Sid Lerner, Ad Man, Public Health Advocate and Philanthropist, Dies at 90

Sid Lerner, a legendary advertising creative director and public health advocate, died on January 12 at his home in New York City at the age of 90. Sid graduated from Syracuse University in 1953, the first in a family of immigrants to go to college.

Sid started his career in advertising during the “Mad Men” era where he rose from the mailroom, was “discovered” by a principal at Benton & Bowles and invited into the ranks of copywriting. Eventually he worked his way up to be the creative director on the coveted Procter & Gamble account. Sid oversaw legendary ad campaigns like “Please Don’t Squeeze the Charmin” featuring Mr. Whipple, who became one of the most recognized personalities in America. A quick wit and punster without peer, Sid had a unique ability to come up with memorable ideas that could capture the public’s imagination and move them to take action.

After his years in advertising, Sid turned his attention to public health, getting research off the shelf and into action, creating ideas that would capture people’s attention and inspire them to adopt healthy behaviors to address the epidemic of chronic preventable diseases.  In 2003, he launched Meatless Monday in association with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The simple, memorable idea caught on and is now a leading voice for reducing meat consumption in the US and globally – adopted in a wide range of places from the Norwegian Military to the New York City Public Schools. Soon after Meatless Monday launched, Sid started the Monday Campaigns to make Monday the day we collectively dedicate ourselves to health, or as Sid said to make Monday “the Day All Health Breaks Loose.”

Sid saw the importance of bringing marketing best practices to public health and started Lerner Centers for Public Health Promotion at Syracuse, Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities and later at NYU Langone Health and Columbia University Irving Medical Center. In 2019, Johns Hopkins recognized Sid’s contribution to public health, awarding him the Doctor of Humane Letters degree, their highest honor recognizing humanitarian impact. Ron Daniels, President of Johns Hopkins, said that Sid developed campaigns that changed the way the nation thinks about everything from common household items to public health and the environment.

Sid also worked tirelessly with a number of groups fighting anti-Semitism. His work for the American Jewish Committee was “transformational for the organization,” in the words of its Director, David Harris.

The son of Mollie Lebowitz and Louis Lerner, Sid is survived by his wife, Helaine Heilbrunn Lerner, his sister, Ethel Gardner and nieces and nephews Marla Maidenbaum, Daniel Gardner as well as Emily, Adam and Joshua Rechnitz.

In lieu of flowers, a donation in Sid Lerner’s memory can be made to Stand With Us, Alums for Campus Fairness or the Wounded Warrior Project.

To learn more about Sid’s impact on advertising and public health, watch these videos: