Monday, November 27, 2017

Two new children's books by me -- Available now

I'm a writer. My father-in-law is an illustrator. It was probably inevitable that we'd end up collaborating on a book -- and we did it twice:

What if an elephant pulled Santa's sleigh? Or an owl? Or a snake? See what happens when Santa Claus tries a variety of animals, with fun and surprising results. Preview "Before the Reindeer" here. Buy it on Amazon.

From A to Z, from beast to bird, here are animals for every word. Colorful illustrations and lively verses bring the alphabet to life and help create a sense of wonder at the variety found in nature. Preview "ABC's in the Wild" here. Buy it on Amazon.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review: "Think Small."

There have been books singling out advertising agencies (“Chiat Day: The First 25 Years,” “25 Years of Fallon”), advertising eras (“When Advertising Tried Harder,” “Advertising’s Ten Best of the Decade, 1980-1990”) and even advertising campaigns (“The Absolut Book,” “The Got Milk Book”), but this is likely the first book to focus on a single ad.

Given that, it would have been easy for this book to fall prey to hyperbole and hero worship. After all, not only is this the story behind what the book calls “the greatest ad ever written” – Volkswagen’s “Think Small” ad – it also intersects with the ad agency and the people who were the primary drivers of advertising’s creative revolution of the 1960s.

Instead, “Think Small: The Story Of The World’s Greatest Ad“ by Dominik Imseng, is written in the same kind of crisp, low-key style as the body copy in a Volkswagen ad (every page is laid out like a Volkswagen ad copy block, too ). It makes an easy, enjoyable read, building to the seminal moment when the paths of Bill Bernbach and his agency, the Volkswagen brand, and a rejection of the Madison Avenue hard-sell all combined to set the stage for the ground-breaking campaign.

Like Steve Jobs, another innovator who commanded great loyalty from his employees, Bill Bernbach is recalled as both visionary and brutally demanding. “You really did not want to have him turn something down…because sometimes, he would get nasty about it,” former DDB copywriter Bob Levinson tells Imseng.

Bernbach was the son of immigrant from Eastern Europe, but the clichéd beginning of a success story ends here. Though Bernbach downplayed his early life in the Bronx, his father was actually a successful designer of women’s clothes, and Bill himself graduated from New York University in 1933. His self-confidence and ambition had carried him through a couple of early promotional jobs, but it was humility brought on by a year’s unemployment that seemed to get him his first job in advertising. When asked why he should be hired over the other applicants, Bernbach replied, “I don’t know why I should have it. I don’t even know if I’m equipped.”

But as George Lois, an early DDB art director (and an advertising legend in his own right) tells Imseng, “the seed for the Creative Revolution was planted” at that agency when Bernbach met graphic designer Paul Rand. Working closely with Rand, a brilliant conceptual artist, spurred Bernbach’s passion to break out of the typical ad agency structure of the time. Instead of the copywriter conceptualizing the ad alone and then handing off the copy to a commercial artist to be laid out, Bernbach realized the creative process could be much stronger if the writer and artist actually worked together, sharing ideas and feeding off each other’s inspirations.

At the same time, spurred by the clever, sophisticated ads he was creating for clients like Ohrbach’s department store, Bernbach was pioneering an approach that rejected dependence on the pseudo-scientific principals of modern marketing, like the mind-numbing repetitiveness of Unique Selling Proposition as advocated by the Ted Bates Agency’s Rosser Reeves.

These philosophies would form the basis of Bernbach’s “manifesto of the Creative Revolution” as Imseng calls it – actually a letter to his then-bosses at Grey advertising, in which he exhorts, “Let us blaze new trails, let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, good writing can be good selling.”

The stage was set for his agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, and this is where the book truly surprises, drawing on Imseng’s interviews from several of the surviving players.

Like the Volkswagen Beetle – first imported to America the same year Doyle Dane Bernbach opened its doors – DDB was out of sync with the industry around it. Volkswagen was a holdover of Hitler’s Germany, small and oddly shaped, at a time when Detroit’s autos were big and sleek, a reflection of American dominance and prosperity after WWII. Similarly, DDB, with two of its three principals being Jewish (including Bernbach), stood in stark contrast to the dominant WASPish, Ivy League-staffed agencies.

