NEW YORK — Robert Levenson, an advertising executive who helped produce some of the mid-20th century’s most memorable campaigns, writing evocative advertisements for clients like Volkswagen, El Al and Sara Lee, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 83.
The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said his wife, Jane Warshaw.
Levenson was associated for more than a quarter-century with the New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. He became the agency’s creative director in 1970 and was later a vice chairman and the chairman of its international operation.
He had joined DDB as a copywriter in 1959 and soon became known for his pithy, genially colloquial ad lines.
“He called it a ‘Gertrude Steiny’ way of writing: very crisp and to the point," said Dominik Imseng, a Swiss copywriter and author whose 2011 book, “Think Small," chronicles the history of that campaign, done by DDB for Volkswagen. (Levenson did not create that campaign, though he did work on a later incarnation of it.)
At DDB, Levenson collaborated with art directors including Len Sirowitz and especially Helmut Krone to produce a string of ad lines from the 1960s that have endured in the public memory.
For Volkswagen of America, Levenson created several print ads that centered on the Beetle’s diminutive size, solid craftsmanship and fuel efficiency. They include the tag lines “It makes your house look bigger" and “After we paint the car, we paint the paint."
He also devised a New Yorker-style cartoon, produced amid rising gasoline prices, that showed a man holding the nozzle of a gas pump to his temple as if it were a gun. The caption: “Or buy a Volkswagen."
For El Al, Levenson wrote a series of print ads that drew on the warmth of Jewish oral tradition. (The New York City schoolteacher-turned-comedian Sam Levenson was his uncle.) His tag lines for the company included “My son, the pilot" and “We don’t take off until everything is kosher."
For Sara Lee, he wrote the words to the durable TV jingle “Everybody doesn’t like something/ But nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee," which accompanied shots of people enduring all manner of irritants (haircuts, traffic jams) before consoling themselves with a piece of the company’s cake.
Levenson was especially proud, his wife said, of a series of ads for Mobil, centering on highway safety and collectively titled “We Want You to Live."
His entries in that campaign include a print ad featuring a photo of a man driving while embracing a young woman above the headline, “Till Death Us Do Part." For a starkly effective television spot, Levenson and Sirowitz showed a car being pushed off the roof of a 10-story building.
“If you drive at 60 miles an hour and hit something, it’s exactly the same as driving off a 10-story building," the narrator says. The voice-over continues, as the camera shows the car landing, crumpled: “And it will get you to exactly the same place ... the morgue."
Robert Harold Levenson was born in New York City on Nov. 23, 1929, and raised in the Bronx. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from New York University and afterward worked at various jobs, including market research, before joining DDB.
He first made his mark at the agency in 1960, as the author of a house ad for DDB that appeared in Time magazine. The ad had been the winning entry in a contest, sponsored by Time, that invited various agencies to submit ads that best reflected their corporate philosophies.
Levenson’s ad was boldly headlined “Do This or Die." In the text that followed, he wrote: “Is this ad some kind of trick? No. But it could have been." The ad, still considered canonical, ends with a meditation on the need for truth in advertising.
Levenson was inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame (now the Creative Hall of Fame) in 1972.
After leaving DDB in 1985, he held executive positions at Saatchi & Saatchi and at Scali, McCabe, Sloves.
Levenson’s first marriage, to Elaine Berk, ended in divorce; his second wife, Kathe Tanous, died before him. Besides Warshaw, whom he married in April, he is survived by two sons from his first marriage, Keith and Seth; a stepdaughter, Katherine Warshaw-Reid; and a step-granddaughter.
In interviews over the years, Levenson elucidated his philosophy of copywriting, which was, at bottom, epistolary.
“When he was asked how he wrote the copy for all those Volkswagen ads," Imseng recalled Thursday, “he said: ‘I always started by writing Dear Charlie, like writing to a friend. And then I would say what I had to say, and at the end I would cross out Dear Charlie, and I was all right.’"