Color Him Well Read

By Published on .

Few men have enjoyed quite the acclaim in two utterly disparate careers as has Herschell Gordon Lewis. On the one hand -- and make that a severed hand -- Lewis is the real President Gore, the pioneering director of such '60s shlock horror classics as Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red. On the other (firmly attached) hand, he's a direct marketing maven and former chairman of Communicomp, a True North-owned DM shop, who's written more than 20 books on direct response and various other aspects of advertising. In fact, the second edition of his On the Art of Writing Copy is due out this month from Amacom Books, a division of the American Management Association.

Lewis, now 73, still runs a direct marketing consultancy from his home in Plantation, Fla., and writes columns for several marketing trade publications, though his film career is well behind him. Not that he wants it that way. "If somebody were to call me and say, `Let's make Blood Feast 2,' I'd say, `Fine, let's start tomorrow,' " he declares. "Today I'm regarded as a great guru of direct marketing. I have clients all over the world and I'm making more money than I ever made in the film business. But I still miss it."

Then again, he may not be that far from his film days after all. "The business I'm in is causing people to perform a positive act as a direct result of having seen or heard the message that I created," he points out. "No way does that differ from making independent pictures. If someone runs out of the theater in disgust, that's a positive act. They don't come out yawning. They may have thrown up, but they weren't yawning."

Lewis, a Pittsburgh native with an English degree from Northwestern, was a college professor before he turned to advertising and filmmaking. He had a tiny ad agency in Chicago, which eventually went belly up when he lost his biggest client, around the same time he decided to try his hand at low-budget movies. The question was, what would sell on the big screen? "My solution was to make the kind of movie the majors either couldn't or wouldn't make," he recalls. "Today, of course, that's very difficult, because they make everything. But at that time no one had ever made a movie where people died with their eyes open. No one certainly had ever made a movie where someone cut somebody's leg off on camera, or pulled out a tongue. This was a genre that simply didn't exist. I claimed it. Little did I know that we were starting a groundswelll movement. Now we're a footnote to motion picture history." With a severed foot, no doubt.

Moreover, as in advertising, the important thing in indy film is to be noticed. With 1963's Blood Feast, "People would react with horror, disgust, puzzlement or exhilaration, all of which was fine," says Lewis. "But they'd never ignore the movie. No one had ever shown anything like this in 35mm color. We cheated on everything -- actors, locations, effects -- except the camera work." (Check out Something Weird Video at for Lewis' lacerating oeuvre.) Not that he was making a bundle. Blood Feast, his first film, was his biggest grosser, though not necessarily his biggest gross-out. Eventually, his movie business reached a point "where the major film companies had invaded my turf," he laments. "I couldn't compete with their budgets, so this particular area had burned itself out for me." The Hollywood establishment did not invite him to join, and around 1975 he abandoned moviemaking "simply because I didn't have the financial wherewithal to continue. I was tired of being self-financing. I was also in the middle of the Great Divorce, which stripped me of everything I had, including my first edition of Robert Browning."

But direct marketing came to the rescue, along with a new wife. Lewis got a job writing copy for the Bradford Exchange, which sold collector's plates. "I didn't know anything about collector's plates, but it turned out to be easy, because they're a non-product. It's pure emotion. The whole concept of a produced collectible is something of an oxymoron to start with. So I wrote the copy, I got paid, and I said, `Hey, how long has this been going on?' " Bradford became a regular account and that started the juggernaut rolling. "When word got out that here was this guy grinding out direct marketing that worked, I got accounts like Omaha Steaks and the U.N. Children's Fund -- name brands."

It might be assumed that Lewis acquired the legitimacy he never attained as a director, but he's never made any effort to hide his `sordid' film past, and he regularly signs autographs for the film buffs in the audience after his direct marketing speeches. Of which there are many; Lewis is a veritable Werner von Braun in the rocket science that direct marketing has become, in which every commma is analyzed for its effectiveness. He even wrote a book titled Open Me Now! -- no, it's not a treatise on disembowelment, but a guide to fashioning the successful DM envelope.

In the Internet era, however, never mind junk mail; now we have spam. "But it's only spam if you don't want it," notes Lewis the inveterate salesman. "Some people look forward to getting e-mail from people they don't know. In my opinion, e-mail is the future of direct marketing. A properly constructed e-mail is not only the least expensive and most efficient way of reaching people ever invented, it's also the most personal."

Not only has Lewis crafted e-mails for clients, he -- surprise! -- has a book on the topic. So what's a spam subject line that can't miss? " `I finally have this for you,' " he offers. "Many people are impelled to open this. The reason you see this all the time on AOL is because it works. Or `This is the information you asked for.' Not `requested,' but `asked for.' Yes, it ends in a preposition, but it's convivial, and conviviality is one of the keys to rapport. We're dealing in an area of primitive psychology. If that doesn't work, you may try, `Boy, am I glad I got to you today.' All of them are based on a personal reaction, and the cost is zilch."

But don't run out and buy a smaller mailbox. "Junk mail won't disappear any more than radio disappeared when TV came in," says Lewis. And don't get him started on TV commercials. As a DM man, he's not too big on advertising in which all too often "the creatives are producing samples for their own reels or portfolios, rather than causing product to move off the shelves. In this age of skepticism, cleverness for the sake of cleverness may well be a liability rather than an asset. What has happened to the notion of, `This is what I have for sale and this is why you should buy it'?

"Look, there are two kinds of advertising," Lewis concludes. "Image advertising and go-for-the-jugular. I embrace go-for-the-jugular."


Most Popular
In this article: