The Home For Tired Old Ideas

The gravel crunches under the tires of our agency’s rented Camry as we pull in front of the little building that bakes in the hot retirement sun of Florida. We have arrived at the Home for Tired Old Advertising Ideas and Visuals. Here in this forlorn little building lie the over-exposed and terminally boring. Old ideas, just waiting to die.

A blast of hot air hits us as we get out of the car and make our way into the building. As we approach the front desk, all the occupants of wheelchairs in the lobby come to life. Hands reach out. An old lady grabs at me. “You’re soaking in it,” she says. And then, “Kill me. . . . please.” I pull away, hot with shame.

Our hostess says, “Don’t mind Madge,” and leads us into the main hallway. We pass a couple of old ladies who sit in identical wheelchairs. We wonder: the Doublemint Twins? Two identical women at the ends of twin morphine drips with four vacant eyes in narcotic haze and two billboard grins frozen since the ’60s in some sort of horrible “marketing rigor mortis.” Everywhere in this home there is the smell of senility, age, and sickness; of wet gauze laid over tired old ideas. Can they tell we are here with a court order to pull the plug on them? To end at last their suffering, and perhaps our own.

Passing the break room, I notice a woman in a hospital gown and paper slippers standing next to the sink, drinking coffee.

“She seems okay,” someone says. “Why is she here?”

“She’s from every coffee commercial that’s ever been made,” our guide answers. “Look. See how boring she is? She’s used up. Empty.” The nurse is right. The woman is a kitchen cliché I’ve seen in a thousand commercials; a cardboard cut-out. Her smile, on a face made too happy by a mere product, is false. The earnestness of her two-handed grip around the steaming cup, a lie; the steam itself, a cliché.

“Is that….the Folger’s lady?” I ask.

“No, Maxwell House. But they all look alike, don’t they? She’s another . . . clone, I’d guess you’d call her. She started off in Maxwell commercials and ended up wandering around in some Sanka campaign. That’s when they brought her here.”

As we turn away, we hear Coffee Lady going, “Mmmm, that’s good.”

“The real heartbreak is right in there,” says the nurse, standing in front of a steel door. The sign above it reads: “Friendly Bank Loan Officers. Do Not Revive.” She flips open a small metal aperture. I peek in and see Hell.

In a small, dark room squat forty overweight loan officers in suits, all holding “Approved” rubber-stamps and “approving” every surface that presents itself to them. One banker’s fat smiling face is “Approved” by another. A banker’s shiny belly is “Approved.” The spectacle before us is a sort of financial bacchanalia, a co-mingling of arms and legs and “Approved” stamps, almost erotic were it not for the sweaty suits, hairy backs, and the voices, a susurration of yes’s: “Yes, we can.” “Yes, sir.” “Yes, Ma’am.” I slam the little steel window shut.

“We need to end this now,” I say pulling the court order out of my jacket pocket. I hand it grimly to the nurse who reads as she walks ahead of us. She stops and turns. “Thank God. It’s finally done. These poor clichés. They’ve suffered enough. Now…are you ready to see the saddest of the bunch?”

Two double doors are pulled wide. And the final tableaux of cartoon horror is revealed. Seated at a roomful of rickety linoleum-topped tables are hundreds of patients locked in permanent “Bite & Smile.” Like corpses embalmed in some sort of eternal “happy place,” gowned patients hold plastic sporks inches from their smiling mouths, just a bite away from enjoying a delicious taste treat, forever.

On one spork, it’s Uncle Ben’s rice. On another, it’s Jell-O, slowly reliquifying and plopping onto the table. The patient doesn’t notice, neurologically imprisoned as he is in a permanent Bite & Smile. Like William S. Borrough’s The Naked Lunch, I find myself in the middle of that  horrid existential moment he describes, “when time stops and we all see what’s on the end of everyone’s fork.” The horror. The horror.

And suddenly, I am overcome. But even my swoon is a cliche – it’s “The Wavy Lines.” The Wavy Lines blur my vision and, of course, take me slightly forward in time and I find myself back in our rented Camry on the way to the airport.

