Making The Sale

March 9, 2017

h_51493177.jpgIn the early Fifties — the dawn of a Golden Age of advertising, when the new medium of television was jostling recently comfortable postwar, post-Depression families about most everything — a Mad Man named Rosser Reeves came up with a profound theory about how to make tv campaigns effective. He called it the Unique Selling Proposition, and it boils down to this: there is nothing else like our product, therefore you should switch brands to get it.

So, in ad terms, the hard shell of M&Ms “melts in your mouth, not in your hand” like other gooey chocolate candy does. FedEx delivers overnight “absolutely, positively,” unlike any other carrier. KFC uses a “secret” proprietary recipe; so does Coca-Cola. If your Domino’s ‘za isn’t there in 30 minutes, it’s free. Even staid old Smith Barney made money “the old-fashioned way. We earn it.” Unlike, I guess, those other shysters who only push paper around. These days Reeves’s principle is more commonly known as “positioning,” but that’s just nomenclature. The fact is, the ultimate position in commerce is still the USP: everybody wants it and only we have it.

As others have noted, a political campaign is nothing but an instant business startup that has to go from zero to sixty right away. Donald Trump brought his own USP to the 2016 presidential campaign, and I think it did most of his heavy lifting before he ever opened his mouth. It was a simple, even diabolical position: I am a rich, successful non-politician. That bare statement, plain enough for anyone to comprehend, does a whole lot of subliminal selling.

He’s rich. To be sure, there are other politicians who are also rich. (By a remarkable coincidence, many of them managed to become wealthy even while serving in office!) The subtext is, I’m so rich that I don’t have to worry about special interests, because big shots don’t have the money to push me around: I have a screw-you fortune. (“Special interests” are “powerful entities who don’t donate to me,” just as “outside agitators” are “people who oppose me, no matter where they come from.”) To Americans, great wealth also connotes great worth: that pile of dough has to represent someone’s sweat equity, even if Trump inherited his from Pop, whose initial loan set Young Master Donald on his corporate way. Monarchic subjects worldwide know money can represent nothing more significant than ancestry or blind luck, but we are a nation of rolled-up sleeves and tales of derring-do. To us, rich suggests brave and bold were once up in there too.

But what does “rich” mean? Is it the balance-sheet remainder of one’s assets minus one’s debts? Or is it just a lifestyle choice funded by kicking a gilded can ever farther down the road? There are two widely held harrumphs about Trump’s bottom line. (1) He isn’t as rich as he says he is. (2) It’s paper wealth anyhow, funded by bankruptcy relief, “brand equity” and Scroogelike stiffing of subcontractors and other underlings, and could come tumbling to earth at any time. We can’t evaluate (1) because we are not permitted to see the president’s tax returns, and (2) because the Trumpian empire consists of hundreds of dodgy LLCs (546 to be exact, per a disclosure form filed in May 2016), most of which are trading on a brand name instead of a tactile piece of physical property. The Trump Organization’s largest source of revenue is probably licensing, thus putting the word “Trump” on a par with the Playboy bunny logo. I use the word “probably” with faux Trumplike assurance because I don’t know for sure, and neither do you. The boss wants to keep it that way.

Trump has claimed a net worth of more than $10 billion. (At least his campaign office did, on July 15, 2015.) That number fluctuates over time, but as David Cay Johnston, author of the bio THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP, says, “there is not now and never has been any verifiable evidence that Donald Trump is or ever has been a billionaire.” Still, the guy does live in a big-ass tower on Fifth Avenue with his name on it (the White House has basically become his pied-à-terre), so for the sake of argument let’s concede nine-figure “rich.” However, using the president’s own logic, I will state here and now that Trump’s net worth is nowhere near a billion dollars and that’s an absolute true verifiable fact. Now it’s up to him to prove me wrong, and he can’t do it without unzipping his financial fly. So I think I’m on pretty solid ground here when I make my bold, unsubstantiated assertion.

