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Recently, I found myself in a room filled with a bunch of yo-yo salesmen. These people actually travel the country selling yo-yos to retailers. The big news at this sales meeting was a new toy, which I'll just call the Gizmo. The marketing director was up there in front of his team raving about the Gizmo like Knute Rockne giving a locker room speech before the big game. Everyone was cheering and clapping and getting all revved up, like this plastic toy was gonna save the world. It was a little scary. Who wants to be in a packed room with a bunch of crazed yo-yo salesmen?

They probably knew the Gizmo wouldn't save the world. But they probably also figured that if they could sell the crap out of it, it would save their jobs. No wonder they were getting so worked up. When a real fortune rests on a new-product intro, a TV rating point or an ad response, you'll find out just how seriously people can take their jobs. Even if it's hustling yo-yos.

If you work in the ad business, it helps to understand that your job is to help sell the client's product -- no matter what. But what happens if the client's product isn't exactly something you'd like to sell?

I remember a day, early in my career, when I was young and naive and on staff at a large agency. Management had gathered the troops to screen the agency reel for one of those Aren't We Great? morale-boosting meetings. As the lights dimmed, the hushed crowd gazed at beautifully shot images of puppies and children and Kraft marshmallows, seductively blended with seamless editing and nicely composed music. The lights came back up, and after a rousing hand the CEO took the stage and opened the floor for questions.

After listening to him respond to inquiries like, "Gee, how'd you get that puppy to lick the little girl's face," I ingenuously decided to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity to ask the Cheese. Eventually, the Cheese nodded in my direction and I spat it out: "Do you have any reservations about advertising a product like marshmallows, which is probably 100 percent sugar with zero nutritional value, and targeting mothers and young children?"

A sudden uncomfortable silence filled the room. A few heads turned to see which of their co-workers was so bold, or so stupid, to put the agency CEO on the spot in front of his entire staff. The CEO calmly paused, took a few slow puffs on his pipe, and with carefully measured words, responded: "It is my belief that it's the government's role to decide which products should or shouldn't be advertised. And as long as the product is legal, it's the agency's responsibility to do the best job possible to advertise its clients' products."

Good point, but as the days passed I never second-guessed the legitimacy of my question. I did begin to second-guess the timing of it, though. And I have to wonder how much it affected my termination several months later.

During my career I've had to work on some challenging assignments (rectal thermometers painfully come to mind), but never anything that I've really had a problem with, like Spam or Barney. I have, however, been involved with a few products that seemed a bit, shall we say, questionable.

One client, a maker of homeopathic medicine with remedies for everything from sore throats to PMS, explained how some people actually used these remedies on their pets. "PMS pills for dogs?" I asked. "Sure," the client replied without missing a beat. "Why do you think they call them bitches?"

But such is the nature of the business, and we all must learn to live with it. A copywriter buddy of mine is one of the most talented writers I know. After moving around a bit he settled into a high-level, high-paying job at a huge agency. He's got a couple of kids and a nice home in a fancy neighborhood. I called him one day just to catch up. When I asked about his job I sensed a tone of mild resignation. He told me was working on a battery account, which features a fictitious family called the Puttermans.

You know the Puttermans -- that plastic-coated, alien-looking, TV family-from-hell, with giant batteries fused to their spines. The spots consisted of bad sitcom-like shenanigans. Fortunately, the Puttermans have been put to rest.

And so has my buddy's idealized notion of integrity. It doesn't seem that long ago that we were sitting around talking about the advertising hacks who sell out for the money to do the dreck we both hate. Now, with a family and mortgage, my friend has new priorities. Before our chat concluded, he shared what seemed like an attempt at vindication. The 5-year-olds at his daughter's birthday party wanted his autograph when they heard he was the guy who did the Putterman commercials. As far as these kids were concerned, he was almost as cool as the Energizer bunny.

Thirteen years after the Marshmallow Debacle, I find myself having lunch with the very man to whom I addressed my provocative question. When I bring up the incident, he confesses to a lack of recollection. Prefacing it with how young and naive I was, I recall the scene. "Hmmm. So what did I answer?" he asks. I tell him what he said, and with hardly a pause the ex-CEO speaks in a soft but certain manner: "I think my answer would be different today."

He goes on to say how we all must be willing to accept more social responsibility for the decisions we make in this business. I feel vindicated. But he didn't want my autograph.

"Cool ads that work" is the idea behind John Follis' agency, Follis/NY. Say hi

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