Len Sirowitz, Whose Bold, Offbeat Ads Captured an Era, Dies at 91

Len Sirowitz, Whose Bold, Offbeat Ads Captured an Era, Dies at 91

Len Sirowitz, an award-winning advertising art director whose creative work in the 1960s included memorable print ads for the Volkswagen Beetle — like one declaring, “Ugly is only skin-deep” — and a campaign for Mobil in which a car was dropped off a 10-story building to make a point about the perils of speeding, died on March 4 at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.

His daughter, Laura Sirowitz, confirmed the death.

Mr. Sirowitz joined the influential Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency, known as DDB, in 1959, at 27, and spent the next 11 years at the firm conceiving the look of ads for numerous accounts with wit and passion.

It was quite early in my career that I began to realize that my message needed to not only be bold and daring, but it must stem from the truth … and touch people’s emotions,” he told Dave Dye, who runs the advertising blog From the Loft, in 2015.

Volkswagen was perhaps Mr. Sirowitz’s most important account, and the homely Beetle, nicknamed the “Bug,” was his and copywriter Robert Levenson’s automotive muse. Their collaborations for the German car maker included the ad “Will We Ever Kill the Bug?” in which they positioned a Beetle turned on its roof, like a dead bug. The answer to the question: “Never.” (Though, after a few shots of the car, its roof collapsed.)

The pair also devised an ad that showed a motley Beetle constructed of green and beige fenders, a blue hood and a turquoise door, which were cobbled together from models between 1958 and 1964. The ad stressed the ease with which owners could find parts.

For Sara Lee, Mr. Sirowitz and Mr. Levenson created a TV commercial in which people dealt with annoyances like haircuts and traffic jams, then consoled themselves with a piece of the company’s cake, introducing a soon-to-be enduring jingle: “Everybody doesn’t like something / But nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.”

For Mobil’s public service newspaper and TV ads about highway safety, Mr. Sirowitz illustrated how crashing at 60 miles per hour would have the same impact as a car dropping from 10 stories. “And it will get you to exactly the same place — the morgue,” the narrator said.

Another TV ad for Mobil showed a couple canoodling in a car as the man drives against the blinding lights of oncoming traffic, eventually leading to a crash. A narrator says: “We at Mobil sell gasoline and oil. We’re in favor of driving and love, but not at the same time.”

And for the Better Vision Institute, an association of lens and frame manufacturers, Mr. Sirowitz produced dozens of promotions that ran in Life magazine persuading people to have their eyes examined more often. One particularly dramatic ad ran in all-black with copy by Leon Meadows reading, “This is how yellow daisies in a green pasture against a blue sky look to many Americans.”

Another of Mr. Sirowitz’s ads for the Better Vision Institute, many of which ran in Life magazine. He was heralded for his creativity and innovation in such campaigns.Credit…Doyle Dane Bernbach for Better Vision Institute

Bob Isherwood, a former worldwide creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, called Mr. Sirowitz a “hero art director” for his flow of fresh ideas and different approaches.

“It was just an idea that he put on the page,” he said in a phone interview. “When you see ads like that you think, ‘Oh, God, I wish I had done that.’”

Leonard Sirowitz was born on June 25, 1932, in Brooklyn. His father, Abraham Sirowitz, immigrated from Ukraine in 1905 and held various jobs, including taxi driver and jewelry polisher. His mother, Sadie (Schoenwetter) Sirowitz, ran the home.

Len Sirowitz in 1985. He was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame the same year, with his work described as “intelligent and human.”Credit…via Sirowitz Family

Mr. Sirowitz’s passion for drawing led to studies at the Art Students League of New York in Manhattan at age 12 and, two years later, his acceptance to the High School of Music and Art (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts). There, he met his future wife, Myrna Florman, a music student known as Mickey, when he was 17 and she was 14.

Mr. Sirowitz graduated in 1953 from the Pratt Institute, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in advertising. He spent the next two years in the Army, mostly at Fort Dix in New Jersey, and he married Miss Florman during his service in January 1955. She survives him, along with his daughter; a son, Michael; and one grandson.

After his Army discharge, Mr. Sirowitz worked at the L.W. Frohlich pharmaceutical ad agency as well as Grey Advertising, CBS and Channel 13, the public TV station in New York.

In addition to working for DDB’s commercial clients like Sony, where Mr. Sirowitz created a whimsical campaign based on the portability of its four-inch-wide TV, he also took on political causes as a volunteer.

A full-page newspaper ad in 1965 for the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy showed a cockroach against a white background with the headline: “The Winner of World War III.”

Another ad in 1968, for the Coalition for a Democratic Alternative, carried, in giant letters, the headline “For what?” Below it, text by Dave Reider, a copywriter, described the hopelessness of the Vietnam War, demanded that President Lyndon B. Johnson step down and argued for Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to be the Democratic nominee for president.

Mr. Sirowitz was DDB’s senior vice president and associate creative director when he left in 1970 to form his own agency, Harper Rosenfeld Sirowitz as co-chairman and co-creative director. (It was renamed numerous times over the years.) By then he had been voted art director of the year for 1968 and 1970 in national polls by Ad Weekly. He was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1985.

His agency’s clients included Swissair, McDonald’s, Smith Corona and Royal Caribbean Cruises. Still, in 1995, the firm closed after losing several accounts, and Mr. Sirowitz joined the agency Ryan Drossman & Partners as vice chairman.

He soon retired and returned to the Art Students League, where he drew large-format, charcoal nude portraits four days a week until the start of the pandemic.

“I strive for bold, dramatic interpretations of the model’s pose, drawn with spontaneous sweeping lines, and most importantly it should be part of a strong, well-designed composition,” he told the institution’s magazine, Lines from the League, in its 2012-13 issue.

His composition style came through clearly in his ad campaigns, including one in 1991 for America West Airlines, in which he cast the improvisational comedian Jonathan Winters — looking tough and wearing camouflage — in a parody of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who had recently commanded U.S. troops in the Gulf War.

The ad declared, “Announcing Air Superiority for Civilians,” and offered airfares discounted by up to 40 percent.

The campaign, however, was rebuked by the organization Veterans of Foreign Wars for being in poor taste, and America West soon after filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

“To me, great advertising should make your palms sweat,” Mr. Sirowitz told The Associated Press. “America West is the smallest of the major airlines. We wanted to do to the kind of advertising that would put them on the map in one fell swoop.”