Of course, as the bard of Asbury once observed, “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied / Till he rules everything.” Even if Trump didn’t need other people’s money to bankroll his campaign — he sure didn’t spend much, since he got most of his national exposure for free — homemade bread doesn’t inoculate him from “special interests,” who would very much like to become very much richer on his watch.

He’s successful. Well, at least he’s still around, and he has many possessions. But he’s gone bust often enough to have made “Donald Risk” — that’s what bankers actually call it: yes, the president of the United States has poor credit — unwelcome at U.S. lenders since the mid-Nineties. (Explain to me again how you can lose money running casinos.) This is why people seriously suspect him of having sizable Russian financial obligations. If he needs capital, he has to raise it from somewhere else, and the oligarchs who sacked the Russian state love to park money in real estate. Note that he’s never mentioned Ukraine, either as candidate or president.

But that’s reality. Instead, this guy deals in perception. For more than a decade Donald Trump has played a CEO on television, whose job it is to fire imaginary employees from an imaginary company. This is the image his fans have seen with their own eyes. Of course he’s successful: he’s the big boss! Just ask Gary Busey! One assumes that his “executive producer” position carries a financial piece of THE APPRENTICE along with it. If so, pretense could be more lucrative than actuality. This program, and not real-life business deals, may even have represented Trump’s major source of income these past few years; a hit tv show certainly enriched his boy Steve Bannon for life. But again, I don’t know, and neither do you.

What you do know regarding “successful” is this. If he incurred a $916 million loss that allowed him, through the use of real-estate tax credits, to avoid federal income tax for nearly twenty years, that doesn’t make him smart. It makes him a businessman who lost a billion frickin dollars.

He’s not a politician. This is the crux of the matter. Trump’s pitch is, politicians got us into all these messes, but elect me and I’ll run the country like a business. (Like I do on tv, not like I did in Atlantic City!) But here’s the thing that escapes many patriots: the government isn’t a business.

One of the hoariest chestnuts regularly heard on the campaign trail is, “You balance your family’s budget, don’t you? Why can’t the government balance its budget?” Well, if you own a home or a car, you probably took out a loan to buy it. In other words, you engaged in deficit spending, you owe more than you have, and you haven’t balanced doodly squat. If you drive on a road, stop at a traffic light, call a cop or fireman, drink water that’s not filthy or flammable, or use the many other benefits we take for granted — we haven’t even touched upon soldiers — it takes money to put them there and keep them there. Government does have a purpose. We have to buy some things collectively if we want them at all. Yes, the national debt is onerous, but that’s why we should pay it down when we run a surplus rather than further cut the taxes of bigwigs.

If you equate America — or any nation — to a business, you’re getting some crucial things wrong. To Trump, our relationship to other countries is analogous to the way some CEOs view their competition. It’s a zero-sum conflict: if we win, you lose. That’s not entirely true for businesses like, say, books, which was my last trade. A bestseller lifts all boats. Everybody wants to have Harry Potter at the expense of the competition, sure, but if Potter explodes, that just brings more people into the real or virtual bookstore, and they don’t have to leave with only that. They might buy some books of yours as well.

Now, an auto purchase is a zero-sum game. If you buy a Nissan, you won’t be shopping at a competing dealer for a good little while. All other automakers have lost a sale. But even so, keeping one’s eye on pure profit can be shortsighted. That’s why Henry Ford’s doubling of the minimum wage while he was rolling out Model Ts was so brilliant. He reasoned: if I pay my people more, I’ll be making less on each car, but they can afford to buy cars themselves! We’ll keep making ever more Model Ts, and earn more money in the long run! “The owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same,” quoth Henry, “and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.”