But unable to crack the big leagues of automobile and packaged goods accounts, DDB was left with second-tier clients like Ohrbach’s department store and Levy’s Jewish Rye bread. The fresh, playful ads that resulted were both a rejection of Madison Avenue conformity and the client toadyism that went hand-in-hand with it, and brought this upstart young agency to the attention of Volkswagen.

Yet far from being a fait accompli, the “Think Small” ad – like so many innovations – was a happy accident, its inspiration originally buried in one of the final paragraphs of another ad prepared by writer Julian Koenig and art director Helmut Krone:

“Maybe we got so big because we think small,” the sentence read.

Given how it set the tone not just for the Volkswagen campaign, but for DDB and the whole creative revolution that followed, you’ll be surprised to learn how ambiguous Krone felt about it. He initially rejected the line as too abstract. In fact, he hated it, as well as the whole approach of selling the VW as an “honest” car (Krone wanted to “Americanize” the car along the lines of “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.”) – but was finally persuaded to lay it out. (Bernbach, by all accounts, was only tangentially involved in the Volkswagen creative.)

Imseng tracks the ad’s evolution through several versions of copy and layouts. Krone, ever the perfectionist, used every opportunity to re-proportion the headline and the car, in subtle ways that the average reader surely never noticed. “If Krone were still alive, he would still be working on that ad,” one former colleague observes. (Imseng helpfully provides every version in an appendix so the today’s reader can compare all the differences.)

With that ad as a template, the VW campaign found both its voice and its visual style -- honest, simple and sincere, standing out among the glamorized, bigger-is-better advertising of Detroit.

As Imseng dryly observes, “by using self-deprecation and irony – traditional elements of Yiddish humor, DDB sold Hitler’s car by making it Jewish.”

In the final chapter, Imseng presents an interview with Alex Bogusky of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, whose own brand of rule-breaking, envelope-pushing thinking makes him, in Imseng’s view, “the new Bill Bernbach.” But for all Bogusky’s successes, it’s hard to put the edgy irrelevance of the “Subservient Chicken” Internet sensation into the same league as the understated yet powerful “Think Small” ad that was “just facts and wit and charm, giving the Beetle the personality of a lovable underdog.”

“Think Small:
The Story Of The World’s Greatest Ad”
by Dominik Imseng
Full Stop Press

Monday, September 26, 2011

Double Advertendres

Yes, I know what you’re thinking.

Go ahead – snicker. Because this campaign theme from the National Pork Board exemplifies an interesting characteristic I've observed in advertising's most memorable slogans: A lot of 'em seem to have a bit of sexual double entendre to them.

Freud probably would have something to say about that. But instead, let’s turn to David Ogilvy:

"The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible."*

Of course, he probably didn’t intend for a bunch of adolescent innuendo to end up in print. And to be fair, maybe nobody at the ad agencies in question saw a more…suggestive interpretation…in the following slogans. Still…

Well, maybe it’s just me.

Perhaps even more interesting is how you can categorize the different ways these slogans, um, titillate the consumer’s fancy.

Some seem a bit impatient:
Just Do It. (Nike)
Have it your way. (Burger King)

Some seem like pick-up lines at a bar:
Do you...Yahoo!? (Yahoo!)
Got Milk? (California Milk Processor Board)
What would you do for a Klondike bar? (Klondike bar)
Put a tiger in your tank. (Esso/Exxon)

Some are rather braggy:
Home of the Whopper. (Burger King)
Good to the last drop. (Maxwell House coffee)
A little dab'll do ya! (Brylcreem)

Some make a promise of endurance:
It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. (Timex Corporation)
Melts in your mouth, not in your hands. (M&Ms)
It keeps going and going and going. (Energizer batteries)

Some are, well, more responsive than others:
I'm lovin' it. (McDonald's)
Oh, what a feeling! (Toyota)

Some are quite reassuring:
We do it all for you. (McDonald's again)
You're in good hands with Allstate. (Allstate)
We try harder. (Avis)

Some seem very process-driven:
Taking Care of Business. (Office Depot)
So easy a caveman can do it. (GEICO)

Some are a more straightforward statement of fact:
Connecting People. (Nokia)
Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. (State Farm Insurance)
Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't. (Almond Joy/Mounds candy bars)

And finally, there’s this one from Purdue Chicken. Viva la difference:

(*Admittedly, that's the most un-Ogilvy-like quote I've ever heard. But it's sourced to this biography, so I'll chalk it up to another of the surprising attitudes often found under his straight-laced personna.)

