PRINT December 1988



“Christmas,“ as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins once said, “is a time for giving.“ The traditional counsel for Christmas giving is it’s the thought that counts, and not only does that old saw apply to gift giving, it applies with equal force to the advertising that leads up to gift selection, that may even, for better or worse, inspire it. In advertising it’s the thought that counts, and more and more I find myself buying the products that manage to convince me they are for the thinking person.

Lately I’ve been thinking of letting some Reeboks share my sport-shoe time with my very intelligent Nikes. A particularly chock full o’thought spot is now selling the U.B.U. line ofshoes by Reebok. It consists of stylishly photographed vignettes of stylizedly styled eccentrics accompanied by a delightfully philosophical voice-over consisting entirely of quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, such as: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. . . . To be great is to be misunderstood. . . . God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. . . . To believe your own thoughts, to believe that what is true for you and your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.“

I got on the subway recently and took a seat and there in a frame opposite me was a large poster of a red-bearded man in a rugged tweed jacket, smiling rather wistfully and holding up a pint of beer. The beer glowed and it seemed to be the only light source in the photograph. In large letters above the man was the caption “Guinness Gold. If only my father had lived to see it.“

I think I’ll stick with stout. Therefore I am.

And I, who am what I am, and what I consume, think I’d really like the new Porsche 944 turbo.

They’ve been running an ad for this sporting vehicle on TV lately and I find it very thoughtful. It’s not the slick but fairly pedestrian automotive fashion photography, or the copy about eating Ferraris and the occasional Corvette for breakfast, that I find stimulating, but the musical accompaniment, which is a very lovely string arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze“ (arranged by John Peterson). Jimi would have dug it. It’s a delightful piece of music that almost atones for the egregiously eviscerated Hendrix appropriation currently selling some gratuitous brand of blue jeans. And that’s the difference a little thought can make.

How often have we heard it said, “You can’t blame them for trying.“ I find that you can. When it comes to ads I say let them think or thwim.

The propagation of thinking is the very highest aspiration (although perhaps not the most profitable) that advertising can have.

When a copywriter or creative director with a new client confronts that blank piece of paper for the very first time, a whole set of problems immediately present themselves. Such as “What exactly am I selling? Who exactly am I selling it to? How do they perceive the product? Do they perceive it differently from the way I perceive it?“ And “Hey, who am I?“

Woe to the copywriter who forgets to consider that last but all-important demographic.

The creative director who never asks that question is usually unsuccessful. The creative director who asks it first might well be an undercover artist.

And the fine artist who never asks those copywriter’s questions may merely be a creative director.

If I were teaching copywriting the first thing I would do is have my students write a personals ad for themselves. And if they needed examples of how to write a good one I’d send them straight to The New York Review of Books. Here are some e.g.’s from the October 27 issue.

“LEFTIST ANGST ANODYNE—tall, lean, manly, superior, cerebroautonomous—sought by irresistably warm, open, receptive, slender, very appealing divorcee, 41.“ Boom chakralakalaka! There go my endorphin receptors.

“CHASTE MWF, 49ish, CENTRAL NJ, reaching out to extraordinarily nice nonsmoker, for all the wrong reasons.“


“RICH, SUCCESSFUL, HANDSOME—NO THANKS! Petite blonde, mid-50’s psychotherapist, weary of ad hyperbole, seeks well-educated, emotionally-aware, kind yet assertive man for important relationship.“

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

“SJM, 37, WARM, WITTY, TALL, thin, attractive, professional, opera devotee, old movies buff, weekend cellist and, of course, budding writer, seeks a lady with a true sense for the absurd.“

Of course! The adjectives gave him away. But is that the sixth sense or the seventh sense?

“I LOVE WICKER ROCKING CHAIRS, black and white photographs, Italy, flowers, books, big white coffee mugs, breakfast, navy blue sweaters, my house at the beach, teapots, Chopin, a little cynicism, cooking, eating, New York, friends, travelling and maybe you. I’m 38, 5’6“, slim, classical good looks. Looking for man 35-45 with similar sensibilities who would appreciate a serious relationship.“

Now that tells me something about the person. And since I like courtside seats, pictures of Christy Turlington, flowers, magazines, and Dizzy Gillespie, I have a feeling it wouldn’t work out.

“. . . No Republicans, smokers or ego-junkies.“

Well, that lets me off the hook on two out of three.

Tough writing these personals, isn’t it? And it’s even harder creating a paid advertisement to interest the public in a product or service. And to do it with the sort of painstaking thought that must go into advertising where the product is oneself.

And ultimately the product is oneself, since, as Barbara Kruger has stated, “I shop therefore I am,“ and as swamis say, “All is one.“ Or is it “All are one?“ Well, anyway, it’s the thought that counts, I think.

As Emerson for Reebok wrote: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.“

Glenn O’Brien, a writer who lives in Brooklyn, contributes a monthly column to Interview magazine, “Glenn O’Brien’s Beat.“ His column on advertising appears monthly in Artforum.