We know that Trump’s worldview is of a shark tank where all nations compete for the chum. He based his whole campaign on that, beginning with Mexico. His travel ban is a piece of theater, since no terrorists from the affected countries have ever threatened the U.S. (Why not ban Saudis, who were the majority of the 9/11 hijackers? Oh yeah, I forgot.) It’s vital for Trump’s pitch to identify a nation-state as the enemy, even though there’s no official policy anywhere to “take American jobs” — capitalism is handling that for itself by buying labor as cheaply as it can, anywhere it can. Official job poaching was Rick Perry’s specialty when he was governor of Texas, but that’s interstate ball.

International relations is not a series of “deals.” It’s the result of centuries of finely hewn agreements and disputes and alliances, most of them based not on inward-looking nationalism but the recognition that we live in an intertwined global society. If we somehow can’t get along politically, at the very least we have to respect one another. For example, there’s one big issue that affects us all. The worst of enemies still share the same planet, and its ecosystem is quickly going nuts. Everybody’s on board except one country, and Trump will almost certainly make our shameful reticence and isolation on climate change even worse.

Any leader of the free world needs a Henry Ford moment. If you help others, that will make life better for you too. As departing longtime diplomat Daniel Fried put it, “We are not an ethno-state, with identity rooted in shared blood. The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox. We have, imperfectly, and despite detours and retreat along the way, sought to realize a better world for ourselves and for others, for we understood that our prosperity and our values at home depend on the prosperity and those values being secure as far as possible in a sometimes dark world.”

In contrast, the “America First” viewpoint is very close to Trump’s own personality: look out for Number One. Whip the competition by any means necessary. Renegotiate everything. Break stuff. But Newton’s Third Law applies to politics too. If you suggest abdicating or even reducing U.S. commitment to NATO — yes, everybody should pay their fair share — then Germany has to consider going nuclear for its own protection. If you start banning the immigration of putative “bad dudes,” then the next generation of technologists will locate elsewhere. If you make all undocumented aliens vanish, then your crops will rot in the field.

Trump’s “business experience” consists of overseeing a closely held private family firm, answerable to nobody: not directors, not shareholders. As he has already discovered, the powers of the president are great but not unlimited. Now he’s in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy that won’t necessarily do his bidding. He’s already picked fights with the intelligence community, the judiciary, and his predecessor. Wait till Congress puts its dukes up or Putin finally wipes the smile off his face. The best and worst thing about this amateur is the same: there’s no subtlety. He tweets out what he’s thinking, but at least you know what he’s thinking. Unfortunately, so do his many more businesslike counterparts around the world.

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Readi, Steadi, Go!

February 28, 2017

exovest_girl.jpgLast year was the 40th anniversary of the Steadicam, which revolutionized filmmaking as much as CGI did a tech generation later. The very first Steadicam shot was realized for Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie pic BOUND FOR GLORY (Steadicam shots in MARATHON MAN and ROCKY were filmed later but released earlier), and within a year or so the amazing contraption became available to everybody. Even to us in Mississippi, where I was the first producer in the state to rent a Steadicam, for use in a tv commercial. The leading edge is sometimes the bleeding edge: I wound up wasting money, but I learned a lot in the process.

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Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (l.) with Stanley Kubrick and Danny Lloyd on the set of THE SHINING. The Steadicam absolutely made that movie.

A cinematographer named Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam and operated it for each of those movies. The “cam” part of the trademark is a tad misleading. There’s nothing special about the camera itself, which is the very one you already owned. It’s the rig that rocks. The camera operator wears a vest attached to a series of gimbals and counterweights so ingenious that when you adjust everything just right — it’s different for each operator — the camera sort of floats. You can guide it on the gimbal with one finger. Yet the weight of the counterbalance and camera maintains a stubborn inertia, as a bowling ball does when you try to shake it quickly. So minor movements of the operator don’t affect the camera’s orientation. You can take it down to ground level and operate from above. You can walk with it and get an unusually smooth shot. You can run with it. Dash up a flight of stairs (ROCKY). Follow your subject down a hotel hallway or inside a hedge maze (THE SHINING). Walk through a set, twisting and turning as smooth as silk, for a complicated “impossible” shot (BOOGIE NIGHTS, GOODFELLAS). You can even simulate high velocity, as in RETURN OF THE JEDI, for which Brown shot the speeder-bike chase by walking through a redwood forest cranking at only one frame per second instead of the normal 24.

