for another car company, LaFayette Motors, then an Indianapolis agency, the Homer McKee Company. He then went on to a job with a Chicago agency, Erwin, Wassey & Company, where he became creative head of the company. Five years later, on August 5, 1935, Burnett left the firm to open up his own Chicago agency, mortgaging his house and borrowing on his life insurance to do it. He put a bowl of red apples on the reception desk—a tradition still observed at the present Leo Burnett Company—and opened shop. He had a wife and kids at home and a total of three clients.

But the Leo Burnett Company would go on to snag the advertising accounts of some of the United States’ biggest brands, including the Philip Morris Company, Proctor & Gamble, Pillsbury, Campbell Soup, Starkist, United Airlines, 9Lives, Allstate, Coca-Cola, Nintendo, and Maytag. The agency’s billings doubled and redoubled, to $55 million as television came on the scene in the 1950s and the company’s creative, image-driven advertising was ready-made for the new technology. The company was the fifth largest in the world, billing $400 million (today it is ranked second in the United States), when Burnett died in 1971 of a heart attack at his home in Lake Zurich, Illinois. He had already written a farewell speech, “When to take my name off the door,” in 1967. He was a rule-breaker and a risk-taker. His brand mascots and his slogans live on.

—Mary Cross


Burnett, Leo. Communications of an Advertising Man: Selections from the Speeches, Articles, Memoranda, and Miscellaneous Writings of Leo Burnett. Privately printed first edition, 1961.

Ewen, Stuart. “Leo Burnett: Sultan of Sell.” Time magazine, “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.” December 7, 1998. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,989783–3,00.html.

Marchand, Roland. Advertising and the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity 1920–1940. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985.

Twitchell, James B. Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.

Twitchell, James B. Twenty Ads that Shook the World. New York: Crown Publishers, 2000.