George Lois: The Creative Provocateur




Imagine being on an airplane and overhearing a conversation between Andy Warhol and a professional boxer, or one between Salvador Dali and a baseball player.  If you find this idea intriguing, then you would have loved the ad campaign for Braniff Airlines.  Run in the late 1960s, the campaign involved a series of commercials portraying conversations between famous celebrities who made improbable seatmates, giving the idea that you never knew who you might be flying with if you chose to fly Braniff.



Braniff International Airlines, 1967

If you are of a certain age, then you probably remember the early 80s advertising campaign for MTV.  Featuring well-known musicians bellowing the tagline, “I want my MTV,” it began as a way to encourage consumers to request the new channel from their local cable companies.  The campaign quickly gained in popularity and soon operators were overwhelmed by people calling and demanding the channel for themselves.  This simple idea is responsible for first putting MTV on the map, and it is a memorable example of guerilla marketing, but few people know the man responsible for the idea.




MTV Logo 1982, Print advertisement which appeared in the first annual MTV Music Video Awards program in 1985

The examples given above are just two of the numerous famous advertising campaigns created by American George Lois.  Today, he is still recognized as one of the best ad men ever.  Responsible for countless logo designs, branding campaigns, innovative advertisements and iconic magazine covers, it seems that everything Lois has done has been memorable and groundbreaking.




Wolfschmidt Vodka, 1960

Born to Greek immigrant parents in 1931, Lois fought his way out of a bad neighborhood and took an unconventional path to becoming the iconic art director, designer and author that he is known as today.  Although he always loved drawing as a child, it was his junior high art teacher who kept all of his drawings and projects which she assembled into a portfolio and arranged an interview for him at the New York High School of Music & Art.  Lois was, of course, accepted and graduated from the school with a basketball scholarship to Syracuse. However, instead of pursuing sports, he enrolled himself at the Pratt Institute where he lasted for a year.  At the urging of his professor who felt Lois was too talented to waste his time in school, he joined the design studio of Reba Sochis.




1968 Esquire cover featuring Muslim boxer Muhammad Ali who had been stripped of his titles and denied the right to fight due to his refused induction into the army.  Ali took the status of conscientious objector based on religious beliefs and was widely condemned and even branded a traitor.  Lois posed him as a martyr, mirroring the famous 15th century Botticini painting of St. Sebastian, a Roman soldier who was executed for converting to Christianity.

Although Lois flourished at Sochis’ firm, he was soon drafted into the Korean War where he served two years.  Upon his return to New York, Sochis was keen to make him a partner, but Lois was determined to strike out on his own as he was eager for new experiences.  After bouncing around from firm to firm, Lois finally established his own agency in 1960.  Paper Koenig Lois, or PKL soon became a huge success and it was the first advertising agency to go public.  But at its apex, Lois decided to leave the agency and start again.



1968 Esquire composite cover featuring Richard Nixon prior to his second run for president.  During his first attempt, Nixon received vast amounts of criticism due to his inability to appear photogenic during televised debates with John F. Kennedy.

Within his long and storied career, Lois founded several agencies, all of which became wildly successful.  Yet once each one got to a certain point, he found a reason to leave and place himself in the uncertain position of beginning again from ground zero.  It’s a curious action to take, to remove oneself from stability and ensured success, but it speaks volumes about Lois’s character and what drives him.  As Lois once said, “You can be cautious or you can be creative, but there is no such thing as a cautious creative.” And perhaps that belief is what drives him; being cautious and safe and stable in a successful firm may feel nice, but it is also likely to stymie creativity.  In comparison, starting a new enterprise, with all of its uncertainties brings out the risk-taker in people, and compels one to find innovative solutions to problems.



Olivetti Typewriter, 1972

There is probably no better word to describe many of Lois’s ideas than “innovative.” His success is due in large part to his ability to conceive of that one great idea that becomes the cornerstone of a celebrated ad campaign.  While his working method was considered revolutionary at the time, his suggested creative process is something that is still worth following today.  In Lois’s opinion, one should not waste time researching to try and find a visual image to build upon.  Instead, the starting point should be the words needed to characterize or describe the uniqueness of the product or enterprise being marketed.  The concept lies within the words, and the proper language will provide the direction that the visual influence should take.  The resulting advertisement should be a perfect combination of visual and verbal expression in which each complements the other to create a cohesive concept that captures the consumer’s interest in an original way.  In order to produce such results, Lois is no fan of collaborative group work.  He feels that the best ideas spring from one person, or a writer and art director pairing.




Poster for the movie Man-Made, 2010

Lois also feels strongly that the concept utilized should be clear and simple.  Yet while he shuns overly complicated campaigns as well as unoriginal ones, he feels that there is nothing wrong with presenting an ambiguous idea that can be interpreted in several different ways.   This belief can best be exemplified in many of the covers that Lois did for Esquire magazine in the 1960s and early 1970s.  With a total of 92 covers done for the magazine, and over 30 of them on permanent display at the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Esquire covers show Lois as a social commentator who also saw advertising as a way to provoke emotion and thought.



