From THE MAN IN THE GREY FLANNEL SUIT to MAD MEN – heck, from Paul Revere’s ride – there has always seemed to be a little cultural curiosity about the mysterious world of advertising and public relations, where sneaky Svengalis manipulate the masses into unnatural economic behavior. Seriously: DORITOS® DINAMITA® Nacho Picoso Rolled Flavored Tortilla Chips? Many writers have taken a shot at the profession, but it took a talented rookie to hit a homer. (Hey: mismatched metaphors! That’s right, Clio jury, I’m bad.)
John Kenney’s first novel, TRUTH IN ADVERTISING, delivers on each and every word of its title. It was written by a man who has spent seventeen years as an advertising copywriter. I’m simpatico, because I did fourteen, mostly at Southern regional shops, with the better part of a year in New York at an “agency” with only one client, Warner Books; in gangster-movie terms, we were the marketing equivalent of Tom Hagen. The first remarkable thing about Mr. Kenney’s book is how unchanged day-to-day ad-life became in the ensuing quarter century. (I took a detour into books proper, but yes, I remembair it well.) I plied my trade in the days before every art director’s work was digital. In olden times men were men, and wielded physical X-Acto® blades against tiny slips of paper to create pasted-up boards called “mechanicals.” Now your Mac does this for you, and every “mechanical” is perfect. But ADs still grumble. It’s in their DNA.
There’s a great deal of insecurity, even self-loathing, among artsy advertising types. It’s the only industry where people have to reassure themselves that they’re “creative” by using that word as a noun (referring both to the people involved and to the stuff they spit out). There are almost as many different awards presentations as in that other supernarcissistic racket, the movies. We’re makin art here, right? They give us trophies at Cannes, dammit! The answer, as most if not all eventually come to realize, is no, you’re not. You’re only making commerce appear to be as palatable as you possibly can. It may take a spoonful of sugar, but the frickin medicine still has to go down by any means necessary. When I was in the game I always tried my best, but I used to ground myself by remembering that advertising is nothing more than “s—t sculpture.” Yes, it can be made to look quite pretty, but no matter how much you preen and honk, you just can’t escape your medium. Genuine art comes from somewhere else, an ineffable place that you can no longer reach by responding to a mandate dictated by a client. The last folks who managed that lived in the Renaissance or went for Baroque, and even they felt free to ignore idiotic royal ruminations. Show me one single adman who can do the same.
I assumed this book would be an ironic gagfest, since Mr. Kenney has been slaying me for nearly fifteen years on the “Shouts and Murmurs” page of The New Yorker. He is smart and funny as expected, but though TRUTH IN ADVERTISING is indeed frequently hilarious (our pixieish New Yorker contributor is definitely driving the car), at its heart is a poignant, even wrenching tale of human passion, dysfunction and redemption. Hope I didn’t just scare you off. LAFFS GALORE TOO!
Mr. Kenney’s alter ego and narrator, Fin Dolan, is a fortyish veteran copywriter currently attached to a big diaper account, Snugglies. We open at a commercial shoot starring Gwyneth Paltrow which reveals the innate absurdity of throwing such herculean effort into thirty screen seconds, then we take a wildly funny and knowing tour of Fin’s agency and meet the quietly desperate people who work there – as I said, there’s been no evolution in 25 years, people-wise. (Hip ad folk used that “-wise” formulation in the MAD MEN era; listen to the Robert Webber character in 12 ANGRY MEN for genuine historic adspeak.) It develops that Snugglies wants to play in the big leagues and put together a spot for the quickly approaching Super Bowl; the broadcast time alone will cost $3.2 million. It’s the instant job of Fin’s team to come up with an idea deserving of this fortune, convince the client of same, then physically produce the commercial. The most promising thing everybody can summon is a tribute to Ridley Scott’s legendary Apple Macintosh commercial, which aired only once, on Super Sunday 1984. Yes, it’ll be the famous Orwellian Mac spot, only with babies and diapers. And we’re off.
Mr. Kenney has many surprises in store, for this advertising thread is only the foreground noise affecting a beautifully observed character, a man swimming in frustration and pain at a critical turning point in his life. We already know that Fin was engaged less than a year ago and that the wedding was called off, but that’s only part of what’s on his mind. The reader will discover the details, and all the rest of it, at Mr. Kenney’s pace, which is generally brisk but extends at the moments when it needs to. I’d wager the author is a better copywriter than his leading man (who allows that some ad writers, a few, are very good), but he is so convincing inside Fin’s head that I’d be surprised if at least some aspects of his personality weren’t autobiographical. This is the TRUTH part referenced in the title.
The pressure on Fin is unrelenting, but the Snugglies spot is only one aspect of it. Mr. Kenney draws Fin so artfully that you will learn some things about him even before he does. And there is wisdom and serious emotion from even the most cartoonish characters he encounters in his poopy-pants odyssey – Mr. Kenney doesn’t miss any opportunity for clowning, but a moment later he will startle you by rotating the jewel slightly and asking you to consider a different facet. From my beloved New Yorker wiseacre, this I didn’t expect.
I laughed in recognition, even across a generational chasm, and Mr. Kenney’s work earns my heartiest recommendation to all my friends from the adbiz. But what really swept me away were the portions of this lovely novel that have nothing whatsoever to do with advertising. That wasn’t the ticket I bought. But I wound up turning a profit anyhow.