The iPhone comes out. Note to self: “Once a thing is dying, only God should prolong its life. Let everything else go.”

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First published on talentzoo.com. Sorry for the reprint, but business and personal issues keep me from posting new stuff this week. As always, if this is an issue for you, I look forward to seeing your input on my customer satisfaction site, biteme.com.

Area Woman Has Direct Connection to “Mad Men.”

You’d think being an ad geek I would TiVo every episode of Mad Men, but for the life of me I just can’t stay with it.  The show feels like a wardrobe budget in search of story. (Gimme The Wire any day.)

The other thing that bugs me is the work that Draper’s agency does. It’s not that the ads suck; it’s that they don’t suck the right way. I have yet to see Hollywood really “get” advertising. (Closest they ever got was Albert Brooks’s Lost in America.)

Still, I like Mad Men’s art direction. I also like how the producers realized that an ad agency would be a good place to study the values of a given era. British author Norman Douglas agreed, observing: “You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.” I agree and have written here before about old ads; these windows into the soul of their times; the zeitgeist in rotogravure.

So when one of our studio artists here at GSD&M hosted a showing of original 1950s advertising artwork, I was first in line.

This is our Liz Dormont Hamel. The artwork she’s holding was done by her grandfather, Philip Dormont, who was an illustrator at Rahl Studios during the ‘40s. The piece was for an article, probably in one of the women’s magazines. (Her father, Art, was also in the biz and was what they called a “sketchman” at J. Walter Thompson in the late ’50s.)

Some of my favorite things on Liz’s table were the 15 or so ads for Stetson hats. Turns out if you needed to illustrate an ad for Stetson, Grandpa Dormont was pretty much to your go-to guy. The “illo” (as they called illustrations) at the top of this page is a Dormont. The thing is, Grandpa Dormont had tons of work because, in the ‘40s, hats were it. (Check out any photo of a crowd of men in ‘40s. It’s a sea of hats.) Seeing Grandpa Dormont’s ads made me realize how vastly different the business is today.

Hats? Gone.

Hat accounts? Gone.

Sketchmen? Gone.

Nurses that look like this? Gone. (Dang.)

Cigarette ads? Gone. (Thank God.)

But gone, too, are some of the cool things; like this living room, drawn by the son, Art.

It makes me wonder what creative curiosities our generation will leave behind. (I see myself in heaven trying to explain what a “shelf talker” is. Or worse, a “shelf wobbler.” — “Okay, so it was this little card-thingie that sort of hung out into the grocery aisle and, um, sorta…wobbled?”)

I’m just realizing now how bad the resolution is on these photos, so I’ll just paste a few more of Liz’s ancient family art at the bottom of this essay and call it a day. But before I go, one from my friend Bob Barrie — a marvelous-but-never-published New Yorker cover that his dad did. In those days, guys like Bob’s dad were called “commercial artists.” Why they didn’t buy Mr. Barrie’s cool cover I’ll never know but I’d frame it if I were Bob.

Okay, time to go. And if you want a nice deep dive into other eras of advertising, I direct you to the 9-volume set by Jim Heimann called All-American Ads. He’s gathered thousands of ads and parsed them into decades. Curling up with one of these giant tomes is a great way to spend a Sunday morning. It’s as if you’ve found a foot-tall stack of old LIFE magazines in grandma’s basement.

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Note: All the art from the nurse on down is the work of Liz’s dad, Art (the perfect name for a “sketchman”).


My Favorite Writing Teacher.

Most poetry sucks.

Well, most everything sucks when you get right down to it; most advertising, most TV shows, most novels.

But poetry? Ugh! If I see one more impenetrable little block of word salad in the New Yorker, I’m gonna need someone to hold my hair while I dictate my review into the big white telephone.

“O’ tin can in the street. Speaks to me. While heaven beckons.”

Hey, “O’ tin can in the street”? King Tut called. He wants his hieroglyphics back.

Then one day someone turns me on to Billy Collins and ever since I have been a complete Collins groupie. (Unbidden comes the disturbing image of my boxers landing on the stage at his next reading; an image I apologize for very deeply.)

