August 2, 2010
My last post was a rebuttal of sorts to a comment made on this blog challenging my ability to create a gay main character in my new novel, Sweet by Design. I replied, tartly, that I’d been doing it for years, citing the campy Altoids campaign as evidence. They didn’t call it “curiously strong” for nothing.
Yet, the blogger’s challenge is a fair one. And damn intriguing.
A reader and contributor to this blog, Charletta Lynn Barton, an African American, provided great insight into the possible motive behind my heckler’s jibe. Actually, several comments on the post are worth reading. Another commenter, Bryan Carmody pointed out that straight actors have been portraying gay characters forever. And vice versa. Can you say, Rock Hudson? This got me thinking…
Many years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Tom Burrell on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago. Tom, as many of you know, is the founder of Burrell Communications, one of America’s first advertising agencies devoted primarily to the African American consumer. He is also black.
Among other things, I debated with him whether an advertising agency could (or even should) be an expert on African Americans in the first place. Was that not racism in reverse –that only black people can sell to black people? I was trying for idealism but probably came across as naïve. Still, I think in a perfect world a good writer should be able to understand and then write for any segment of the population. Including blacks. Including the opposite sex. Including gays. That’s the job.
His response was not surprising. “It’s not a perfect world. Not only are black people woefully underrepresented in agencies but they are portrayed incorrectly by them as well.” I’m paraphrasing Tom but those were his points and they were good ones. Still are.
Yet, part of understanding people from other cultures is to walk in their shoes. While that is not literally possible it is possible in literature. And art. And copy. Moreover, I think it’s critical we try and that we try to get it right. Empathy comes via sharing experiences. No other way. Writing is one of them.
And so I endeavored to be empathetic to gay life. I have that right. Maybe it’s even an imperative. We have a black President. We almost had a female President. And, if the current scholarship on Abe Lincoln is to be believed, we may have already had a gay President.
As my former creative partner, Mark Faulkner (who is gay) once told me: “It’s not a lifestyle; it’s a life.”
I invite you to read Sweet by Design. Did I get it right? And just as important, Is it a good read? Let me know. The story comes free. And I’ve added various interactive elements to make it more entertaining, including a design contest in which the winner gets an Ipad! Work has already been submitted, and, as fate would have it, by an African American: Sweet by Design (the first cover!)
Two peas in a pod?
“Much of the Simpsons’ success can be traced to two main sources: an independence from network interference and a complete dedication to the writing…”
-John Ortved, The Unauthorized History of the Simpsons
The Simpsons TV show is the creative standard by which all comedy writing (perhaps all script writing) is measured. Few ever meet those standards. Many duck them all together. The Simpsons is also one of the most successful things ever created. Period. No part of popular culture (ours or anyone’s) is unaffected by this quirky cartoon. How and why can be summed up in the above quote.
As you might imagine, the above quote is sweet music to any creative person’s ears, especially if you’re a copywriter. Unfortunately, it is a song we seldom get to play or hear in the creative department. We get “network interference” all the time, so much so it is considered part of the “process.” And while we may have a complete dedication to the writing, few others in a typical agency do. And why should they? Writing is not their skill set. They are executives, strategists and managers. Their skill set, if you get right down to it, is to affect the writing, generally via “comments.” Comments can be good. Comments can be bad. My point is we don’t work in a vacuum.
The “curiously strong mints” campaign is my Simpsons. In my own unauthorized untold true story of Altoids, I make a similar statement to Ortved’s. A great campaign for many reasons but, in the early going, its meteoric success comes down to the same two things: autonomy and an obsession for writing. I obsessed over those headlines as my partner, Mark Faulkner obsessed over images, color scheme and typography.
In that first year we answered to no one, save for our creative director, who was only appreciative and supportive. Obviously, the client had to sign off (they were a joy by the way) but “network interference” was negligible. Why? No one in the agency cared. The budget was tiny and TV never an option. (Remember this was 1995 and this was Leo Burnett. TV was king.) Anyway, the rest is history: Wrigley bought Altoids and Lifesavers for $1.5 billion dollars.
Ultimately, many would contribute in the case study of Altoids (I’ve named them in previous posts as well as in an Adweek story) but year one it was just a creative team and an assignment.
So, what do we make of “network interference” aka the age-old battle between suit and creative? We are both on the same team, working for the same “network.” But the partnership is strained. Necessarily perhaps. And maybe that’s healthy. But for those once-in-a-lifetime campaigns –“Think Different” “Just do it.” “Curiously Strong Mints”- I’m guessing it’s the creative lonely man who called the tune.