George Parker: why the Howard Gossage way is the right way to converse with consumers

Howard Gossage invented social media before most of the juvenile retards now claiming to have done it (and suing the shit out of each other for the bragging rights) were even born.

Remember, Howard is the guy who said… “An ad should ideally be like one end of an interesting conversation.” To which I would point out the key word is “Interesting.” Tweets about how much toast you had for breakfast, or how your bowels are functioning today, don’t qualify.

He wasn’t afraid to use any device to create interest and involvement to begin the start of a conversation. Competitions, sweepstakes, coupons, (remember, this was decades before the Internet, and years before 1-800 telephone numbers) anything that would encourage a reaction was considered fair game. Not to mention, his use of truly inspiring and often humorous copy that did not condescend or talk down to the reader.

One of the best examples of this was the campaign he produced for the Whiskey Distillers of Ireland. Even though the single column ads only ran in the New Yorker, even that erudite audience must have been somewhat perplexed by the headline… Flahoolick. The copy explained that this was an Irish word meaning openhanded, generous, expansive, and oh so much else. It gives examples of things that are Flahoolick, which obviously includes Irish whiskey.

It also gives examples of things which are Unflahoolick, including tea bags, which rang a bell with me, because my mother, who was Irish, regarded tea bags as the sweepings from the tea warehouse floor and the work of the devil. The ads offered a Flahoolick badge, with a picture of a long nosed Regency dandy on it. Why the long nosed Regency dandy was relevant to Irish whiskey, I have no idea, but you could get one by filling in a coupon and returning it to Dublin. Yes, that’s Dublin, Ireland. Not one of the various Dublins scattered around the US. So, unless you sent it via air-mail, you would be waiting a few weeks for your very own “Flahoolick” badge.

There was also no mention of what purpose the badge served, but it was pointed out in the coupon this would be explained in next week’s ad. Then, to cap it all, the ad copy finished in mid sentence with a footnote (concluded next week). Now, believe me, this broke every single rule of the time. Come to think of it, it breaks every single rule of any time. But it worked, to the point that when one of the weekly ads failed to appear, probably because Howard had persuaded the Irish not to blow their money all at once, people would write to ask, “Where is your ad this week?” To which the next ad would say, “Well, bless your heart, if we published every week it would have us out on the street, advertising is that expensive. But thoughtfulness costs nothing at all.” A superbly Irish interpretation of customer relationship management that is worth remembering.

As part of the campaign, fifty years before guerilla, flash mob, word of mouth, viral, social, interactive, friending, tweeting, or whatever, became part of the vernacular, Gossage ran a couple of single column ads in the New Yorker announcing a visit by representatives of the major Irish distillers. One of the ads carried the headline… “Wanted to rent for just one week; A New York townhouse suitable for seven Irish whiskey distillers.”

Readers were invited to submit their names to Dublin for a draw (described as an Irish Whiskey Sweepstakes) that, should they get lucky, would enable them to attend a party at the, rented for a week, town house in New York. This shindig would obviously be accompanied by liberal tastings of the good stuff shipped in from the old sod. Thousands applied and two hundred winner’s names were drawn out of a hat, no doubt, one of those battered green felt ones you always see leprechauns wearing in really bad Irish Mist soap ads. Also in attendance was the mayor, the governor, the president of the United Nations, Cardinal Spellman and most of New York’s Finest. A fine time was had by one and all, and the large amount of free publicity (not to mention the splendid free booze) generated was worth a ton of today’s digital impressions, or whatever is measured by the black magic du jour, otherwise known as “datametrics.”

Perhaps the single best example of how Gossage (left) was ahead of his time by stepping outside the classic advertising model prevalent then, was his campaign for Scientific American. The magazine was anxious to promote itself as a general advertising medium, rather than a specialist journal for geeks. Howard decided that the ripest category to go after would be airlines, because at the time there was much publicity about the pending introduction of the Lockheed and Boeing Supersonic Transports. This never happened, as it was left to the snail eating Frogs and bad teeth Limeys to come up with the Concord! Still, at the time, it was a big deal.