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Read the list! See the movie poster!

A few months back, I noticed there were lists making the way around the web that purported to be "The Greatest Movie Themelines Ever Written" -- actually, it seems to be more or less the same list everywhere. This list is pretty representative of the thinking.

I'm not going to go through the choices movie by movie. But if you do, you'll see that most of the themelines chosen are are, at best, just clever wordplays, and at worst, too-clever-by-half puns. They may bring a smile to your face and they might even give you some idea of the subject matter. But by and large, most of these evoke no real desire to see the movie. And shouldn't that be the real yardstick by which you should judge the "greatest" themeline?

It's not surprising that truly great themelines are few and far between. After all, it's not every day that someone comes up with "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water" or "In space, no one can hear you scream" (rightly revered as the Gold Standards of movie themelines).

That's why we remember those so well. But here's a very select few off that list that I think do a pretty good job of reaching that high standard:

"THE MONSTER DEMANDS A MATE!" It isn't just the creepy idea of what kind of woman would submit to Frankenstein's creation -- it's urgency of the wording itself. The creature doesn't just want a mate (with the suggestion of procreation that term implies) -- it DEMANDS one!

A perfect themeline for the movie that, perhaps, more than any other, exemplified the rule-breaking influence of the counterculture on "The New Hollywood" of the '70s. "THEY'RE YOUNG, THEY'RE IN LOVE" the line begins, promising us the kind of starry-eyed romances that Tinsel Town specialized in. "...AND THEY KILL PEOPLE" the line ends in a shocking deadpan, much like the image at top of a laughing Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, spidery bullet holes, moving across the windshield ever closer to them."

For everyone who remembers the chilling "They're here." spoken by little Carol-Ann after making contact with the vengeful spirits haunting their tract home, this simple themeline both references that quote and promises more of the same (whether it delivered on the promise is another matter). You can't read "THEY'RE BACK." without giving it the same ominous sing-song inflection of the original ("They'rrre baaa-aa-ck.").

Never mind the overheated hyperbole of "It explodes like twelve sticks of dynamite!" The main two phrases -- "LIFE IS IN THEIR HANDS - DEATH IS ON THEIR MINDS!" -- doesn't just set up the stakes, it creates a dramatic tension between life and death, mind and body, compassion and retribution.

Back in 1978, "YOU'LL BELIEVE A MAN CAN FLY" wasn't just promising a new achievement in special effects (though, at the time, it was leaps and bounds ahead of any "flying" previously visualized), it tapped into the yearning in our collective hearts for a hero we could believe in, in this post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, economically depressed era.

The sun-baked, hazy color palette has an appropriately post-apocalyptic feel, but really, post-apocalyptic stories are a dime a dozen these days. No, it's the inherent contradiction of the themeline which intrigues us: "THE LAST MAN ON EARTH IS NOT ALONE." A wonderful way of making the protagonist seem tough and resourceful, but isolated and vulnerable to...WHAT?

"Rocky" wasn't a boxing movie, it was a character movie about a loser who turned his life around while (ironically) losing. This poster worked beautifully to broaden the audience beyond sports fans, by picturing him not throwing a punch, not raising his gloves in triumph, but by walking away from us, humbly, hand in hand with a woman. For anyone who likes an underdog story, the come-on was irresistible: "HIS WHOLE LIFE WAS A MILLION-TO-ONE SHOT."

"Close Encounters" may have directed by Steven Spielberg coming off his "Jaws" success, but the movie had a couple strikes against it right off the bat. Few people knew what the title meant (necessitating all the exposition at top); and though the cast included such recognizable faces as Richard Dreyfus and Teri Garr, the only stars pictured were in the night sky, above a desolate highway and a mysterious flash beyond the horizon. "WE ARE NOT ALONE." was on the surface, a simple, declarative statement, but in an era when speculation about "little green men" was running rampant through popular culture, the themeline promised you that the matter would be settled here.

When violent crime was all the talk in the media, Stallone was there to tap into the (exaggerated) fears of urbanites. "CRIME IS A DISEASE. MEET THE CURE."

