Under the Influence

How a piece of paper flapping on a billboard influenced an ad campaign for nuns

The unusual Toronto advertisement that inspired Terry O'Reilly to break all the rules.
A bus ad for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie. (Terry O'Reilly)

Everybody has been influenced by the people and things in their life. Especially creative people.

And Terry O'Reilly - career ad man and host of CBC Radio's Under the Influence - is no exception.

His career in the world of advertising has been heavily influenced by commercials he saw as a kid, by writers, by actors and by one very specific cartoon.

Each of them helped inform his thinking and shaped his sensibilities.

And some even threw a little twisted humour into the mix.

Back in 1971, there was a highly creative billboard done here in Canada.

As a matter of fact, it was inducted into the Canadian Billboard Hall of Fame. It was created by Oscar Ross at the Goodis Goldberg Soren advertising agency in Toronto.

The idea was incredibly simple.

Picture this:

It was a billboard with one corner of it actually peeling off and flapping in the wind.

All it said was: "Quick - the Elmer's Glue."

So smart. So visually arresting. So memorable.

The billboard caught O'Reilly's eye. It taught him something. It showed him that the medium itself could be the idea. The fact Oscar Ross used the actual paper on the billboard as part of the idea was an epiphany to him.

Many years later, O'Reilly took that lesson to heart.

A group of nuns in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, called his company and said they had a "branding" problem.

Needless to say, he was intrigued.

When he met with the nuns, they were smart, savvy and knew exactly what they needed.

They said that since they don't wear habits anymore, they had no visibility. And as they said: "We lost our branding."

They wanted an advertising campaign that spoke to women who were feeling a spiritual calling. The ads were to say the nuns of Sault Ste. Marie were still out there and ready to talk.

The transit company in the Soo had donated some interior ad space in their buses.

So O'Reilly and his team created an ad that said: "If you're looking for answers, you're looking in the right direction."

But here's the thing - they wanted to put that ad on the ceiling of the buses. Which the bus company promptly refused to do, because they had never done it before.

O'Reilly said: "But it's possible?"

The bus company said: "We don't do that."

O'Reilly persisted. They finally relented.

So when bus passengers looked up - meaning the big up - they saw a message from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie.

(Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)

The ceiling became part of the message.

Inspired by Oscar Ross and the Elmer's Glue billboard.

For more stories about Terry O'Reilly's influences, click or tap the "Listen" tab above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

Follow the journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and search the hashtag: #Terstream.