Thomas Murray's World Isn't Just About Advertising

A Son Reflects on His Father's Anti-'Mad Men' Career

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People who know I have an ex-ad-man dad naturally ask me if I watch "Mad Men." I tell them I don't, because though Dad wouldn't mind my watching it, he would disown me if he found out I liked it.
Beyond advertising: Thomas Murray
Beyond advertising: Thomas Murray

Those who worked in the 1960s and '70s with Thomas Murray at Campbell-Ewald in Detroit or at Murray & Chaney in Hudson, Ohio, or who read his essays in Ad Age know he isn't a bellower like his late pal Carl Ally.

But "Mad Men" gets him going. He doesn't like the workday drinking or the rampant sex; he resents the creative license taken in the portrayal of the creative process. "You don't make great ads by drinking and screwing all day!" he says.

As I said, I've never seen the show, but I have an alternative theory as to why my dad hates it. It's about advertising -- whereas my dad, at least in his own mind, never really was.

He said so in memos, speeches and articles headlined, "The World Is Not About Advertising, the World Is About People."

As far as the advertising world is concerned, that should be his epitaph. That, and the companion concept he pounded into the heads of his staff and his colleagues at other agencies: the need to communicate intimately and honestly with "the man inside the man," the more childlike, naked, fearful, joyful real human being who lives behind the front that people present to the outside world (and to market researchers).

Dad came up with some slick material along the way, such as "O.J.," the hipster term he invented for the Florida Citrus Commission to help sell orange juice. And his mind is a catalogue of ads he thought were sexy, but Campbell-Ewald's conservative client, General Motors, never bought. One unused headline was, "How do you tell the age of a woman in a convertible?" (The last line in the body copy was, "Who cares?")

My dad spent his whole career trying to move clients away from shallow, safe headlines such as "the car of tomorrow, today!" and toward Carl Ally's mud-splattered Volvo: "Drive it like you hate it." It was on practical grounds that he recommended authenticity -- he dubbed it "the importance of being interesting" -- but his stubbornness on the subject always suggested to me that this meant more than a marketing technique.

An advertising career dissipates pretty fast after it's over, and my dad retired in 1980. Now he's 85, and his health is failing. He still talks a lot about advertising. More than anything else he wrote, he talks about "the moon ad."

He kept all the letters of congratulations he received on it, and he points with pride to the fact that it was read into the Congressional Record on July 15, 1969. But it isn't really an ad at all. It's a little essay, written over the logo of North American Rockwell, which was a prime contractor for the Apollo moon project.

The headline reads, "America is about to put men on the moon. Please read this before they go." The copy begins, "Perhaps the best way for anyone to try to understand the size of such an undertaking is not for us to list the thousands of problems that had to be overcome but for you to simply go out in your backyard some night, look up, and try to imagine how you'd begin, if it were up to you."

And it culminates, "We ask you, in the days ahead as we wait for the big one to begin, to understand this fantastic feat for what it is and to put it into proper perspective, a triumph of man, of individuals, of truly great human beings. For our touchdown on the moon will not be the product of magic, but the gift of men."

That's what Dad thought advertising was, too.

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David Murray is a journalist living in Chicago.
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