"AND REMEMBER, THE NEXT SCREAM YOU HEAR MAY BE YOUR OWN." Working the same side of the street as the "Alien" themeline ("In space, no one can hear you scream.") and just as cleverly understated, Hitchcock's quote leaves you with the sense that, even if you're not screaming, everyone around you will be.

With its unsettling implications of...something...some thing...having invaded your body (and calling to mind the gestating creature of "Alien"), "MAN IS THE WARMEST PLACE TO HIDE." makes you feel the tension and dread that suffused this movie throughout.

This last one is less a themeline than a precis, and its worth reading in its entirety, below. But the last sentence does stand on its own to draw you into a story of one man's fall from grace:

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Man In The Chair

A deceptively simple layout -- minimalist, really -- is one of the things that gives this 1958 ad it's power. Even stripping away the desk that this skeptical business would normally be sitting behind was brilliant. Instead of making seem more vulnerable, it closes the distance between him and viewer, and adds to the reader's feeling of discomfort.

And the litany of clipped statements, one after the other, gives us a first-person experience of the stern dressing-down an unprepared salesman would receive from this man...
I don't know who you are.
I don’t know your company.
I don’t know your company’s product.
I don’t know what your company stands for.
I don’t know your company’s customers.
I don’t know your company’s record.
I don’t know your company’s reputation.
And then comes the final knife, set in an italic font that makes his summation seem even more intimidating.
Now--what was it you wanted to sell me?
I'm guessing "The Man In The Chair" helped sell a lot of advertising in McGraw Hill publications.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Embracing (but not squeezing) Mr. Whipple

"It was that easy.
In an hour and a half,
America's most universally
despised advertising
campaign was created."

That's how Benton & Bowles writer John Chervokas described the process of creating Mr. Whipple and the "Please Don't Squeeze the Charmin!" ad campaign in 1964. Mr. Chervokas died not too long ago, leaving as his legacy an ad campaign that was rated by Advertising Age as the 51st best campaign of the last century.

By 1978, Mr. Whipple was named the third-best-known American—just behind former President Nixon and Billy Graham. “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin!” became one of most recognizable advertising slogans ever, identified by eight out of 10 people that same year.

And yet, far from celebrating Mr. Whipple, the advertising community frequently derided Mr. Chervokas' brainchild as emblematic of the crass, lowest-common denominator pandering for which the industry was often denounced. (And judging by the title of a popular manual on copywriting, that animosity has yet to dissipate.)

(Never mind that the Mr. Whipple commercials first started running in an era when programming they would interrupt included such high-brow fare as "My Favorite Martian," "The Munsters," and "Gilligan's Island.")

Yes, Mr. Whipple (no first name ever given) was a bizarre character, even among company that included a nosy Mrs. Olson who kept showing up uninvited at people houses, coffee crystals in hand, and a too-chummy fellow who live on the other side of the bathroom cabinet and always wanted to share deodorant. Still, there was something...repressed...about Mr. Whipple, who, after scolding shoppers for squeezing the Charmin...

...would inevitably be caught compressing the toilet tissue himself; guiltily, compulsively, like a pervert caught in the act.

Still, he sold a lot of toilet tissue.

In a 1972 essay in Advertising Age, Mr. Chervokas gave his account of the birth (and subsequent vilification) of Mr. Whipple. It's fascinating, both as look into the creative process that goes on everyday in advertising, along with the maneuvering to define a selling proposition based on the slimmest of attributes.

Charmin bathroom tissue had been around since 1928 (named by an employee of the original manufacturer who described the product as "charming") and during the intervening 36 years, had found success with ad campaigns that were based on an elegant, feminine appeal ("Lady Charmin") and later, with baby imagery to symbolize the products gentleness (“Charmin Babies Your Skin”).

However, a "new and improved" Charmin tissue, introduced in the mid-60s, demanded a "new and improved" selling proposition. As Mr. Chervokas explained,
People who looked at the commercials made a snap judgement in the first five seconds that yes, it's a Charmin commercial, but tune out. They wouldn't pay any more attention to the rest of the commercial, which looked like every Charmin commercial they had ever seen."
So, gentleness was out. Softness was in.

Here, Mr. Chervokas gives us a takes us into their brainstorming: about a funny demonstration of softness? Just what are the standards of softness?

Soft as a feather? No, it makes you think of tickling.

