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Altoids, circa 1997

I wrote the above copy for Altoids in 1997. A year or so before, Mark Faulkner (art director) and I created the “Curiously Strong Mints” campaign for Altoids. The two of us would run this creatively driven account for about 7 years, producing myriad posters, print, ambient and digital pieces.

The campaign exploded into popular culture. Sales boomed. Within a couple years, Altoids became the number one selling mint in North America. Later, in a parlay with Life Savers candy, Kraft sold the brand to Wrigley for over 1.5 billion dollars. Pretty sweet, especially for a confection that wallowed in obscurity for over a century.

Those ads were game changers: for the client, for the agency, and thankfully for yours truly. Mark and I (plus a growing and talented team) would go on to win tons of creative awards for our work, including, in 1997, the $100,000 Grand Kelly Award for best print campaign in North America. Which, fortuitously, brings us back to the above execution: “Makes Other Mints Feel Inadequate.”

Imagine my surprise discovering it in the latest issue of People magazine! Holy crap. After all these years and all that history, they’re rerunning our ad. The headline. The typography. The color scheme. Save for a different (and in my opinion) crappier looking tin, it’s the same exact ad.

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I’m baaaaaack… as seen in People, May 2013

Big deal? Well, sort of. For whatever reasons, rerunning old advertising is unprecedented. Creative has a super short lifespan. Like cicadas, campaigns appear, create buzz, and then die. Precious few last longer than their first flight. Once gone, even the most successful ad campaigns stay that way. Yes, taglines or other assets get resurrected all the time. But never the ad itself.

Until this one.

What can I say? Of course I’m flattered. But seeing my ad after all these years is also discombobulating. Like running into your ex and her new beau. Altoids was and is so personal to me. I still remember pitching the above headline to my client. In fact, I recall telling them Altoids’ smart and cynical audience would appreciate a quirky word like “inadequate.” The subtle innuendo was highly intended. (As the brand grew, its widening audience would appreciate much sillier copy. But my favorite pieces always remained true to that “smart and cynical” core.)

So, having perhaps lost its way, is Altoids’ advertising returning to its base? Literally. Look, I don’t blame agency and client for rerunning our copy. There’s a whole new generation of “smart and cynical” out there. It’ll be new to them.

Special note: I discovered a website devoted entirely to Altoids advertising. In it, you’ll find “Inadequate” along with all the others, far as I can tell, pretty much in the order we produced them. I have no idea who hosts this site or why. Pretty cool, though.


Strangers TV spot 1
Strangers TV spot 2

Are drugs turning your kid into a stranger?

That’s the provocative question being posed in a pair of new commercials created by Energy BBDO for The Partnership at Drugfree.org. In each spot a bewildered mom struggles to recognize her own children. Using older actors playing strung out losers (in place of what should be ordinary kids) is the campaign’s primary conceit. They are belligerent and ugly people; the kind of people kids become once they start abusing drugs and alcohol.

I admire the simplicity of the idea, dramatizing what otherwise is a complicated and challenging problem. A legitimate approach, it definitely has legs. To that end, I wouldn’t mind seeing coming spots push the ugly transformations even further. The two users in this commercial come across as goofier than plagued.

Yet, maybe that’s a good move (intended by the client and creatives), allowing parents and kids to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Addiction is just that: a tunnel. The further in you go the harder it is to get out. In recovery they call the darkest place in it one’s bottom. Trust me, I know. Yet, for as long as there have been anti-drug commercials there have been acute dramatizations of brutal despair and disgusting consequences. The characters in these spots aren’t quite there yet, thank God.

On a special note, it’s gratifying seeing (and writing about) so many quality campaigns coming out of my hometown, Chicago. First the exemplary Mayhem campaign from Leo Burnett. Followed by Secret’s timely and provocative meanstinks work from the same agency. And now “Strangers” from Energy BBDO. Spring is here –sort of. We will soon have a new Mayor. And the Bulls are heading into the playoffs as a number one seed. Are Chicago’s agencies following suit? The arrow is pointing up.

My stuff.


Their stuff.

Everything is illuminated!

Though I’ve never read the critically acclaimed book by Jonathan Safran Foer, nor seen the motion picture based on it, I’m copping to the title. Everything is indeed illuminated.

I follow about 500 people on Twitter. Most of them occupy the world of advertising, new media and popular culture. A distinct minority represents the literary world, readers and writers like me. There are a few sports writers in there. Some fishermen. And lastly, there are the horror fanatics, providing me with links to the most obscure titles in the genre. Nasty!

That’s me.

In turn I am followed by numbers of people who also share my various affinities.

Whether you are on Twitter or not all of you are part of a microcosm as well. You follow your passions and the others that follow them. You belong to an ecosystem comprised of others like you, some very much so some not so much. But somehow you fit.

And that’s a modern miracle. Not too long ago many of us felt, at times, like outsiders. Maybe we were passionate about obscure poetry or intricate Scandinavian woodwork. Perhaps we suffered from a rare and misunderstood disease. We may have wondered why women’s shoes turned us on so much. Whatever the passion, hobby or fetish we often felt alone with it. If not for the occasional story in a magazine or newspaper, or a convention in some remote suburb, we seldom crossed paths with anyone like us. At times this made us feel unique. Mostly it sucked.

