Whatever you do, don’t stare at the birthmark

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‘Our presentation to the CEO of Playtex’

It’s been awhile since I’ve written about my Golden Olden Days in Advertising. But this weekend, as I was devouring the Sunday Times, I happened upon one of those paid obits that you can only see in the printed edition of the paper. (Yet another reason — besides starting fires in winter — to subscribe to an actual newspaper.)

It caught my eye — a phrase, incidentally, used waaaay too much by consumers in focus groups, as in “I don’t know if I’d buy that. Maybe if the ad caught my eye. And I don’t think this one would.” Well, this particular obit caught my eye because the deceased fellow pictured had not only a birthmark on his forehead, but a name that is quite uncommon. (Of course you know me well enough by now to know that I will not mention that name, out of respect for the dead, if not my own reputation.)

What I do these days instead of creating ads. Though I did knit quite a bit while on commercial shoots

Aha! That birthmark, plus that uncommon moniker, unleashed a whole-package-of-madeleines-worth of memories. Mainly centered around my experiences working with the late, great Mark Shap. (Mark’s name I will mention because I plan to say absolutely nothing negative about him.) Oh — a quick note here: If you think you will be offended by a story involving a person’s birthmark, please stop now and read one of my other Ad Biz Tales instead. I have a whole slew of them listed in the sidebar.

I don’t have any photos of me and Mark, so this one of Me and the Catskills will have to do

Back to Mark, who was an art director with long hair and a mustache. He was tall with a long elegant nose and rather reminded one of Big Bird on Sesame Street. That is, if Big Bird had an English accent. He was very talented and much sought-after as a creative partner. Like many creative geniuses, he could be difficult and demanding. I remember there was an editorial house that had a sign on the wall that went something like — Editing: $50 an hour. If you help: $100 an hour. If you are Mark Shap: $500 an hour.

Anyway. The story sparked by the birthmark happened when I was lucky to have been paired with Mark, but unlucky to have been assigned to the Playtex account. The Playtex clients hated Ogilvy. This was because — even though Ogilvy was then considered one of the greatest advertising agencies, if not the greatest — our clients had not chosen us.

Some biggie at Playtex played golf with some biggie at Ogilvy and the decision was made On High, without the involvement of the people who would actually be working with us. Assigning an account like this is kind of like your Dad making you go out with his best friend’s son. The son might be the most wonderful person in the world and just right for you, but the fact that your Dads cooked up the arrangement just sours the whole deal — for both of you.

Another nice Catskills shot. You know, to break up the story a bit. And no, no one set me up with this friend

Also, this Playtex assignment was for Playtex bras. Now, there’s nothing to be ashamed about working in underwear advertising. Just ask Marky Mark. But back then the networks had weird rules about bra commercials. Like, you couldn’t show a woman wearing the bra. Not over skin, anyway. You could show the bra on a woman — but only over clothes.

Now, this was challenging, to say the least. Commercials for bras showed some hapless woman dressed in, say, a sweater — with a bra strapped right over it. Like I said: weird.

And, what was worse, clients liked it that way. They didn’t want to experiment, uh uh. They wanted their creative team to show them yet another storyboard with a woman wearing a bra strapped over her sweater. Different color sweater? Sure. But that’s about as out there as you could get.

Now Mark was not the kind of art director who did things the usual way. He accepted the bra-over-clothing challenge and met it. He figured out a way to shoot the commercial using an early special-effects technique called “green screen.” The model would wear a leotard in a color that would “disappear” into the background when filmed. What you would see when the commercial was finished would be a bra moving around as if by itself — pleasantly “filled” with that part of a woman that goes under a bra — but you wouldn’t see the woman, or her leotard either, not to mention her sweater.

Too bad Roz Chast didn’t work on packaged goods advertising like I did

Well. This was a major achievement. We could hardly wait to present this idea to the client. In the car on the way to Playtex headquarters in Connecticut, we were prepped by the Suits (er, the account team.)