1965 Esquire composite cover featuring the heroes of the American youth: Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Fidel Castro, all joined and divided by the crosshairs of a rifle sight. 1965 Esquire cover featuring Italian actress Virna Lisi as a lighthearted statement on the woman’s movement.

One example is the cover done in 1969 as an illustration of an article on Pop Art which depicts Andy Warhol drowning in a can of soup.  Although it is a clear and simple concept, an artist drowning in his own creation, the meaning of it can be interpreted in several ways.  Is it merely a fun reference to Warhol’s most famous works, is it a negative statement on Pop Art, or is it meant to depict Warhol drowning in his own fame?


1969 Esquire cover portraying artist Andy Warhol drowning in the subject of one of his most famous series of paintings.

Of course, Lois also isn’t afraid to take a stand and make his viewers uncomfortable. In 1963, at a time when America was divided by race riots and still reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Esquire’s December issue featured the famous bad boy African-American boxer Sonny Liston as Santa Claus.  The cover was so controversial that several advertisers left and angry letters poured in.  In the end, Esquire estimates that it lost around $750,000 as a result of the cover.  However, the editor at the time, Howard Hayes, stood by his decision to run the cover.  As he stated in a later interview, the cover was a succinct portrayal of the racial divide within American culture, and it showed that “the notion of racial equality was a bad joke; the felicitations of this season—goodwill to all men, etc.—carried irony more than sentiment.”


1963 Esquire cover featuring American boxer Sonny Liston as a statement on the racial issues in the country at the time.

In his work for Esquire, Lois produced numerous statement-making covers and many of them are still remembered today.  However, as with many things, the impact they made is directly tied to the time in which they appeared.  How many of us today would look twice at a cover depicting the face of a beautiful woman covered in shaving cream as a statement on gender equality? Or the all black 1966 cover which proclaimed the horrifying statement, “Oh my god—we hit a little girl.” With our knowledge of the widespread atrocities being committed around the world every day, does this simple yet horrific line still resonate the way it once did? Unfortunately, much of Lois’s iconic work has become a byproduct of the time in which it was produced, and due to the pervasiveness of advertising, many of us have become inured to its effects.


1966 Esquire cover accompanying a story on the controversial war in Vietnam. Esquire’s early indictment of the war was widely criticized at the time.

Despite this, George Lois still deserves his place in the pantheon of advertising.  As he himself once said, “Advertising is not a fucking science.  Advertising is an art—no questions about it.” And this is true, for the creation of great advertising means creating that captured moment when all of the separate pieces cohere into one complete, comprehensible and unique concept which strikes the viewer and provokes something within him.  And to create that takes talent, drive, vision and skill; all qualities which advertising artist George Lois has in spades.



Pirelli Tires, 1974

Of course, as all true artists, Lois is well aware of his talent and he has tried to pass his knowledge on to others.  He has authored several books which share some of his most notable creations and provide advice for those who hope to achieve success in the field.  As an esteemed authority, he is also quick to criticize modern advertising as he finds it unoriginal, repetitive and uninspiring.  While his criticism is apt, the current state of affairs seems unlikely to change.  The creative freedom that existed during Lois’s heyday is long gone, and playing it safe seems to provide secure profits.  Artists may exist who are able to produce revolutionary work reminiscent of Lois, but no one is willing to take the risk in running it.



1967 Esquire cover which portrayed the new all-American culture; children being raised by television and exposed to everyday violence and the pervasiveness of fast food.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that anyone will succeed in following in Lois’s footsteps.  Today, despite being 83 years of age, Lois continues to work and produce projects that aim to make a difference in the world.  He also continues to speak out and encourage others to take risks and be brazen and make a worthy contribution to the art of advertising.  He has set a prodigious example and provided the tools needed for others to continue on in the same vein and create advertising that is meaningful.  Let’s hope that something within the current system changes before his iconic work becomes another forgotten piece of history.


171967 Esquire cover featuring Joseph Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana.  Often portrayed in the media as a martyr-type figure due to her renunciation of her father and her religious beliefs, by adding a Stalin-style moustache to her portrait, Lois made the simple point that one can never completely separate themselves from the past. Regardless of what she became, what she believed or what she did in the future, she would always be the daughter of Joseph Stalin.

181965 Esquire cover which shows American football player Darrel Dess praying before the start of a game.  Although athletes invoking religious guidance or thanking a religious figure for good play has become a common occurrence today, in 1965 it was considered laughable.  In relation to this cover, Lois said, “If there is a god who watches NFL football on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights and gives a damn, while ignoring the millions of starving children in the world, we’re all in hell now.”


19Coldene Cough Syrup, 1960


201965 Esquire cover which marked the 20th anniversary of Hitler’s suicide and lambasted the widespread belief that he was actually still alive. 1964 Esquire cover featuring a tear-stained photo of former American president John F. Kennedy who had been assassinated the previous year.  The cover asks the question: is Kennedy crying for his lost destiny, or is the reader crying for the loss of a great man?

Comments are closed.