Books: George Speaks

By Ti Published on .

In his new book, $ellebrity, George Lois dishes about his days working with stars of every wattage - from cultural hall-of-famers like Sinatra and Ali to the flavors of the week - on his groundbreaking advertising work and magazine covers. Lois, the storied adman and the art director behind the consciousness raising and ad page-killing covers of '60s and '70s era Esquire, created some of advertising's most memorable celebrity-based campaigns during his days at Doyle Dane Bernbach and Papert Koenig Lois - the shop he founded after he did the unthinkable and left Bernbach's hallowed halls in 1960. And he's not afraid to say so.

In person, he dishes with equal bluster about everything from Muhammad Ali and the racial divide in America to George W. and North Korea - not to mention basketball and, of course, the sorry state of advertising today. On that note, he recalls the interview in which he famously referred to advertising as "poison gas" - a reference that would be even more problematic today. But then, most of what George Lois says doesn't exactly carry any PC stamp of approval. Unencumbered by any bothersome false modesty, Lois points to many examples of his own big ads, but he says such ads are in drastically short supply today. Of course, many would beg to differ, but Lois does raise some interesting points, and he does raise them with flair. Trouble is, according to Lois, most ad practitioners aren't passionate about and don't believe in the real power of advertising. "None of them believe in miracle, breakthrough advertising because they're not involved with it," he says. Lois put his own beliefs about the power of advertising to the test in his campaign to free boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter from prison, and it's not the only major feat Lois stakes claim to - others include putting the MTV and ESPN brands on the map (and coining the phrase "extreme sports" for the latter!) and originating the idea for The New York Times Magazine. Lois' personality-focused ad work included the "I Want My MTV" campaign; Braniff Airlines ads, which pictured incongruous juxtapositions of the likes of Salvador Dali and Whitey Ford; and the senatorial campaign for Robert Kennedy. "Before I was doing them, celebrity commercials made the people who did them look bad," says Lois. "They looked like they were doing it for what they were doing it for - the money. The fun of it and the drive and the drama of it was to make it look like they were doing it for fun." Lois, with carte blanche from then Esquire editor Harold Hayes, created covers for the magazine that while causing some short term dips in advertising revenue (some of the covers that made advertisers run screaming: Sonny Liston as a badass Santa Claus; Lt. William Calley posing with Vietnamese children, against the backdrop of charges that Calley was responsible for killing innocent civilians during the conflict; and an arrow-pierced Ali posing as St. Sebastian) made the magazine a must-read. Of course, that was before the current era of publicist ass kissing and puff pieces but Lois accepts no excuses. "You look at 50 magazines and you see 50 covers that look the same. The kind of covers I did then could be so easily done today, but nobody would run them. They're scared. Well, they should be scared of what they're putting on their covers now. You should shit in your pants if you have to run a picture of Nicole Kidman."

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