Howard Gossage treated advertising as if it were radioactive waste. He hated it. He was fascinated by it. He wondered why more people weren't concerned about its effects. And he entertained the almost but not quite oxymoronic notion that it could somehow heat our homes, dazzle us, make a better future for our children.
Amazingly, he operated out of a time when the fickle god of American business sported a crewcut and seemed to be forever saying "You bet!"; a time when Vance Packard and David Riesman were still floating up diatribes about how package designs contained hidden cues and how "conformity" was a fate worse than death or communism.
Howard conducted business in a city that was not only a total advertising backwater, but that most of the country had always found hard to swallow; a city that saw his career begin amid beat, hip, beards and coffee house poetry and end in free speech sit-ins, the big black Jefferson Airplane house near Golden Gate Park, and the passing around of mind-altering substances in Kool-Aid jars at the Fillmore West. The Victorian firehouse in which Gossage did business was a just a couple of big hills away from some of the best-and worst-windowpane acid on the planet, from Love Street and the snarling cops on their horses and all those 16 year olds with eyes like cigarette burns. Howard never seemed to judge or even acknowledge them. Yet looking back, he seems more like them than unlike them, a tiny, laughing, downtown outpost of it all.
Other than Gossage, there weren't a lot of people openly pondering the aesthetic and moral implications of business in those days, but then there never have been. Business in general-and advertising in particular-has resisted self-examination somehow. It has never attracted the most expansive writers, showing itself instead to be more comfortable with a mind-numbing avalanche of shallower, B-school analyses, a kind of statistical hors d'oeuvre that for the most part avoids larger questions about what all this stuff is doing to our heads.
To make matters worse, advertising people have always been sickly proud of the way they can ignore the aesthetic implications of what they do. (An art director in New York once glowingly told me how he had offed a woman who told him one of his ads was ugly and offensive by retorting, "You noticed.") In a tradition going back to Claude Hopkins and "The Science of Advertising," ad people have approached the selling of toilet paper and beer like hired gunfighters who could care less about winging innocent bystanders or even taking out whole towns, so long as their purposes are served. David Ogilvy, whom we now think of as one of the most urbane of the bunch, nevertheless crowed about how he doggedly exorcised his own "pseudo-literary ambitions," finally "concentrating [his] thoughts on the obligation of advertising to sell." Although he is a humorous and delightful man himself, he loudly declaimed against the use of any kind of humor in advertising. And about Bill Bernbach, the founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach, the agency many believe to be the most most in the history of advertising, Ogilvy somewhat bitterly "wondered if his output would have been less elegant if, like me, he had started as a door-to-door salesman."
(All this feigned insensitivity would be a little easier to handle, by the way, if the feigners weren't so apt to immediately turn around and claim painfully precious sensitivity to the smallest detail about whether or not we ought to have a drop shadow on the headline type. But that's another story.)
In the face of all this, Gossage stood as a kind of Far West prairie moralist, a man of principle, a human being. He hated the deeper, venal mission of his business, calling advertising "a multibillion dollar hammer hitting a 39-cent thumbtack," and announcing in Time magazine, "I don't know a first-class brain in the business who has any respect for it." Advertising exhibited, he said, "a disregard for the decent opinion of mankind." It was "thoughtless, boring, and there [was] simply too much of it." He despised the way advertisers felt compelled to repeat communications over and over, rather than spending any time paying heed to their quality: "How often do you have to read a book, a news story, or see a movie or play? If it is interesting, once is enough; if it is dull, once is plenty." While the industry lamented that advertising seemed to work less and less well with each repetition and each passing year, Howard had the nerve to suggest that maybe that was because the stuff was no damn good.
A lot has been made of Gossage's writings about First Amendment issues-specifically, his belief that freedom had been sold down the river when publishers owed more financial loyalty to their advertisers than to their readers. But Howard also saw that the First Amendment would benevolently protect advertisers who were inflicting the most reptilian, dimwitted, cynical crimes upon the general populace. And given the abhorrent nature of most ad communications, he wondered aloud how far this kind of consumerism ought be to allowed to go, where it would take us, and what kind of people we'd all be when the dust cleared.
Howard resented the fact that he was painted with the same poisonous brush used on his hacky, unthinking advertising colleagues. "When you consider the delicacies of timing and footwork required to be a creative man and the many years of practice it takes, it is appalling that the rewards, outside of money, are so few," he lamented. "I mean, outside of the advertising business almost nobody gives a damn. Among other writers and artists we have almost no stature at all."
He felt outrage at the general public's blindness to the little amusements and ephemeral beauties the trade had created now and then, and wondered aloud to us whether, if we kept acting this way, he'd really have the energy to take it to the levels of fun, silliness and insight he suspected it was capable of.
From the depths of this advertising swamp Gossage hoisted an oddball integrity. It was perhaps best captured, in a different context, by the poet Michael McClure: "Maybe it's OK to use people as long as you use all of them."
Gossage struggled to make advertising something that involved people at the upper levels of their capabilities, that searched for the audience's highest common denominator rather than its lowest. He advocated and created a kind of work that invited involvement from the audience, that went out to them on their own terms and got them to laugh, think, send something in, make a suggestion, appreciate something they might never have noticed.
Howard went so far, in fact, as to suggest that there was a formula to his approach: ask the client what his biggest problem is, then write an ad asking readers to help solve it, providing a coupon for that purpose. He liked this participatory approach partly because the advertising that resulted from it simply worked better. "In baiting a trap, always leave room for the mouse," Howard would quote from the work of the short story master Saki. (Or not. Gossage was famous for attributing stuff he made up to more credible sources.)
There was a greater reason for Howard's desire to involve all of the audience's capabilities, however, one that was more than anything else ethical: "Our first duty is not to the old sales curve, it is to the audience," Gossage wrote, delivering a rather stinging nose tweak to the Ogilvy School of Insensitive Advertising He-men. "It is simply not right," he said, "to treat an audience in [that] fashion. If we can't look at it from a broad, ethical point of view then we ought to look at it personally, to please ourselves. We are all members of the audience, too, and are bored or irritated right along with everybody else."
Howard knew and loved the projectile nature of advertising-or any communication, for that matter. About his experience as a Navy flyer, he wrote: "I wasn't a very good pilot, so I picked bombers." With his zealot's stutter and what Warren Hinckle once described as a "cock-a-hoop" laugh, Gossage gregariously relished the sheer joy of doing things to people. But they would have to be things that, in the end, worked because the people didn't mind having them done.
All in all, it was an attitude that has always struck me as curiously environmentalist. There was, of course, Gossage's widely-publicized grumpy distaste for certain "involuntary" forms of advertising: billboards, sound trucks and telephone solicitors. But beyond those particulars, Howard thought of advertising as a physical and psychic landscape that we all had little choice but to travel through. (Predictably, Gossage was so taken with Marshall McLuhan that he funded a barnstorming media theory lecture tour with several thousand bucks of his own money.) For the most part, this advertising environment was invisible to us, like water to a fish, yet it quietly shaped and reshaped our perceptions, our values, what we thought was right and important, our views of ourselves. It was one of those powerful things that could irreversibly jerk the compass, make us lose our places forever, and that made it important enough to think about.
It was, at the same time, an environment we created for our children to live in, a place that would be passed on to them. The things that we erected on this landscape, he believed, contributed mightily to an impression of what we thought was important to us as a civilization. It could, at its best, convey a sense of grace, humor, responsibility, even beauty. At its worst-well, we know all too well what kind of tawdry, lurid, toxic storm the machine is capable of belching up.
Certainly, Howard's own body of advertising and marketing work is in some ways less important than the gleaming intentions he left us all. On the whole, the creations of others from his era, Bill Bernbach in particular, will probably be remembered over Gossage's. This is partly because Howard's work was simply seen by fewer people. He was never given a budget anywhere near the size of Bernbach's famous client, Volkswagen. And he did not, to my knowledge, ever work in television.
Yet the best of Howard's best is arguably the finest stuff advertising has ever seen. The campaign he created for Eagle Shirtmakers snaps pleasurably across wide synapses of sense and nonsense. The idea would have been remembered as remarkable if only because it actually convinced you to respond to the ad twice-once when you sent for that strange shirtkerchief broadcloth-and-button thing, and a second time when you endeavored to tell Miss Afflerbach what it was. It was an apparently serious fabric sampling, based upon an absolutely useless, absurd and sublimely indescrib- able item. And damned if the thing wasn't free.
Along with Eagle, I direct the first-time Gossage reader to Howard's Scientific American Paper Airplane Contest, one of the most successful magazine promotions of all time, and all the more amazing because it was created for a rather dour, unfunny journal and directed at a readership of grim academics and science nerds. There was Howard's kangaroo giveaway for Qantas, and the underappreciated (and exhaustively ripped off) leap of silliness that led him to depict classical composers on sweatshirts as part of a scheme to save a destitute classical radio station. And of course there was his charity work for the Sierra Club, along with the quixotic efforts he made to end the Vietnam War with ads in the paper. His public service work was always aggressively smart and convincing, never moralistic, never just emotionalism. It had to really piss off the lumber industry that the opposition could appear this reasonable.
In purpose and appearance, Howard's advertising had a quality about it that can only be described as transcendent. It looked and sounded better than other advertising because it set out so explicitly to hit you on a higher plane. This stuff was light years away from the brain-dead, tranquilized universe of "Whiter than white" and the Man from Glad, and somehow it put its contempt for such lower forms of life right in your face. In fact, in its abilities to get past your suspicions, pleasingly thwart your expectations, and evoke deeper emotional responses, Howard's advertising worked in ways we usually associate with art.
Forgive me, Mr. Ogilvy, but it's not too big a word for it. A lot of the shrill presence of Gossage's ads is gone now, leaving the brilliance of his writing in hard relief. These are documents designed to evoke tell- ing, funny, unpredictable responses through mechanisms indistinguishable from what we have now come to call performance art. This is the work of a man who operated inside business but thought outside it. He is after something more, something that will get inside your head and make you wonder why you see the world the way you do.
Howard was palpably a guy in the world with a day in front of him and a buck to make, just like all of us. He was, however, able to imbue all that with such a sense of possibility, perspective and fun that it became the stuff of legend. Against all odds, Howard had a way of making you feel that you were probably a lot better than you thought you were, that if you really had fun you'd somehow survive financially. He convinced you that you owned the airwaves and had just as much right to exult in them as the next guy.
Through all these media, from somewhere on the other side, Gossage has given me power, made me see fun. When the San Francisco columnist Herb Caen told me that Howard was "holy" to him, I understood. Gossage resists rational assessment. That's no doubt partly because, in the flesh, he was such a character. But it's also got to be because he seemed to live so damned well, sparking a kind of hope, a faith in possibility, a feeling that whatever the everyday fabric might be, it could be torn open with mischief and laughter and, well, just the sheer desire to tear it open. It's something we all want very much and gobble ravenously whenever we come across it.