George Lois, icon maker.

I was listening to an interview with famed art director, George Lois on Among the many interesting things he said, one comment stood out. Lois was addressing the art of magazine covers, something he was famous for. The subject came around to which magazines he thought were doing covers right. Despite abhorring the New Yorker’s Barack & Michelle Obama cover for “unintentionally misleading a lot of dumb voters,” Lois spoke flatteringly of the magazine.

a notorious cover, an iconic format.

He recalled a recent conversation with its Editor-In-Chief, David Remnick. Remnick had asked him if maybe the New Yorker should move away from illustrated covers and explore photography. Aghast, Lois told him he’d better not. “You own the cartoon cover! Why on earth would you walk away from it?”

His comment stopped me because it reminded me of various examples in my career when some of my most famous clients wanted to walk away from the advertising campaigns that had made them so famous!

Heinz Ketchup (or do you say catsup?) for example. The iconic brand was seriously considering a departure from the “Anticipation” type advertising it had made for years. Who doesn’t remember the rework of Carly Simon’s huge hit? It turned the products biggest negative (takes too long to pour) into a monster benefit: slow equals best. With “Anticipation,” the brand’s eminence had reached its zenith.

And now Heinz wanted to change all that. They had some research saying teens were uninspired by the slow pour approach. Most of us at Burnett decried their passion for change. The debate became fear-driven. Do we walk away from what we know is the brand’s signature attribute or risk pissing off the client by sticking to our guns?

The solution became a gang-bang, in which all bases would be covered. Long story short, yours truly won this battle royal and, happily, Heinz stayed on point with a rework of the old cliché: Good Things Come to Those Who Wait. “Rooftop” was the signature spot in this campaign, and would get me my first Gold Lion at Cannes. It didn’t hurt Matt LeBlanc’s acting career either!

Ten years later, same agency, Maytag began questioning the efficacy of their long-running and beloved “Lonely Repairman.” They had research showing “dependability” was less relevant to today’s customer than style and performance.

Good God! I remember telling them that they could not create the Lonely Repairman today even if they wanted to. The message was too powerful. Implying their machines NEVER broke down would be illegal. That they wanted to move off this strategy was insane.

While mistakes were made, thankfully, Maytag held on to dependability and the Lonely Repairman.

same icon, new repairman.

We often talk about change in the ad game. With a new CMO comes change. With flat sales. With a new agency. Like in politics, change is always perceived as improvement.

But it’s not. Lois’s statement about the New Yorker is dead on. Hopefully, my examples are valid as well. How about you, Gentle Reader? Have you any examples to share?


Every October, a strange and gruesome spectacle takes place along the banks of the boat channel in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Whether I’m riding into work via bike or car I can’t help but ogle the armies of bundled-up men “snagging” for salmon.

Snagging is a brutal (but legal) form of fishing, whereby the fisherman hoists a massive, weighted treble hook into the water and “rips” it back and forth trying to gaff a bewildered fish. From my car, it looks like the men are dragging for dead bodies.

Why is this vulgar form of fishing legal? Because the fish are doomed anyway. A sizable portion of Lake Michigan’s salmon is stocked by the DNR. Yet, these creatures are wired to swim upstream in the fall to spawn. Having no river to come home to, the fish choose the man-made channel instead. Only a half-mile long and a few feet deep, the waterway is a deathtrap. Even if eggs were produced, once dropped, the fish dies. Therefore, the city allows people to snag salmon until the run is over.

I understand it would be a shame to let these highly edible creatures die and rot but I still find “snagging” offensive. I love fishing. I must own 20 rods and reels. I have a cabin in Wisconsin. I grew up catching, cleaning and cooking Lake Michigan perch. On slow days, gouging the belly of an unsuspecting fish may have crossed my mind but we always considered it sleazy, something a tramp would do.