But then along came the Internet. I defy you to search a topic and come up empty. It’s not possible. If you’re into it you can find it. Frankly, you can get lost in it. I know I do.

Still, when I consider the alternative, I shudder. I am that boy in grade school who collected butterflies but had no one to share my hobby with. I knew I was different. I also wondered if I was weird. The other kids liked sports and G. I Joes. Yet, I wanted to raise Monarchs. No connection. As you might imagine, I dreaded recess. Had I had the Internet I could have shared my special interest with all kinds of people just…like…me.

Now I do. We all do.

With three little girls of my own, I understand some online communities are undesirable, even quite dangerous. Still, living in one’s head is no picnic either. Frankly, some of the worst neighborhoods I’ve ever visited were between my ears.

Being able to find others just like me is a Godsend. Even the most unusual among us can find community. We belong. Like I said: a modern miracle.


“Chicago, we have a problem.”

In my last post I wrote about pieces of music that have formed indelible impressions on me. Vivid memories evoked every time I listen to a particular track. Several of those songs are from seventies-era rock bands: Heart, Boston & Yes. High school lives!

Thinking about that period, I was reminded of another rock-related event in my life, which, as fate would have it, also served as precursor to my eventual career in advertising. In the late seventies, before I had any inkling of being a copywriter, I actually participated in an ambitious marketing program for the science fiction movie, Saturn 3 starring Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett Majors and Harvey Keitel. In the very likely event you never heard of it, here is the link.


The movie wasn’t all bad.

The production company (Transatlantic Films) wanted to bolster interest in the film among teenagers. Being one, I volunteered and was chosen to be among several young people asked to don a space suit and hand out propaganda for the film at a rock concert. I’m not positive but I believe the venue was the old Chicago Stadium (since demolished) and the act was Judas Priest (still chugging).

Free tickets to see Priest plus the chance to wear a space suit was basically a fantasy come true for a goofy fifteen year old such as myself. Unlike the music-induced memories I wrote about last time I have virtually no recollection of the concert. I do remember being asked over and over and over again if I had any weed. Kids just equated the space suit with getting high. On top of that back then smoking up at concerts was commonplace. But I digress…

Thankfully, my mother took the above photograph of me wearing the space suit before my gig at the Stadium. I wish I still had the suit; it would make a killer Halloween costume. Alas, like my flowing brown locks, it is only a memory. I never saw the spacesuit again.

Or did I?


My second poster for Altoids.


I doubt it’s a clip on…

This weekend I attended the Harvest Ball, in support of the Botanical Gardens in Glencoe, Illinois. It was a black tie affair and so, reluctantly, I unzipped my tuxedo from its black envelope in the closet. I don’t know about you but I just don’t care for playing dress up even for a good cause. Maybe it’s a guy thing. My wife spent half the day at the beauty salon and enjoyed every costly moment of it. To me spending a Saturday afternoon in a tricked-out downtown basement getting dolled up sounds like Hell, perhaps not its burning, miserable core but certainly an outer ring. My wife scoffs at me for suggesting as much. You’re getting pampered, she says. There’s camaraderie, gossip; it’s a wonderful experience. It better be. I think about the hundreds of dollars it all probably costs, not including tips.

Needless to say, I don’t do any of that stuff. I shave and shower and get dressed. The only real difference is getting dressed. Oh, but what a difference! Instead of choosing a pair of pants and a shirt now I must go through a complicated process not unlike assembling a bicycle on Christmas morning.

Where to begin? Let’s go right to the worst part: putting on cuff links. Part of my struggle here is due to my own ignorance. For twenty years I tried to put them on after I’d put on my shirt –truly the definition of frustrating. Flipping the order solved that problem but I still fumble and bumble and invariably get it wrong.

The reason I didn’t start with every man’s nightmare, the dreaded bow tie, is because I don’t even go there. Clip on ties are acceptable to more and more people and thankfully my wife is one of them. Many moons ago I tried tying a bow tie and, after an hour of agonizing failure, I had to ask another man to do it. Oh, the humility! Never again.

Then there’s the tux itself. Either too tight or too loose, it’s never the right size. This is because I haven’t worn the damn thing in at least a year. Regardless of which scenario, an ill-fitting tux makes me feel like an awkward teenager. When my wife tells me I look handsome she sounds like my mother.

Disdaining patent leather slip-ons –they look and feel like ballet slippers- I now wear a nice pair of black boots. I don’t know if this is acceptable and I don’t care.

I know some men get a kick out of black tie. I read Details and GQ. I enjoy a nice cashmere sweater and sporting a sharp tie once in a while. I also like the look, smell and feel of $500 dollar shoes. I just draw a line at black tie.


Works for him…

I recognize it works for James Bond, George Clooney and old rich guys getting in limos on Park Avenue. I can live with the fact that I ain’t one of them. For years I never gave my sartorial deficiency a second thought. Not difficult given the relaxed dress in most creative departments. But along comes Mad Men and suddenly advertising is fashionable. As is drinking. Even smashed the characters look smashing. Hmmm. I’d love to see Don Draper tie on a bow after tying one on.

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