Uncle Sam: The Legend and the Man

Let’s talk advertising—we are an ad agency after all. And, in honor of our country’s upcoming birthday, let’s give a specific shout out to an advertising icon that’s been around since the early 19th century. Of course, we’re talking about our favorite national relative, Uncle Sam.

You probably already know him as that tall, spindly-legged guy with piercing eyes, bushy white hair and a jaunty goatee. Dressed in a top hat and tails adorned in patriotic stars and stripes, he is the United States personified.

But what you might not know is that dear old Uncle Sam is based upon a real man.

Samuel “Uncle Sam” Wilson was a meat packer in New York who supplied the U.S. Army with barrels of beef during the War of 1812. The “U.S.” stamps that branded each barrel quickly came to represent both the “United States” and “Uncle Sam,” and the nickname stuck. Though there has been some dispute as to the validity of this origin story, the U.S. Congress conferred its seal of approval in 1961 when they recognized Samuel Wilson as the namesake of our national symbol.

Uncle Sam’s distinctive look—top hat, red, white and blue etc.—took a bit longer to evolve. In the early 1830s through 1861, European cartoonists like Sir John Tenniel and John Leech of Punch Magazine portrayed Uncle Sam as a long and lean bewhiskered character in striped pants and top hat. It wasn’t until political cartoonist Thomas Nast lent his pen to the task in the early 1870s that the imagery was solidified: flowing white hair and beard, tall, skinny-legged, clothed in striped pants and top hat. 

Then, in the twentieth century, James Montgomery Flagg created the well-known recruiting poster we all remember for World Wars I and II: “I Want You,” says Uncle Sam, with that stern face and famous pointing finger.

As we celebrate yet another Independence Day, WE WANT YOU to enjoy the holiday with friends and family by being safe and mindful of the history we are all helping to create—top hats and funky striped pants optional.

The New Old-School

The world of advertising is really no different from any other. It goes gaga over the latest technology, the hottest program, the shiniest bauble on the shelf. “Ooh, look at that!” becomes “I need that!” faster than you can say “integrated social marketing platform.”

But do you really?

That urge to have the newest thing is soon followed by the urge to have it now! Unfortunately, that leads many clients and shortsighted agencies to leap before they look, often resulting in a waste of effort and a waste of money. Clients especially hate that last part.

Do you really need that shiny thing? Do you really need it now? If you’re asking Em, the answer will always be two little words:

Not. Yet.

Not until we do the in-depth, unglamorous foundational work. Not until we know you, your company, your capabilities, your competition and your goals. Not until we analyze the market to come up with ways to beat it.

It’s old-school to be sure, solved with a generous coat of elbow grease and brought to life at the business end of a pencil. (Or a digital stylus. The metaphor still holds.)

New advertising gives us new media choices, new delivery systems, new tech breakthroughs. But those are all just new ways of doing the same old stuff.

Take away the shimmery topcoat and you’ll find the same stuff that the old-school advertisers used to build businesses, corporations and—frankly, if we were given to the tiniest bit of hubris—the economy itself.

Everything old is new again. Or is it vice versa? We like both, but given the choice, we’d rather school ‘em the old-fashioned way.

Let’s be Honest.

“The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”

Bill Bernbach said that. That is, the Bill Bernbach of the renowned Doyle Dane Bernbach, the famous agency that first opened its doors in 1949. By 1960, its advertising had the nation talking, laughing, crying, buying. Their campaigns dominated advertising and left other agencies clamoring to come up with their own “Doyle Dane ads.”

How did DDB do it? As Bernbach phrased it: “You must get a sound premise before you even begin to think in terms of being creative. Otherwise, you know, you’re going to make indelible something that doesn’t matter.” In other words, DDB’s creative minds worked to discover the one true thing that distinguished each product or business, then communicated that in a fresh, honest way.

Bernbach called this one true thing the “selling proposition.” It’s been called many things since—the unique selling point (or USP), the value proposition, the differentiator, the competitive advantage, and a thesaurus’s worth of others—but they all describe the same concept.

The terms “brand” and “brand identity” are lauded nowadays, as if they alone are the keys to the promised land of fame, fortune and success. In reality, those are simply new ways of describing what customers are responding to when they reach into their pockets and make a purchase. They’re responding to something they recognize as honest and true.

At Em, when we opened our own doors, we got together and made a list of qualities we wanted in our agency and our work. Yes, we wanted to be witty and creative. Yes, we wanted to know and care about our clients better than their own mothers. But at the head of our list, we wanted to do work that’s honest and true, both for ourselves and for the businesses we believe in.

Let’s be honest. If it’s good enough for the storytelling masters at Doyle Dane Bernbach, it’s good enough for us.