“Whatever you do, don’t say anything about Joe Blow’s (not his real name) birthmark.” (Like Mark and I were toddlers, and wouldn’t be able to resist laughing and pointing, I guess.) Upon hearing this advice, Mark and I did both start laughing. Rather uncontrollably. So maybe it was good they told us beforehand — so we could get that laughing out of our system.

The assistant AE was driving the car — the car was always driven by the assistant AE — but he did manage to throw in his two cents’: “Hey, it’s not funny. He’s the CEO.”

At this, Mark and I totally lost it. “Okay okay,” we snorted through tears. “We promise not to mention the birthmark. We won’t even look at the birthmark. If you like, we won’t even look at the guy.”

We go in the conference room, and there he is. And my gosh if he doesn’t have the biggest birthmark we’d ever seen. It was spread over most of his forehead and resembled the State of Montana. We quickly shook his hand — while focusing on his nose — and directed our attention to our storyboards.

We present our revolutionary idea, expecting, well maybe not cheers, but at least some level of surprised appreciation at our ingenuity. But the clients — including Joe Birthmark Blow — simply shook their heads in dismay while slowly intoning “Ogilvy…Ogilvy…Ogilvy” in a dirge-like singsong.

The CEO then clapped both hands to his head in abject despair — hiding the birthmark but not the fact that he absolutely hated the commercial.

It wasn’t the sunset of my career — but it was the end of my work on Playtex

New York, New York. October 2021

 

 

 

The first time The Child rode the subway

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‘Featuring a darned good “Lutheran Lie”, if I do say so myself’

First thing Monday morning I took part in a nature walk in Central Park. Our little group was listening, rapt, to our leader, an architectural historian no less, when a rat the size of a healthy young chihuahua weaved its way between our collective feet and disappeared under an ornamental shrub.

Me, the morning after my Close Encounter of the Rattus Kind. (Those are actual dogs frolicking in the background)

No one flinched. Though our leader, after a beat, did say, “They’re okay off-leash until 9:00.” Continue reading

“Eenie Meanie Chili Beanie, the spirits are about to speak”

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‘The time Rocky starred in a Hershey commercial’

I was all set to write about the origins of the Henry HooHah when, oh no, I saw in the Times that June Foray had died.

I’ll be back. Tune in next week for the origins of the HooHah

Now the name “June Foray”, no doubt, does not ring a bell. But for those of you, like me, who grew up watching the ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle Show’, you’ll know her as the voice of Rocket J. Squirrel, AKA ‘Rocky’. (Yup, Rocky was a girl.)

Now, it may be hard for those of you who did not grow up watching this show to understand not only how hilarious it was, but also how, um, culturally pervasive. Well, at least at my house. We kids would torture each other — and our parents — by endlessly repeating the show’s catch phrases, “Eenie meanie chili beanie” being just one example. And the puns? Ouch. Here’s the Times, from that juicy June obit:  Continue reading

The boss who got banished to Belgium

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‘Dealing with ‘sexual harassers’ back in The Day’

Okay. A couple of weeks ago I told a story about politics. And last week I wrote about religion. So I guess this week I have to (gulp) live up to my promise and deliver that tale about sex.

Sometimes a waffle is just a waffle. Unless it’s Belgian, perhaps

It’s pretty timely, since the news has been chock-full of stories about a Certain Candidate for President Who Shall Remain Nameless and his predilection for pouncing on people in the workplace (actually, make that pouncing on people practically any place: on planes, at pageants, on back lots pre tv guest spots). [Note: I am so not going to provide links here, since you know perfectly well where to find stories about this guy.]

Oh, to be perfectly clear, it’s female people he pounces on. But not just any female people. These are females who rate, oh, at least a 7 or an 8, if not an all-out 10, in his personal scale of pounce-worthiness.

Dah dum. Dah dum. Dadum Dadum Dadum Dadum. Dah...dum.

Dah dum. Dah dum. Dadum Dadum Dadum Dadum. Dah…dum. Nope, he doesn’t think she’s a ’10’. But he’s stalking her anyway

Oops. There are exceptions, of course. See above photo.

