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When I Worked in Advertising

7 June 2017

From The Millions:

When I worked in advertising, I took solace in knowing that my task was, fundamentally, to tell stories. I believe that; our society’s most successful storytellers are probably the people who make television commercials. In one of the 16 or so drafts of my new book, I mention that Folger’s commercial where the guy comes home for Christmas and wakes his family by brewing a pot of Folger’s. If that ends up in the finished book, I’m confident most readers will know exactly what I’m talking about.

When I worked in advertising, one of my clients, one of this country’s largest retailers, used the language of storytelling, which further helped me take solace in my work (the money was quite good, too). They told stories and then sold things, and the story changed every so often, so that the months of the year were like the installments in a collection of short stories. You can guess how some of those stories went: the story was Christmas or the story was Summer or the story was cleaning and organizing or the story was Father’s Day or the story was Mother’s Day and the moral of the story was buy stuff. Only the stuff changed, and even then, not that much, the same stuff month after month, story after story, the way certain writers repeat themselves when it comes to an image or a turn of phrase.

. . . .

When I worked in advertising, I told myself that anything is a learning experience if you insist it be. I think that holds true. On more than one occasion, I had to write for a sign that could only accommodate four words. Four words is not many, but you can, if you need to, if you’re being paid to, get a great deal out of four words. The other day I went to visit an art gallery in Chelsea with a friend, a novelist, and her mother-in-law. My own mother-in-law is an absolutely delightful woman, and other people’s mothers-in-law are almost always my favorite people, perhaps because of my fraught relationship with my own mother. When I worked in advertising and I had to tell the story of Mother’s Day, I never thought of my own mother. At the gallery, apropos of nothing in particular, my friend said How long is your new book? and I tried to remember the page count and she said No, words, how many words? and I told her it was near 80,000, which is true, and quite a bit longer than those four-word signs I used to write.

. . . .

When I worked in advertising, sometimes the art director I worked with (there were many, and this is true for every one of them) would say What does it look like? She (they were mostly, though not always, women) would be frustrated, because I was using words and she did not think in words; she thought in pictures, which was why she had become an art director in the first place. I would describe, say, a Mother’s Day ad, and she would ask What does it look like? I would spin a story about a sweater or a handbag or a lipstick or a stand mixer and she would ask What does it look like? I enjoyed these conversations because they were a bit like the conversations you have with someone on drugs, or a young child; they didn’t have to adhere to any particular logic. She could ask What does it look like? and I could tell her it looked like flowers, and Tina Barney’s photographs, and happiness, and late afternoon sunlight, and the paintings of John Singer Sargent, and a scone on a chipped porcelain plate and an old American standard sung by someone with a Carly Simon-ish voice but not Carly Simon, and the art director would close her eyes and nod her head slowly.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG also worked in advertising a long time ago and will testify to the intense effort involved in conceiving, writing and shooting a commercial. The cost per minute of a commercial was much higher than the cost of a minute of even the most expensive of motion pictures.

Here’s a classic advertisement that, for PG, displays the art and craft of creating a good advertisement. (click on image for larger version)


Advertising-Promotion-Marketing, Writing Advice

13 Comments to “When I Worked in Advertising”

  1. Which is why most headlines seem to be there mainly for the ‘shock’ value, to try to make you look even if the title was actually a lie.

  2. I worked for the Andersen Consulting training group in the mid-’90s when the hot topic was use of “war stories” in training customer service reps. We interviewed experienced CSRs and built training modules based on their customer interaction experiences. It was far more lively and useful than endless PowerPoint bullets and lists of abstract do/do not rules–the usual corporate methodology. The trainees absorbed the personal lessons learned from the experienced CSRs as if they’d lived them themselves. Stories, parables, shared experiences–this is how we learn and why reading fiction is so useful for creating empathy and understanding.

  3. I just saw an episode of a show on Hugh Hefner. It described how Playboy took its name from the automobile in the ad, after Hefner was told he could no longer use Stag Party as the magazine’s name.

    I worked as a copywriter for Foote, Cone & Belding and J. Walter Thompson in Chicago. I always tried to write ads that would get me a job at Doyle Dane Bernbach (and I did wind up at its Honolulu office for a while) or Chiat/Day (where I got an offer but couldn’t make it on the two-week timeline they wanted).

    With my background, I sometimes wonder if I ever crossed paths, even briefly, with PG.

  4. I’m quite sure that Jordan Motor Car Company ad has been the only ad, in any medium, that has used the word “quirt.”

    I hope that didn’t contribute to the company’s 1931 demise.

    • And I’ve never seen “bronco” spelled with an “h” outside of the world of medicine.

      • I’ve never seen that spelling at all. I had wondered if it was archaic or a typo.

        • Suburbanbanshee

          Archaic. But if you read old stories or horse stuff, it was around for quite a while.

  5. My first job was as a junior copywriter in retail hardware.Back then we aimed to have customers on the doorstep Monday morning, ready to buy whatever we’d advertised in the Sunday papers. Another world but it taught me the power of words to create action. The hardware chain owned a smaller prestige furnishings store and for them I loved writing the kind of “story” copy pictured here. Joe Flynn, we also had FC&B, DDB and JWT in Australia. FC&B was known as “foot cut and bleeding” here.

  6. That’s a beautiful ad. I’d seen it before (here on TPV, I think) but couldn’t find it again. It inspired the final scene of the series I’m working on right now (except my heroine is riding after a train, not a car) and I was hoping to save it for some visual inspiration. Thanks for posting it 🙂

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