Or you can take a Steadicam up in a helicopter, which is what I did.

That first shot in BOUND FOR GLORY had DPs all over Hollywood abuzz as soon as they heard about it. It began with Garrett Brown shooting from high up in an elevated crane, which slowly boomed down until he could step off and walk forward through the set, all in the same smooth motion. It didn’t look “hand-held” — even the best operators can’t prevent the camera from shaking a little — but what kind of quantum-physics crane was this? Veteran camera operators tended to be rather beefy guys — sort of natural-built Steadicams — but this changed everything and flung the craft open to anybody who could walk a straight line. Panavision marketed its own “Panaglide” stabilization system, and Dean Cundey used it to perfection in HALLOWEEN, especially in the bravura swooping, twisting killer’s-eye-view opening shot.

garretbrown-2aFor our advertising client, a junior college, we wanted to show prospective students that there was a world of possibility at this one institution — both solid vocational training and excellent prep toward finishing a degree at a four-year school. To seize tv viewers’ attention, I imagined doing a reverse BOUND FOR GLORY shot. We’d bring representative gear and people from as many departments as possible outside into a large open space on campus — bigger than a “quad,” but still surrounded on three sides by buildings — to illustrate the school’s vast array. After cutting and dissolving in closeups without revealing where we were, we’d fix on one setup and then pull back, up, up, up, higher than any crane, until we could see the whole tableau from the air. We’d achieve that last shot using a Steadicam.

I did everything I could think of as a producer: organizing the complicated process, setting up weather options just in case, renting the harness a couple days ahead so our operator could get used to it. Shooting day dawned bright and clear, and we’d already begun setting up before sunrise. Our chopper arrived on time and we strapped the operator in so he could lean out the open passenger door. We experimented with a couple of passes and ran into two problems nobody had anticipated.

First, it turns out a Steadicam works better when the operator himself is actually in motion rather than sitting still in a moving vehicle. The shot looked smoother than we could have otherwise gotten, but it wasn’t as mind-blowing as we’d hoped. A little practice, and we learned that slight impromptu camera motion on the way up helped sell the “impossibility.” But by then we’d already stumbled upon the second problem.

There was a little breeze on that bright sunlit day. Not enough to make flying dangerous, but just enough to create a modest crosswind once we passed the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, which were protecting the people on the ground. Try as he might, our pilot couldn’t avoid a slight horizontal motion as he adjusted for the wind change. We hated it, but there was nothing to do except keep trying until we got lucky, so we did, and on one take we did. We’d hoped to do the final move three or four times starting with various departments to make alternate versions of the spot, but we had to settle for the good one in the can. It was nice, but we would have gotten pretty much the same result by bolting the camera down and packing it with sandbags and stuff to muffle shimmy. Then again, as a friend of mine likes to say, it’s all part of life’s rich pageantry.

These days that shoot would have been a piece of cake. We’d have used a drone and beaten the breeze by pulling the shot fifty times instead of fifteen. But in the late Seventies such niceties didn’t yet exist. What did was the baddest piece of gear around, we had it, and we absolutely loved going steadi with our new friend.

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The Steadicam map for the opening shot of BOOGIE NIGHTS, which lasts 2 minutes and 45 seconds.


Jim Dollarhide, 1952-2016

March 18, 2016

UnknownJim Dollarhide apparently died on Wednesday in a fire at his lakefront home in Madison, Mississippi. I say “apparently” because they found a body in the still-burning rubble of his 3800-foot house and Jim is missing, but it will require some dental examination to make sure. The firefighters said the “structure was fully involved” by the time they got there at 10:41 p.m. after an emergency call from a neighbor, and the upper levels had already collapsed. It’s almost certain Jim is gone. If I have to retract this piece, I will do so with great joy.