So, how does this all relate to advertising? Actually, very poetically. Think about it. Brand advertising in its highest form is like fly-fishing: sleek, urbane, wise. Think glorious anthems, the launch of new campaigns. Fishing with lures is one step down. It’s brand advertising, packaged and distilled. Though not a lavish opus, it still requires craftsmanship. Grinder TV, the churn and burn of most advertising, is like fishing with live bait –messy, very effective, yet still true fishing. And then you have snagging. Perhaps unfairly, direct marketing is accused of being equally vicious in terms of “catching” customers. Advocates will tell you, “Hell yes, we find swarms of consumers and hook boatloads!” It’s a good case. In fact, half my agency’s business is generated that way.

Even so, direct marketing still gives the consumer a choice to buy or to pass. Same as fishing with bait or lures.

Despite agency rhetoric about “proprietary tools” and “ROI” there is, as far as I know, no known form of marketing that can snag a customer from the general population. We still have to angle for consumers, attracting them with lures, hooking them with promises. That is why advertising, in its purist form, is an art, a lot like fly-fishing. Sadly, with a bleak holiday season inevitable for retailers I’m betting the snagging season seems like a wet dream.

Mother Mary or the St. Pauli Girl?

I ripped a blurb out from the Chicago Tribune this morning. (Yes, I still read the morning paper. Interfacing with a computer cannot replace coffee and the sports section… yet.) The story was about a slew of billboards going up in London (alas, none to show), produced by a group of well-moneyed atheists who, according to the Trib, “object to the favorable treatment given to religion in British society.” Some 30 buses will carry the slogan:

There’s probably no God.
Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.

As many of you know, I’ve got a novel out about God and advertising: The Happy Soul Industry. In it, God finds an advertising agency to market Heaven. The campaign they come up with features this headline:

These days everybody’s skipping prayer.
So, how’s everybody doing?

You can imagine my amusement, then, at the non-believer’s advertisement. Same tone but a very different message! My line suggests the world is fretting and could really benefit from communion with God. The other suggests that there is no God and just get on with it.

Interesting use of the word “probably” as opposed to “definitely.” Does that make them agnostic? Regardless, unequivocally denying God’s existence would only infuriate the many to get a chuckle from the few.

What I don’t like is the “stop worrying” declarative. Constructive worrying is not a bad thing. It leads to positive change. And Lord knows, we have PLENTY to worry about, in the UK as well as here. “Don’t worry, be happy” is not so much atheistic as it is ignorant.

One has to place the now-famous “God Speaks” campaign into this discussion. For many years, a Southern congregation has underwritten countless messages beseeching people to heed God. Especially provocative about this campaign is that it maintains God as the copywriter! I know for a fact He isn’t, but the conceit does provide the work with a unique and powerful voice.

Like a lot of sensible people, my religious views evolved over time. As a boy, I was ignorant of God. He was merely a concept. As a young man I was an atheist. Not only did I believe in the power of “Self” (Ayn Rand being a huge influence), I also bought into the dismissal of religion as opiate for the masses. When you’re 22 you feel immortal -what need have you of God? By the time I got into my thirties, I questioned everything. At 40, I understood the need for a power greater than myself. I could no longer fill the hole in my soul by intellectual or hedonistic means, which had been my previous defaults.

Apparently, a lot of people can live without a higher power, hence the campaign from Britain. Like it or not, the message will get noticed. To what aim, I’ve no idea. I am fascinated (and amused) by God’s infiltration into popular culture. After all, I wrote a book about it! He (or She) is EVERYWHERE. Including, even now, in advertising.

Me before God, or rather an ad about a book about God. (best price on Amazon)

“Do you hate this as much as I do?”

I loathe radio advertising. As a teenager, vainly reluctant to turn the dial from my favorite station (The Loop), instead enduring the echoing screams from SMOKING U.S. DIRTY DRAGSTRIP. SMOKING! SMOKING! SMOKING! As a man, navigating between sports and talk, desperately trying to avoid the hard-up pitches for sexual enhancement.

Radio is like ditch weed. It makes you wince and gives you a headache. It’s cheap.

I know this sounds like sacrilege, coming from a copywriter. Believe me, I’ve heard the defenses. Radio is theater of the mind. It’s voices only we control. Pure prose. Copywriters are supposed to love the medium because it’s our words and little else. No art direction. No stage direction. No client interaction. But I don’t care; I hate it.

