Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Leo Burnett: Ad Legend

Share This Post

In 1999, Time Magazine named Leo one of the most influential people of the 20th century. He earned this honor not only by building an ad agency that now boasts 85 offices worldwide — employing over 9,000 people — but also by creating some of advertising’s most iconic characters. 

Born in 1891, Mr. Burnett started his career as a reporter for the Peoria Journal Star. By 1917, he had moved to Detroit and began editing for an in-house publication for Cadillac, where he met his advertising mentor Theodore F. MacManus. 

Burnett’s first agency job was with a guy named Homer Mckee, which is important because it’s where he began learning the art of the “warm sell” — as contrasted with the hard sell or soft sell. The warm sell is basically advertising that expresses warmth through shared emotions and experiences. 

“There's no such thing as 'hard sell' and 'soft sell.' There's only 'smart sell' and 'stupid sell’.”

He was also known for using cultural archetypes, creating characters based on American values.

The Marlboro Man.

One such character was perhaps the most iconic advertisement ever conceived. The Marlboro Man, who Burnett created in the early ‘50s. Back then, filtered cigarettes were considered feminine, and the Marlboro Man helped to change all of that.

Later, the Marlboro Man evolved into the Marlboro Cowboy who, believe it or not, lived in Marlboro Country.

Now before you get on your lofty steed, keep in mind that smoking was much more socially acceptable back then. At one point in time, people actually thought smoking was good for them. Obviously, it’s not, which is why at least four actors who portrayed Marlboro Men died of smoking-related issues.

Ho ho ho.

The Jolly Green Giant also debuted in 1954, and by the ’60s, it had children across the country singing its theme song, “From the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant.” This next video is the original incantation. The next will be from the ‘60s.

Over time the Jolly Green Giant got less creepy and more jolly, fortunately. Then, in the early ‘70s, a new character was introduced to appeal even further to kids. His name was Sprout, and he lived in the valley protected by Big Green.

Rolling in the dough.

In 1965, Leo Burnett copywriter Rudy Perz was struggling to come up with an idea for Pillsbury’s new line of refrigerated dough products when his writer Carol Williams envisioned a living doughboy popping out of a can. Thus, the long-lasting mascot, Poppin’ Fresh, A.K.A The Pillsbury Doughboy, was born.

And yes, that was a pre-Brady Bunch Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady) in that commercial.

The list goes on.

In addition to the characters we’ve already showcased, Burnett and his company were responsible for a lot of memorable and enduring — Tony The Tiger, Toucan Sam, The Maytag Repairman, The Keebler Elves, and Morris the Cat, just to name a few. Surprisingly, some, if not most, are still in use to this day. It’s crazy what you can do when you’re trying not to bore people into buying your product.

“Fun without sell gets nowhere, but sell without fun tends to become obnoxious.”

More To Explore

Current360 2024 Predictions crystal ball

2024 Predictions

Thanks to everyone who responded to our 2024 Predictions survey last month. While the sample size wasn’t quite the size of a Pew or Nielsen,

Tradition and digital media crown become digital

The King is dead.
Long Live the King.

No we’re not talking about Charles VII or his father Charles VI. Instead, we’re recognizing the passing of the baton after years of shifts from

Contact Us

"*" indicates required fields

I am not a robot
Ed Sharp Current360 headshot

Ed Sharp

Ed brings 15 years of traditional and digital media sales experience to the agency, giving us a perspective most agencies don’t have. When he’s not working or seeking new knowledge, Ed hangs out with his wife, two kids, two dogs, one cat, and a hamster. And yes, the cat and hamster are best friends.

Chaney Given

Chaney is a talented and accomplished designer and illustrator, who has expanded his skill set to include motion graphics and video editing. With nearly a decade of experience, his client work includes Waterstep, Baptist Health, the Archdiocese of Louisville Catholic Schools, First Harrison Bank, and many more