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Copy

An apology.

For the last 8 years, I've made the bulk of my living writing advertising copy. Some folks, hearing this, immediately brand me the worst sort of whore: lips have curled, backs have turned, and women have stood up from their pottery wheels and walked away. Acquaintances have wondered how, as a fellow with a certain kind of social intentions—a progressive type, anti-war, pro-free-health care, anti-racism, pro-individual-liberties—I can continue to bolster a system I must despise, a system that perpetuates so much of what is nefarious in our culture.

Mostly, I like the hustle. I like to sell, I like convincing people to pay my rate, and then convincing other people to buy my client's products. I like working for myself, running my office of a one-room apartment for a few thousand dollars a year, mostly spent on laptops and phone calls. No one cares how I use the rest of my time. And it feels good when the checks come in the mail.

Of course, I don't do the 30 second TV pitch or the one page print ad for glossy magazines. Up there, the money is better and the opportunities for moral failure much greater. I'm the man you hire to write 300 web pages about each of the videos you sell, for your online catalog, or to develop the concept for the presentation to investors. Occasionally it's a slippery slope: after a few weeks for one client, I learned I was really working for Amway, which made me feel bad about myself, and a few clients have asked me to stretch the truth to its breaking point, or to omit facts that any reasonably astute purchaser would want to know. These situations require me to navigate treacherous moral waters, and I have not always succeeded in doing the right thing. But in general I am an amiable paddler through tranquil tributaries of commerce, far back from the Mississippi of TV advertising and the largest agencies. And those who read my copy are usually willing participants: they have already picked up the brochure, or decided to visit the web site, or they're already at the meeting. The words are there for the asking, not barked out uninvited.

But it's not simply a way to make money for me. I also enjoy advertising at a deeper level, as an end in itself; I like to read and watch ads, and extrapolate how a given work's creators arrived at their conclusions, parse out out what the client wanted, imagine the meetings that led up to a given work being produced. I want to know: Would this sell to me? Convince me to vote for a given candidate, or vote at all? Would I write back to this personal ad?

I can point out my favorites by decade, their taglines and approaches, from the Steinway ads of the 1920s to the Ogilvy work of the 50s and 60s, the Sears Catalog of 1898. Perhaps more than in literature, the ads of an age tell a story: Henry James might show us a portrait of humanity, fleshed in with hundreds of thousands of words, but in the magazines that published him you'll also find ads for books of etiquette and patent medicine, promotions for ocean-going vessels, and these tell us far more about basic, earth-level desires of that time than James did. Given the choice between a collection of old ads and the work of James, I'd pick James—but that choice is artificial. Both persist, both are open for analysis, consideration, and connection.

Adbusters has been doing R&D for more than a year, and guess what? Making a shoe - a good shoe - isn't exactly rocket science. With a network of supporters, we're getting ready to launch the blackSpot sneaker, the world's first grassroots anti-brand, with a ground-breaking marketing scheme to uncool Nike. If it succeeds, it will set a precedent that will revolutionize capitalism.Adbusters

It is in part a shitty world, this marketed world, and needs changing. The things we buy are made by poor people who cannot afford to buy them. The messages are everywhere, creeping into every moment. This is the triumph of rhetoric and capital in collusion, a rhetoric of surfaces and gloss. But, then, I look at Adbusters' breathless prose above, using the same rhetorical devices that Nike itself uses to achieve its ends, and I think well sure, good for you, fight that fight, but....

Sometimes I have the fantasy of teaching a group of kids—say, around ages 12-14—how to create advertisements. We'd divide the class into art directors and copywriters. I'd be the client. We'd have meetings and review sessions. They'd pitch me their ideas, and I'd choose the one I like the best, and from there we'd develop it into a full-fledged campaign, brand and all. Assuming I could pull it off, the kids would emerge as full-fledged critics of advertising as well as capable practitioners with a basic understanding of production. Something tells me that you could do this, that you could convince kids in their early teens, who are seen as pure consumers with no creative power of their own, and thus targeted mercilessly by advertisers, to push back, to question why a Fendi bag is so urgently necessary. I'd like to see those kids, whom the advertisers see as powerless, given access to the same tools, and witness what emerges.