I’ve known Jim since my advertising days in the Seventies. He was the first filmmaker I got to spend quality time with. I like movies and all, and I even took some production courses in graduate school so I have some idea what it feels like to create a film, but this was the first guy I ever met who had already decided to make a living at it. To Jim, a beautiful image might be all well and good, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing: it has to move.

You meet lots of gifted photographers in the ad game, but they produce a different kind of art. The still shooter shows you an instant in time. The filmmaker shows you the passage of time. Jim had the eye for nifty composition which any good fotog possesses, but it was that third dimension, the depiction of duration, that fascinated and obsessed him.

Jim was a blue-collar filmmaker. By that I mean he was no rarefied sissy on location; he could get down and dirty in physical labor with his crew, made up of people he liked and respected. But he demanded professionalism and courtesy. Once my ad agency hired Jim to do some films and tv spots for Yazoo Mowers, those big-wheeled monsters built like tanks. I was the agency producer, meaning all I had to do was stand around and nod, and guzzle the occasional soft drink. But even with my light load of responsibility, it was the most horrible shoot I’ve ever been on. For two weeks it was steaming even by Mississippi standards (the grips showed me how to dip a neck scarf in Sea Breeze astringent and ice water to cool down the circulation), we were in a severe drought so most grass was brown and we had to figure out how to color it (the mayor had even forbidden people from watering their lawns), and too many of the setups were on undulating spreads that required time-consuming engineering to lay dolly track for smooth camera motion. But we made it through somehow, and celebrated with a wrap party at Jim’s house. I decided to buy each of the crew members a really nice knife to say thanks for going above and beyond. I guess I’d gone there too: one of them said, “This is the first time a producer ever gave me anything.” Jim was walking by, and over his shoulder came, “He gave you a job.”

Me, trying to look productive on that godforsaken Yazoo shoot. Jim is peeking out from my left armpit.

Me, trying to look productive on that godforsaken Yazoo shoot. Jim is peeking out from my left armpit.

Jim’s page on IMDb notes that he “founded a production company called ‘Imageworks’ two decades before Sony Pictures used the term.” I know it does because I’m the one who put it there. We were both running teensy little outfits in the Eighties and we had a symbiotic relationship. He was doing fewer commercials, which are tightly scripted beforehand, and more industrial films and longer documentaries, where he could call in a writer at the pre-production stage. The difference in our two companies was that Imageworks was hugely capital-intensive: Jim had to keep up with emerging technologies, so he needed new equipment all the time. He originally had one of those honking Steenbeck flat-bed editing decks, where to make an edit you physically snipped the film and spliced it back with tape, which is how movies had been cut since time immemorial. In those days some bigger houses were using a process called “negative to tape” for their first baby steps into online editing, but Jim had to separate wants from needs in order to survive in the more frugal environment of central Mississippi. Now the Steenbeck is as quaint a relic as the X-Acto knife, but Jim had long since moved on. It’s a shame that he largely missed out on the digital revolution of the past few years — shooting on location is cheaper and nimbler than it’s ever been before.

Jim not only loved his craft, he also loved his native state of Mississippi, but not in a Confederate way. He was a huge music fan and cherished the rich tradition of Mississippi Delta blues. He shot thousands of feet of B. B. King and became a good friend; Jim’s documentary plays every day at the B. B. King Museum in Indianola. After all the years slogging and working together for industry and commerce, I guess my favorite film of Jim’s is the scriptless HARMONIES: A MISSISSIPPI OVERTURE (1994), a labor of love and a piece of pure cinema that tells you everything you need to know about him in just 25 minutes. He was a kind, upstanding, talented man whose generosity of spirit mentored so many young men and women; their praises and tears are pouring in equally today. Goodbye, Jim. You were one of a kind, and you are already missed.


Marketing For (And Perhaps By) Dummies, Part 2

September 21, 2013

MilleniumThe Millenium Hilton is in New York City, not far from Ground Zero. The Millenium Hilton. Millenium, did you hear? When I was an independent copywriter/producer long ago, I learned how to spell the word “millennium.” It was the name of my company, after all. It derives from “mille” and “annus.” There are two frickin Ns, homey.

