Death of an Adman

We should have seen it coming.

This was our livelihood, after all; we were the artists of commerce, creatives in the world of the merely productive. We worked with words and ideas the way our clients worked with industrial chemicals and institutional foodstuffs. We lived for le mot juste, and we rode wave after wave of inspired campaigns the way a surfer shot one perfect curl after another. And we grew fat and arrogant and never thought it would ever change.

And we have ourselves to blame, on many levels. As businessmen, we followed the doomed example of the auto companies, timidly complying with government regulations and lying to ourselves (it was easy; lying was our profession) that change was a good thing that would help us grow. As artists, we failed to recognize that every new measure and law was a loop in the noose being tightened around our necks. And as citizens, we were even part of the problem, supporting restrictions on other industries that we cocksuredly assumed would never be applied to us.

Truth in Advertising laws was the first, and maybe the worst, back in our grandparents’ generation. Then came stringent labeling laws in the ’70s; I can still remember, as a child, asking my mom what a calorie was. It only got worse when I got in the game in the late 1990s; so-called ‘consumer activists’ fought hard to control the very words we used. It started small, with stricter definitions of what ‘organic’, ‘all-natural’ and ‘child-safe’ meant. Those should have been warning signs enough, but still we were full of swagger. We assumed that our genius with language and concept would turn these new regulations into a benefit instead of a hindrance. God, we were such fools. There was so much money back then, we were blinded to the reality of the snowball effect.  Even when the so-called ‘public servants’ in Washington made us chase our pharmaceutical, investment services, and automobile ads with a word salad of warnings and exceptions and consequences, we figured just rushing past them would satisfy everyone.

Do you remember where you were the day the Adjective Ban was approved? I do. I was drinking dirty martinis at Pier 27, laughing with my colleagues. People like you. People like all of us. Stupid, short-sighted hedonists who made jokes about what a boondoggle the bill was, right up until one of the old men (and we laughed at them too, you know damn well we did) told us to turn on CNN. Even then we didn’t believe it. We were ad men, not lawyers; we thought the law could be appealed or voted out or overturned by the Supreme Court or something. And besides, there were 6 months before the Ban was to take effect; surely there would be time to take care of things. We kept right on thinking that, comparing ourselves favorably to Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, until Monday morning, October 1st, when we all showed up at work and found the regulation posted on the door of each of our offices. And we looked at the broken expressions on the faces of our account managers. And we saw that the plate of bagels and schmeer we set out for the clients every morning weren’t getting eaten. And that’s when we knew it was all over.

Wanna hear something? Listen to this: “Decadent Milanese cheesecake pockets, brimming with a sinfully rich raspberry glacee, coated with a sinfully smooth quintuple-chocolate jacket and topped with ultra-rich Gloucester cream.” That’s a little something I whipped up for the Sara Lee people back in ’04. In ’14, right before they discontinued the line, here’s what they did to my copy: “Chocolate-added dairy dessert with topping.” Everyone talks about what happened to McDonald’s — the Large Two-Patty Sandwich, Larger-Portioning, and the Weight Before Cooking Discount Meal — but hell, their stuff wasn’t art to begin with. They’re an easy target. How about what happened with Ikea? How about how quick Nike went out of business? How about the goddamn Ford Motor Company, once one of the proudest corporations in this nation’s history, pushing the slogan “Please consider driving one of our vehicles”, until the feds decided that “please consider” was “legally over the line into insinuation” and made them change it to “Ford vehicles available for purchase”? Sure, some people made do. Microsoft didn’t seem to have any problem with it at all; in fact, when they changed their campaign to “Microsoft: No other options at this time”, sales actually went up. And Coke and Pepsi stopped advertising altogether with no effect on sales whatsoever; it’s like no one even noticed — except all us poor bastards who used to try and convince people there was a difference between the two, and were suddenly out of a job. Within 2 years America was the generic aisle of the global supermarket.

Some of us went underground. Apparently, we were missed a lot more than the D.C. pencil-pushers anticipated, and well-to-do consumers paid those willing to take the risk big money to send them floridly descriptive passages about potato chips or sweaters in the mail. Mr. & Mrs. America didn’t want to hear that the movie they picked out for the weekend was “an action-comedy film screening at several local locations”; they wanted to hear it was a “sizzling summer blockbuster that will have the whole family on the edge of their seats”. But many of the rest of didn’t like the risk involved in constantly running from the Hyperbole Control Officers. Some of us feared for our families; some of us pretended we were perfectly happy in banking or insurance; and lots of us — let’s face it — lost our edge. I went through months where I had to say “crisp and refreshing” to myself a dozen times in the shower before I could get up the willpower to even leave my apartment.

Things haven’t gotten much better since then, despite the best efforts of our lawyers. And I’m tired. I’m tired of telling my son that I’m an ‘analyst’. I’m tired of describing my chickenshit employer’s wares only by color, size and relative value function. (Not the good kinds of color, either; I have to use “off-white #37” and “off-white #52” instead of “pale fawn” and “Isabelline”.)  And I’m tired of prodding myself awake with a Largest Available Size Flavored Coffee Drink at Starbuck’s. I’ve had it, brothers and sisters. Tonight, I’m going home and kiss my wife for the last time. I’m going to take a nice long bath — you might say a luxurious, sensual soak with healing bath tissues made from exotic herbs and healing spices from far-flung ports of call. I’ve got all I need to end it: an old copy of the Peterman catalog, a fifth of MacAuthentic Imported Scottish Whiskey Alcohol Product, and a bottle of sleeping pills.

Generic, of course.


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