So Howard capitalized on it by creating the Scientific American International Paper Airplane Competition. The first ad carried the headline “Can It Be There’s A Paper Plane Which Makes The SST 30 Years Obsolete?” You see. If you are smart enough, you can shoehorn any reference into any ad to make it relevant. I’m with Gossage on this. He ran a total of three ads, in the New York Times, New Yorker, and Travel Weekly. The competition had four categories – Duration Aloft – Distance Flown – Aerobatics – Origami/Aesthetics. Two Grand Prizes were awarded – A Silver Leonardo for amateurs and a Titanium Leonardo for the pros. (See, he even beat out Cannes, who didn’t get a Titanium Lion for another thirty years)!

The response was amazing, 11,000 entries from 28 countries, tons of free publicity in all the major newspapers, magazines and TV networks. American Airlines even handed out entry blanks and paper to passengers who were encouraged to create ever more convoluted designs whilst getting bombed on free booze… Ah yes, anyone old enough to remember free booze in economy?

The Scientific American campaign was such a success, Gossage ended up publishing a book, The Great Paper Airplane Competition, which was featured in a great many publications of the day, including Boy’s Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, a journal for those inclined towards paedophilia.

Howard believed advertising is more effective when it refrains from telling you what to think, letting the reader work out its meaning for themselves. This is the communication that is in essence the “conversation” every social networking “guru” never stops going on and on about. But, Howard was doing this long before there was any form of interactive media, which is now ubiquitous, and will eventually become oppressive. I’m sure, if he were still around; Howard would by now have come up with some intelligent and elegant way of turning this on its head.

Even before he founded Freeman, Gossage, in his first, and only, agency job, he created a campaign for Australia’s Qantas Airlines, in which he spent the first half of the ad praising TWA for having the gumption to purchase for their domestic fleet the same Super Constellation airplanes Qantas was already flying to 26 countries on five continents. However, he was driven to inform the public that the airline felt they needed a new name for their fleet, so in typical Gossage fashion he asks the readers of the ad to co-operate by coming up with the name. The headline reads… “Be The First On Your Block To Win a Kangaroo!” Because, yes, there’s a competition and the grand prize is a live kangaroo and the second prize is a stuffed koala, for, as he says, live koalas are very picky eaters – you wouldn’t want one.

There will also be 98 boomerangs as consolation prizes. And, to keep everyone happy, every entrant will receive, absolutely free, an explanation of why there is no “u” in Qantas. This is precious stuff; the kind of thing that wouldn’t have a hope in hell of surviving the approval process in any of today’s Big Dumb Agencies, let alone being accepted by a client. That’s why, no surprise, virtually all of today’s airline advertising sucks. Come to think of it, virtually all advertising sucks.

Yet, in spite of the current emphasis on social networking, along with unceasing reminders of how important it is to cultivate conversations with consumers through a ceaseless drive to make them Friend, Poke and Like your brand, the way today’s agencies go about this is the antithesis of what Howard did all those years ago.

Today, conversations between agencies and clients have no relevance to the conversations they should be having with consumers. The primary operating principle of virtually all BDAs is to produce work the client will buy. This will guarantee that the work will be as risk-free as possible; something arrived at by extensive testing and research. And to quote another famous dead ad guy… Bill Bernbach put it this way… “Work that researches well is predicated on what has gone before. Anything different, or out of the ordinary, will test badly, for the very reason that it is different.”

Few agencies have the balls to stand up for work they cannot justify via research results. This is even truer today, in spite of the excitement generated by social media aficionados. The mechanics of message distribution may change. The quality of message content and the character of its voice never will.

I can only think of one agency that comes close to matching the attributes Howard listed as essential. That one is Goodby, Silverstein + Partners, which is a big, but by no means dumb, agency, who, when they opened up shop in 1983, ran an ad with Howard Gossage’s picture and the headline “An advertising agency founded by a man who’s been dead for 14 years.” I’m sure that wherever he is now, the originator of “social networking” is looking down at the current state of the ad business and laughing so hard his monocle keeps popping out!

(Here’s another, rather easier to read, Howard Gossage classic we’ve found).

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