This joint has been around — and bugging me — since 1992, but according to Wikipedia, “the hotel’s builder chose to intentionally misspell the name with one ‘n’ on the outdoor signage and official literature…in order to make the name more distinctive.” Nope, I call that backpedaling B.S., my friends. Much more plausible is abject dumminess — but by the time anyone realized the mistake, it was too late to change. If it’s really so “distinctive,” why does almost nobody notice?

Photo by Parker Johnson.

More dummy marketing.


Adverteasing

February 9, 2013

Truth

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.


Releasing The Kraken

February 20, 2012

Peggy Noonan’s beautiful Wall Street Journal weekend piece featured a fanciful negative tv spot against Abraham Lincoln, illustrating just how easy it is to compose “negs” out of thin air, and Newt Gingrich said Saturday that he felt negative ads were driving down GOP voter turnout. It’s tempting to sit back and enjoy some delicious schadenfreude as the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision bites some unintended asses; the Pubs always expected Mr. Monopoly’s unlimited resources to vomit all over the campaigns of Democrats, not each other’s. But with St. Ronald’s Eleventh Commandment left in tatters (as well as the rest of his initiatives: a candidate with Mr. Reagan’s record and attitude couldn’t be elected dogcatcher in today’s Republican Party, because the “base” wouldn’t even consider nominating him), what we’ve seen so far is only a taste of the torrent of slime that is to come.

New York, where we live, is rarely a “battleground.” We’re usually as blue as can be, and broadcast costs in our city, the nation’s largest media market, are beyond expensive. So we don’t normally undergo the tv tsunami found in “swing” or early-primary states, where, in the words of Stuart Stevens, the Romney adviser with whom I once worked long ago, broadcast spots are “a dollar a holler.” Friends of mine who are in such places, though, say this year is different: both the frequency and the nastiness have been turned up to 11. And this is just the Republicans going to work on each other: wait till the sewer spigot is turned on somebody they really, viscerally, hate. As Bill Maher pointed out last week, no President in memory, not even Dubya, has been treated so disrespectfully, from Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson to Jan (“Finger Pistol”) Brewer. What is it about Barack Obama that gets ‘em so riled up? Let’s see: what’s unique about him?

Negative messages have been around forever. They’ll never go away, because they work: they appeal to the baser parts of our natures, the ids that occasionally crawl up from the dank cellar inside. That cute little girl picking flowers made people worry about Barry Goldwater’s finger on the nuclear trigger, even though there was scant other reason (“bombing [the North Vietnamese] back to the Stone Age” was Curtis LeMay’s bon mot, not Sen. Goldwater’s). Just after John Kerry – an actual war hero opposing a draft dodger who went AWOL from Stateside service – was nominated in 2004, I remember reading this boast from an anonymous George W. Bush operative: “by the time we get through with him, you won’t be sure which side he fought for.” I chuckled to myself at the time. Then the Swift Boat deluge began.

You can utter a blatant lie in 30 seconds, but the victim can’t defend himself in that same moment: nuance takes much longer than :30. Case in point: Mitt Romney’s very first tv commercial of the present campaign, in which President Obama is pictured saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The commercial failed to note that the statement is from the 2008 campaign, and that then-Senator Obama was quoting a John McCain campaign aide. Not only didn’t the Romney camp apologize, they puffed out their chests and stood by the false insinuation: who cares if the statement is four years old and completely directed elsewhere, and that we omitted the words, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote…”?