I think that this approach, diving in and taking apart the advertising process, would have far more cultural weight in the long term than the solidarity-appeal of Adbusters. Adbusters sees advertisers as the advance guard of evil corporations, colonizers of mind. But I don't think that many people are going to be “revolutionized” by a new sneaker, or that Weiden Kennedy will be brought down. Would it be nice to lock the heads of major agencies in a room and force them to watch Mr. Whipple squeeze Charmin for 10 straight weeks? Of course. It would also be nice to see Henry Kissinger in a Cambodian jail. But given the current state of power, the entrenched empire in which we live, another approach is required.

Rather than punishing advertisers, it would be better to strip them of their cultural clothes, to make them naked. The way to do that, to me, is slow and arduous, and not as interesting as a revolutionary sneaker. It is to turn everyone into a practioner of marketing, as in the middle school class above, to implicate them in its techniques. To reintroduce rhetoric to the curriculum, in all of its modern forms, to give the techniques of persuasion to everyone—not simply by teaching the five-paragraph structure of the critical essay, or the funnel style of a news article, but by opening up students to form as a discipline, getting them to write TV commercials and banner ads alike. And try to give them an understanding of the means of their own manipulation, an awareness that they are being sold.

We all are being sold. I've yet to meet anyone who can prove to be entirely out of advertising's grip, whatever they claim. Mostly, people who claim to loathe all ads forget that the advertising for the things they like is advertising at all. In building my pottery studio, I might pore carefully over kiln ads; if I am a fan of Prada shoes, I will look carefully at the specifications for those shoes, observe how they look in a magazine, engage with them deeply. If I want to own a unicycle made of hemp, I will read the copy on the Hempcycle.com web site assiduously. I might, as in the case of the fans of Macintosh computers, become an unpaid advocate, do the business of the company unpaid, creating web sites about the merits of OS X.

McDonald's, though, is a monster. And who needs to see all those car ads? Except for the Volkswagen ads. I like that one with the iPod; they even showed the iPod playing a song by the Polyphonic Spree on one ad. It's good to see the Polyphonic Spree get attention like that.

There is, for almost every one of us, some advertising that we do not find offensive, advertising in which we participate, upon which we act, pulling out the credit cards from our mutual wallets. That advertising is positive, meeting some need; most of what we see is neutral, and we're indifferent to it, and the rest is negative: it disgusts us, turns us off. With a mass, advertising-funded media like that in the United States, there is no way to avoid this state of things. It's the sea in which we swim.

Mass media enables these rhetorics to exist, allowing marketing to make its way into nearly every moment of existence, and it will not disappear without some nearly unimaginable cultural shift. So how do we decide what to reject, what to allow, in how we are sold things? You can't close a Pandora's box; you can't outlaw rhetorical devices. So the box is open—but if we all knew what it contained, it would be much easier to mitigate the effects of its nastiest contents.

.  .  .  .  .  

If you are interested in learning to parse ads, one good place to start is Ogilvy on Advertising, a fairly standard manual of the business that is alternately an incredibly fun read and a blatant promotional vehicle for its late author, David Ogilvy, founder of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency. It's 20 years old, and thus badly dated in such a fast-moving industry, but still an essential way to learn how advertising wants to be seen.

As you read, do not be deceived by Ogilvy's plain-spoken Scottish charm. He is guilty of most of the sins he claims to despise (wanting it both ways, he'll tell you to make your copy fact-based and instructional, then explain how he put an eyepatch on a shirt model to add “story appeal” to a campaign). But do note how many of his ideas are currently in play in ads being written today.

Another critical resource is Adcult USA, by James B. Twitchell, a pomo look at the industry from an academic perspective, which lacks solid insider knowledge of the production process, but has great illustrations and many fine ideas.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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