Soft as a baby's behind? Not bad, but too restrictive.

Soft as silk. Overpromise.
Then comes the quite-logical question that leads to new imagery:
Now how do you go about measuring something like softness?

Fall on a pillow.

Hug a pillow.

Squeeze a...

Squeeze a what?
That question leads to the germ of the big idea:
...what does mom do in the supermarket?

She squeezes the melons. And the tomatoes. And the bread.

To see if they're soft.

Then... Then... Why not use the same test for Charmin?
Boom! Squeeze the Charmin. Sheer genius. Or is it?
Supermarket managers will flip their corks.
An obvious problem. You can't be encouraging consumers to damage the merchandise. Which leads to the true brilliance of the concept, the insight that got around the issue and more importantly, gave the campaign a stickiness that lasted for the next 20 years and beyond:
Okay, then, let's tell them not to squeeze the Charmin.
Rest in peace, Mr. Chervokas. And Mr. Whipple as well (though the character was retired in 1985, the actor who played him -- Dick Wilson -- passed on in 2007).

What a friend we have who squeezes

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

I've seen this movie [poster] before...

Yes, every summer now brings us a spate of formula movies that we all feel like we've already seen at least one time before. But now it seem that even the movie posters themselves are interchangeable.

I've covered one of the more common motifs before here and here. But here are some of the more current poster layouts:

The main action-hero character in front of an exploding fireball...

The big X...

The fragmented, David Hockneyesque photo collage...

The mysterious movie-title-only-on-a-dramatic-black-background...

The big intriguing closeup with the title stamped over it...

The weird two-half-faces joined to make a single face...

The action-hero looking battered but unbowed, weapon in hand...

A guy slouching in a chair, legs splayed...

The shoulder-to-shoulder heroes, with the bigger star out front...

The sideways poster with black silhouette and steely blue sky...

And finally, the whole gang, striding purposefully at camera...

And that's just from a couple recent internet searches. Chances are, there's already some additional entries for each.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Keeping informed and carrying on

I am fascinated by this simple piece of communication from the British government:

Today, the message seems almost like a parody of the British "stiff upper lip" -- probably the reason that reproductions of the poster have become so popular since it resurfaced in 2000 -- but there's a surprising sense of urgency and resolve behind that basic sans-serif typeface and its iconic crown image.

To put it in true context, you need only to realize that it this poster was created by the Ministry of Information in 1939 at the beginning of World War II with the intent of strengthening the morale of the British public in the event of an invasion by Germany.

Try to imagine, if you can, the uncertainty and panic you'd feel when faced with the possibility that your country, your city -- very neighborhood -- could soon be under control of a foreign military. What would you do? Who could you trust? How would you stay safe?

These are the kind of life-or-death questions this poster had to begin to answer in just a few words, while reassuring the public that they hadn't been abandoned by their government.

Suddenly, that simple imperative on the royal red background doesn't seem so frivolous, doesn't it?

Wikipedia reports that, though 2,500,000 copies of the poster were printed, only limited numbers were ever distributed. "Keep Calm" was the third in a series of three posters produced; the first two, below, were distributed as "a statement of the duty of the individual citizen" and "a rallying war-cry that will bring out the best in everyone of us and put us in an offensive mood at once."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the first two posters haven't achieved the sort of pop-cultural ubiquity of the third. "Keep Calm" has a more universal sentiment that lends itself to many modern situations (chances are, you've seen it somewhere around the workplace).

Viewed from a communications standpoint, "Keep Calm and Carry On" has an economy, a directness, and a quiet power that modern advertising rarely seems to achieve. But there is an example that comes quickly to mind -- an ad campaign that, though its purpose is commerce, not civil order, has a similar style meant to strengthen resolve and spur action (plus a red background, too!).

And appropriately enough, it comes to us from across the pond as well:

(More examples of the long-running Economist ad campaign here.)

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Separated At Birth - Very '80s Edition

From 1985, here's fashion designer Kenzo Takada...times three. Confident, relaxed, and, with with the d.i.y. ties and pocket squares, very much in the style of the '80s.

And yet...

When I look at the Kenzo ad, all it makes me think of is this eccentric fellow (times four) indulging his own brand of individuality three years later:

But maybe it's just me. Or is it?

Let's try swapping the images and see what we get:

See what I mean?

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