Mind you, this was an “on-the-record” Romney spot, the kind in which the candidate says, “I approve this message.” What’s new in this presidential election cycle is the rise of “Super PACs,” made more powerful than ever by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which held that individuals, corporations, unions and the like can donate unlimited amounts to an advocacy organization, as long as this group “does not coordinate” with any candidate’s actual campaign. It takes but a moment’s reflection to apply this fig leaf to anything you want: for example, why not hire a former campaign manager to manage the Super PAC instead? No coordination is necessary, because the newly moneyed guy knows exactly what the candidate needs without being told. These Super PACs will be the source of most of 2012’s negative ads, because the candidate himself need not approve them or even appear in them. Super PACs will be the ones getting their hands dirty. They will be full-time Swift Boaters. And they will outspend the putative campaigns many times over.

The effect of the Supreme Court decision hasn’t been insidious; it’s been instantaneous. Through a Super PAC, one single wealthy donor has personally kept Newt Gingrich’s candidacy alive, even though it is woefully deficient in organization. Stung by a loss in South Carolina, Mitt Romney’s Super PAC unleashed a tornado of anti-Gingrich ads in Florida and cost the Speaker the primary, almost surely because of this effort. And I repeat, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet: these are just firing-range practice rounds.

Some friends on the left say they’re disappointed in the President for reversing himself by encouraging donations to his own Super PAC after loudly criticizing the Citizens United decision (causing Justice Samuel Alito to mouth the words “not true” during the State of the Union address shortly after the ill-considered judgment was handed down). It offends their sense of honor and fairness. But to me, the President is simply acknowledging that you don’t bring knives to a gunfight. And while nobody should be proud of the kind of “support” they’ll be getting from Super PACs, Pubs of all people should understand about the relative merits of unilateral disarmament. The Kraken has already been released; without a similarly titanic response, nothing remains but destruction.

It all reminds me of an incident that happened almost twenty years ago, just before the election between President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. I was flying back from Seattle to New York, and my company’s policy was that if you took the red-eye back on a long trip, you could travel business class. After I managed a bit of fitful sleep, we stopped in Chicago, and a distinguished-looking gentleman slid past me into the window seat. He read a newspaper, then accepted breakfast service. I let him finish everything and hand over his tray before screwing together the courage to ask, “How does the election look to you, Senator?” For my seatmate was none other than George McGovern.

“Clinton in a squeaker,” replied the man who had been the Democratic candidate just as long ago at our meeting as that conversation is to me now. We had a delightful chat, mostly on lightweight subjects, but two things in particular absolutely startled me. He said that during the entire 1972 campaign – Richard Nixon, Watergate bugging, Hunter S. Thompson and all – “not once did a reporter ever ask me a question about my personal life.” Now, let’s step back. Sen. McGovern’s first choice for vice-president was Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, who – unknown to the nominee – suffered from clinical depression, a condition that, along with his secrecy about it, forced him to withdraw from the ticket. So personal lives were definitely in play at the time. Yet read again what McGovern said. He faced a more generous press corps, a less toxic political climate. Even given Nixon’s acute paranoia and his dark power to indulge it, in most ways 1972 was a more innocent time.

And so McGovern acknowledged. I asked him, “If you had the chance, would you run for President today?” “No,” was the immediate answer. “I couldn’t put my family through what you have to today.” And please remember, this was only 1992. Now, I don’t care whether you agree with the Senator’s politics or not, but only the meanest-spirited Bircher could deny that he’s a good, principled man, the kind of guy you want in public service. If campaign sleaze disgusts the likes of George McGovern enough to keep him off the ballot, then what rough beasts will we continue to attract among those potential candidates who remain?

As we arrived at the gate, several people in the business cabin, who had all overheard McGovern’s distinctive voice, rose to greet him. Each one said they’d voted for him in ’72. “Wait a minute,” McGovern protested. “If everybody voted for me, why didn’t I win?” After they’d dispersed, the two of us continued to walk together toward the terminal. I told him the first Presidential vote I was able to cast, once I got old enough, was for him. The Senator stopped and shook my hand goodbye. “I’m glad I got your first vote. But I’m gladder it wasn’t your last.”


Marketing For (And Perhaps By) Dummies

December 20, 2011

Click for yet more dummy marketing!


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