Start with the volume. Every spot seems to shout its message from the top of a radio tower. LOW INTEREST MORTGAGES! INTENSE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE! REAL MEN OF GENIUS! Yes, even the arguably brilliant Bud Light campaign resorts to loudness. It has to. It’s radio.

And the clichés. Knock. Knock. “Who’s there?” I know -a dumb ass character in a radio commercial. You’d think every conversation in the world took place on one’s doorstep. Why? Because it sets the stage damn fast: two people, with one having to state his or her cause. Plus doorbells and knocking are easy to create and recognize. And what about all the shrinks? “Tell me about your dreams,” starts the spot. The remaining character (patient) is then given a soapbox to rant and rave, a necessary evil when exposition is critical.

While TV commercials are guilty as well, nowhere are the STUPID HUSBAND and NAGGING WIFE more apparent than on radio. We know these people from their voices alone. The man is a clueless dope. The woman is a whiny bitch. Sometimes they make up and then we get my favorite cliché: using words no one ever uses anymore. When was the last time you called your wife “honey?” Certainly not in a conversation about reliable pain relief.

Writing radio has its charms. The author goes it alone, which has a certain poetic machismo. But it’s not worth the result, which is almost always terrible. I’ve written plenty of radio campaigns. So far I have liked only one of them: a series for featuring Peter Graves in his iconic “Biography” character. It was cute. The rest all sucked.

Radio doesn’t have a foothold anywhere in popular culture. No one talks about radio commercials around the water cooler. Not even ad people. Radio doesn’t have a forum like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl.

Speaking of accolades, without exception, radio is the category NOBODY wants to judge at awards shows. Talk about purgatory. You’re in a room, staring at the walls, and expected to listen. And listen, and listen and listen. By the 15th commercial I’m ready to shove chopsticks in my ears. Unlike pizza (even when it’s bad it’s good), radio is the whine of a mosquito.

Look, I’ve chuckled at the occasional spot. I just don’t think those rare exceptions are worth the vast, remaining blitzkrieg. Do you?

This car commercial is driving me crazy. And like any good screw to the brain, it keeps turning and turning. Not since “Save Big Money at Menards” has an advertising jingle so infiltrated the mind space of my household. It is like flu, a cult even. My little girls gallop about our home singing of their savior Zero.

At first I laughed at this lunacy. Hearing my 7-year old humming the lyric while playing Legos, I couldn’t help but feel a sick pride about our industry’s raw power. (Just last week I’d blogged about my own ultra-crappy jingle cum phenomenon: Not your Father’s Oldsmobile.) Anyway, like most forms of pride it quickly deteriorated into something dire: This is an awful song in an awful commercial. Shut up, already!

Despite it’s ubiquity and cheapo-repetitive production values, the eye of this spot’s awfulness is, absolutely, its music. “Saved by Zero” is a crap re-recording of a crap hit from eighties new wave has-beens, The Fixx. I’ve no idea the song’s original meaning but it’s painfully obvious the current adaptation: zero percent financing on a new Toyota.

Our economy is a wreck. Of course good deals are what panicky car sellers will be shouting about. But this commercial was produced before the markets crashed. The serendipitous use of the word “saved” is merely coincidence and cannot redeem this commercial. Nor should it. For the most part regional/retail car advertising always blows. The agencies that make this chum are usually second and third tier shops, often at odds with the car maker’s higher profile brand agencies. Commercials like these are the closest thing to junk mail on TV.

While searching for an image or video, I discover that a colony of haters for this ultra-annoying spot exists on Facebook! Then I see Adrants ranting about the spot as well:

So this paltry commercial has its own cult of personality. And we are growing, for here I am, and so too the spot. Would you believe the thing ran while I was writing this, watching Game 7 of the ALCS? Sure ‘nuff.

Lord knows we have bigger problems than posed by this silly commercial. Besides, when Saved by Zero is kaput another odious paean to a numeral will replace it. “Five dollar foot long,” anyone?