I encourage anyone who fancies him or herself a writer to buy all the poems this man has written and study every turn of phrase, every perfectly chosen word. As writers, we improve by studying the work of those we admire.

At the risk of getting a cease-and-desist order from his publisher, I am going to include one of my favorites here. In addition to being a really good poem, it is also a 479-word course in the structure of classic storytelling – i.e., have a beginning, middle, and an end.

As you can see, this guy absolutely blows me away. See if he doesn’t do the same for you. My favorite three books of his are Sailing Alone Around The Room, Nine Horses, and The Art of Drowning.

As good as he is, I suppose the law of averages says there has to be at least one other writer out there writing poetry this accessible, this evocative; poetry that doesn’t need to be decrypted. If you have a favorite poem, feel free to post it here. I’d love to see it.

Before I go, a cool link to some of his poetry brought to life visually. (I think from a project done by JWT. There are a few others online too. Just sniff around.) The coolest part is that they’re read by Billy Collins himself.

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Aristotle

This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
There is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels being to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes –
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up a mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle –
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall –
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
the streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

1996 Video Making Fun Of Pat Fallon’s New & Very Expensive Big-Ass Office.

Fallon was a fun place to work, partly because no one was safe from random acts of mean-spirited disrespectful treatment, including the CEO, Pat Fallon.

One year Fallon decided he needed a bigger office with a little more meeting room, and so he knocked down a wall and annexed the office next to him, making Account Supe Eric Block pretty much homeless.

The comic possibilities of this land-grab were not lost on the wise guys in the office and CD Bill Westbrook immediately commissioned a video to make fun of Fallon’s plush new real estate. Credit goes to Westbrook for the idea behind the film: a National Geographic-style exploration of the vast uncharted territory of Fallon’s new Big-Ass Office. In fact, the moniker Fallon’s Big-Ass Office stuck and the shorthand became, “3:00 meeting in Fallon’s BAO.” [Cont'd below video player.]

Eric Santiago and I were asked to do it and we had fun creating a really stupid video that had its one and only airing at a company meeting. The video kinda sucks, but it sucks a teeny bit less than the one I just cut it down from. When you get to that stupid part with Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’ll see we kinda ran out of ideas on how to end it. If you have any helpful remarks on how we might have given the film a better ending, please register your input at my special consumer feedback website: biteme.com.

Political Advertising: “Have You No Sense Of Decency, Sir?”

In his book about political advertising, Run The Other Way, author (and friend) Bill Hillsman observed: “Voters are fairly discerning about the difference between attack ads and legitimate contrast advertising, which present a fair-minded (though ultimately pejorative) comparison of policy differences.”

We know the difference. We know where the line is. Most politicians, however, do not. They not only take off the gloves but wear poison-tipped brass knuckles as they swing wildly for their opponent’s groin.

Most political ads seem to have a basic format: “Steve Johnson says he’s not a child molester, … but what do the facts say?”

Where, I ask, is their sense of shame?

Can you imagine what would happen to cola sales if Pepsi and Coke engaged in these horrible, groin-kicking antics? “Pepsi says it doesn’t have venereal dog turds floating in its carbonation tanks, … but what do the facts say?” We’d all grow so sick and tired of the cola industry’s morally bankrupt back-biting we’d be a nation of milk drinkers within months.

I look to one of our leaders, be it a Republican or a Democrat, someone who will have the stones to stand up and say, “This is wrong. We are done with this.” Someone with the moral fiber to call for a Geneva Accords of political advertising; to outlaw use of the poison gas of slander and libel. Winning anything isn’t this important.

Have they no sense of shame?

I am reminded of the moral stand made back in 1954  by a gentleman named Joseph Welch. He was the head counsel for the United States Army while it was under investigation by Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt for “Communist activities.”

On June 9, 1954, during the hearings in Washington, D.C., it came down to this. One question posed by Mr. Welch to the moral cretin in charge of the hearings, one Joe McCarthy.

Mr. Welch: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”