Once, in San Francisco, there was a tradition in advertising circles that, although informally observed, seemed an invariable part of the copywriter’s portfolio review. After leafing through a few flimsy pieces of your inadequate copy, the creative director would stop everything and ask: “Have you ever heard of Howard Gossage?”
You would then be introduced to the Irish Whiskey ads that stopped mid-sentence, to be resumed the following week in The New Yorker (“It’d be like teaching your grandmother to” / “suck eggs.”).
Or the great headline for the Sierra Club, written to protest the damming of the Grand Canyon. (“Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?”)
Why should the founder of a small agency in San Francisco who produced his last ad 40 years ago possibly matter to anyone today?
First go to www.lacreativeclub.com/gossage.html and see the work.
Now let’s dispatch at once all the ways Gossage is irrelevant today.
He specializes in long-copy print ads. His prose style — elegant, ebullient but ornate — seems pitched to a narrow audience. He has one voice; if you hired Gossage, your company spoke like Gossage, no matter what business you were in. He seems to have more than one look, but not much more. And he avoided completely the most exciting medium of his day: television. We should all be let off so lightly by our successors 40 years from now.
If you checked out his work, you will be able to judge the truth of the following statements:
Howard Gossage is one of advertising’s first postmodernists, one of its earliest greatest ironists and the original provocateur in a business that always claims to prize them, but never does, really.
To the hippest, most cynical creative of today, he had this over you: he hated advertising. So much so, he refused to do the ordinary kind. His response was to perform a kind of public apology with every ad he made; to be so original the public would forgive the thing for being an ad. He once said, “The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”
Beyond the fresh irreverence he brought to his work, Gossage pioneered many of the trends we read about longingly in the pages of this magazine.
He was about “audience participation” from the beginning. You were invited to send in for a label for your Eagle shirt (Attention: Miss Afflerbach). You were teased into naming a new Qantas jetliner by the prospect of winning a live kangaroo or stuffed koala. You were asked to drive in daylight with your headlights on to protest the Vietnam War and to walk from San Francisco to Seattle to visit the World’s Fair and a sponsor, Rainier Beer.
And in the most famous example, you were challenged by Scientific American to enter its “First International Paper Airplane Competition.” The initial “Call for Entries” ad fetched 11,000 entries.
He was shrewd with the client’s dollar. His agency worked for fees not on commission. He made low budgets a point of pride and principle. He believed in creating fewer, more interesting ads and running them less often. “If it is interesting, once is enough; if it is dull, once is plenty,” he said.
He reinvented cause-oriented advertising. His advocacy was born of intellectual engagement and honest passion, not a desire to win trophies. He would have been amazed at the sight of agencies and clients draping themselves in ethical chic, and amused at the pose of mock piety that appears on the awards stage but vanishes minutes later in the bar of the Hotel Martinez.
Above all, Howard Gossage created an advertising of wild subversion and rich absurdity, a meta-advertising that exposes its own crude aims and device. Consider his campaign for Fina gasoline. Having no product differences to work with, he created one. Fina offered to inflate your tires with a unique proprietary substance: pink air.
Gossage’s ads usually ended with a call to action, and often proposed a contest and a prize. And so will this column.
You are hereby invited to submit nominations for the first “Howard Gossage Subversives’ List.” You are asked to nominate the work being done today that is as radical, as ahead of its time and as baffling to contemporaries as Howard Gossage’s work was. Submit your nominations using the e-mail address above or the “Comments” box at adweek.com.
While we can’t award live kangaroos to the top nominees (the lawyers have been in touch since the headline was written), we will issue a few specially designed Howard Gossage sweatshirts, done up at the author’s expense. Maybe you can be the first on your block to own one!
Steve Simpson is a copywriter, creative director and partner at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.