In my father’s recently released memoir on his career in advertising, Pickett, Plunkett & Puckett he mentions a test he had to take in order to qualify for a job as copywriter on the Sears’s catalog. In the early sixties Sear’s Roebuck (and its iconic catalog) was literally the textbook for retailing in the United States. Called the “Wish book,” anything and everything could be found in the Sear’s catalog (even houses!) and it was a staple in every home, kind of the Amazon of its day.
Yet, the job was hardly glamorous and wasn’t supposed to be. Sears Roebuck was about as old school as it got: dress codes, pneumatic tubes, and a cafeteria.
All his pages detailing the inner workings of Sear’s marketing department are fascinating but, for me, it was the test he took that stands out. Anachronistic now, back in the day, psychological profiling was used at companies all over America to determine whether an applicant was the “right fit” for the job and company. Back then folks entered into a career hoping –nay expecting- to work at a given firm the rest of their lives. The companies’ wanted that too and so standardized tests, however futile, were developed to insure its likelihood.
My father singles out one question from the test: Would you rather write the play, star in the play, or sell tickets to the play? My father rightly guesses they are not looking for big creative egos at Sears and answers “sell the tickets.” However, like any writer, what he really would like to do is write the play. These days, I’m guessing that’s what every aspiring writer would like to do. Honestly, the way things are now, I’m betting quite a few young creatives would just assume star in at as well.
It’s easy making fun of this archaic test, so corny and out of touch. But the question is pretty damn interesting when you think about it, as I have. From day one copywriters have wrestled with their urges to be creative versus their mandate to sell. Even now the challenge is still a major aspect of the job. Whether one works at a conservative shop or some rogue boutique, all on staff struggle with it. The lame rejoinder “well, you gotta do both” is generally where everyone nets out. Sears had no such dilemma, which makes my father’s anecdote provocative nostalgia.
In the end my father writes he faired poorly on the test but somehow got the job anyway. As I said, the stories around this are fascinating and, like many others in the book, well worth reading. It’s available in paperback or on kindle, via Amazon.
The Sears Catalog stopped printing in 1993. Regardless, the company struggles to remain relevant.
Authors Note: This is an updated version of a previous post.
“We could have gone a more traditional route but it wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable.” That’s the sole line of copy in this commercial, “Honeymoon” for the Subaru Outback from Carmichael Lynch. Part of their “Love” campaign, which, according the agency website, has doubled the automaker’s market share in the last three years.
That’s a good result, especially for a carmaker that has long struggled for relevance, let alone sales. But not for lack of trying. If you’ve read Randall Rothenberg’s chronicle, Where the Suckers Moon then you know something about these efforts as well as advertising history. If you haven’t read this fine book, do so. Few, if any, advertising books are as entertaining and revealing. Suffice it to say, Subaru has a notorious creative past.
Back to the commercial at hand, about a young couple using the vehicle to go on an exotic camping trip for their honeymoon. They encounter rugged obstacles, including an ox in the road. When they set up camp, a lovely white tent, a rainstorm forces them back into their trusty Outback. They laugh and smile throughout. Awwww!
The AVO (from the husband’s POV) deftly refers to their unusual choice for honeymoon as well as vehicle. A simple concept, if I saw the storyboard I’d get it immediately. The execution is lovely as well, capturing the young couple in all their joy. I must say I grow weary of soulful crooning in commercials (Do people really listen to this pap?) but I suppose it’s appropriate here.
So it’s a good fim but is it an appropriate way to sell an SUV? For years, carmakers have tried to convince Mr. and Mrs. Smith that rugged SUV’s actually make great vehicles for shopping malls and soccer pick-ups. Mission accomplished. SUV’s are ubiquitous. Annoyingly so.
Here Subaru is going back to the future, taking a pair of upper-middle class kids into the outback. Your marriage isn’t about malls and soccer practice, it’s telling them. Not yet, anyway. Whether we believe this shaggy hipster and his ‘Zoe’ of a bride would actually take such a honeymoon is immaterial. This is Hollywood romance, a la Out of Africa or, more plausibly, visiting Australia your senior year of college. I believe the word is “yearning.” If young people end up yearning for a Subaru Outback, I’m sure the agency and client would be giddy as newlyweds.
Apparently one of the few legitimate Gods of Advertising was more mortal than we thought. According to a new book written by a colleague of his at Doyle Dane Bernbach (former head of PR, Doris Willens), world famous creative director Bill Bernbach was often insecure and petty, and could be cruel and offensive toward his staff. At least that’s what I gleaned from the review given to the book by AdAge reporter, Rupal Parekh.
“Nobody’s Perfect. Bill Bernbach and the Golden Age of Advertising” is the book’s title. I haven’t read it yet. (Right now I’m plowing through John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels –a major undertaking!) Based on its Amazon number the book appears to be selling fairly well, which comes as no surprise. Bernbach was the Alex Bogusky or Lee Clow of his day. He changed the Mad Men era of hard sell advertising into the creatively driven apparatus most of us aspire to. I won’t go into all the creative highlights (Chivas, VW, Avis, etc) but like many of my peers I studied all of them as a newcomer in advertising. Anyone reading this post ought to as well. ‘Nuff said!
What I’m interested in here is the revelation that Mr. Bernbach may have been an insecure creep. We tend to elevate our heroes into sainthood (unfairly) and one imagines Bill Bernbach as an inspired guru, nurturing and kind.
Ridiculous. Not only was he a suit-wearing businessman interested in making money but it appears he had numerous character defects as well. Just like you and just like me. I’ve been writing about insecurity in the creative department since starting this blog. I’ve ruminated about our unfortunate tendency toward criticism and our inability to accept it. For better and worse, I’ve likened the creative department to Romper Room.
Yet even I put Bernbach and his peers on a pedestal. As far as the advertising his shop created it’s totally deserved. But as a human being I’m afraid he’s just like the rest of us. Finding this out does not make me sad. In fact I find the revelations freeing. Lord knows I struggle with the competitive nature of our business and dealing with all the egos including my own. Glad to hear old Bill did too!
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March 10, 2009
So, I’m sitting in the glitzy BA lounge in the new terminal at Heathrow waiting to board my flight to Dubai. Actually, I’m waiting for an opening in the spa for a shower. They give you a pager. Bleary eyed, I decide to check Amazon and see how sales of my book, The Happy Soul Industry are doing.
There, much to my surprise, I discover my novel has been paired with none other than George Parker and his “The Ubiquitous Persuaders.” Other than being delighted to see Amazon is adept at cross selling, I’m also thrilled to be riding shotgun with Mr. Parker.
As many of you know, I recently read and reviewed Parker’s book and found it to be a definitive text on advertising –it’s past, present and future. TUP is also a ripping good read, which should surprise few, given the popularity of his blog, Adscam/The Horror! I invite you to read my review:
Or, better yet, why not just buy both books with one click on Amazon? The price is right and you will have made a fine contribution to your advertising library: fact & fiction.
LATE BULLETIN: Received email that Parker wrote about our pairing as well. However, I could not get to Adscam as the Dubai government does not allow traffic on profane or pornographic websites!