But no no no. There are no politics in LutheranLiarLand(!) Let’s get back to my story. Continue reading

Gimme a kiss. I’m goin’ to work(!)

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‘Embracing Working Momhood without (too much) guilt’

It’s been ages since I felt guilty about working. Nowadays, I’m much more likely to feel guilty about not working. You know, whiling away my afternoons on a chaise longue (which Google, for some reason wants to correct to chaise ‘lounge’) in a filmy peignoir, flipping through trashy magazines while nibbling on chocolates bought with The Dude’s hard-earned money. (Actually, my non-working afternoons are more likely to be spent in the company of SoftScrub.)

But, back when The Child was an actual child, I used to feel guilty about working. My guilty feelings weren’t so much about leaving her adorable self in the care of others (though she was pretty darned adorable, as you can see):

Super-adorable Baby Child, about to be left by Heartless Selfish Mother (Me)

Super-adorable Baby Child, about to be left in the care of Another Person, not her Heartless Selfish Mother (Me)

Nope. My guilty feelings arose because I, um, actually preferred going to an actual workplace and interacting with other adults to hanging around all day with a pre-verbal non-ambulatory person, adorable though she might be. As you may already know from reading some of my other stories, like ‘Gone Baby Gone’, I used to say ‘Hey, if didn’t enjoy getting down on the floor to scribble with crayons before I had a child, what makes anyone think I’d enjoy it now?’ Continue reading

Radio Days

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‘Did I just hear somebody say “sushi”?’

The Dude and I grabbed some sushi last night. (Why is it that one ‘grabs’ sushi, I wonder?) And, as I deftly dipped a chunk of inside-out California Roll into a little dish of sodium-reduced soy sauce, I was transported back, in a rather Proustian tasting-the-madeleine-like way, to one of the very first times I ever had sushi.

It was in Chicago, back in those golden years of traveling around the country on somebody else’s dime. I was working in advertising, natch. On this radio project that involved interviewing people who had lost their money because they were silly enough to be carrying actual money instead of American Express Travelers’ Cheques.

We were using this interviewer named Alan Kalter (he got to be pretty famous as an announcer on Letterman, but, trust me, this was way before that). Anyway, Alan was in a glass-fronted room talking to a group of losers (er, people who’d lost their money) while the producer and I watched and listened and prompted him (via a tiny wireless earpiece mic) to ask certain questions, or to get the interviewee to repeat a phrase more clearly or loudly.

See, we were recording the interviews so we could piece together some ‘it-could-happen-to-you’ radio commercials. So we needed certain phrases, like ‘I lost my money’, ‘My vacation was ruined’, and, of course, ‘I wish I’d been carrying American Express Travelers’ Cheques’ to come out nice and crisp and clear. Continue reading

‘Here’s your trouble’

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‘My upside-down Kit Kat Birthday’

It’s a well-known fact that Swedes don’t age, we just shrivel and sort of turn into the human equivalent of beef jerky. But we do have birthdays, whether we like it or not.

By this point in my birthday-blessed life, I’ve had all kinds: dressed-up and dressed-down birthdays in restaurants (one was at our favorite Japanese place where the waiter, dressed in a bunny costume, presents you with some fruit with a candle stuck in it) and extremely-dressed-down birthdays in jammies.

I’ve celebrated birthdays at work, on vacation, at my Mom’s. I even spent part of one natal day waiting in line at Immigration. (Taciturn customs agent checking my passport: ‘Why, happy birthday, Alice Henry Whitmore.’)

The birthday spent trying not to cower with fear on top of the Duomo in Florence

The birthday spent trying not to cower with fear on top of the Duomo in Florence

Sunday’s was a drinking-champagne-in-sweatpants-while-watching-the-Mets-lose-the-World-Series kind of birthday. (Sorry Mets. Maybe you should have sent me a card.) Continue reading

(im)Perfect Pitch

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‘The Hemlock Room, the round brown hotel, and the cookies in the crinkly wrappers’

It all started when this Big Client had a New Product all shined up and ready to go. The Agency Bosses got wind of it, and got really excited. We wanted that account. We were gonna pitch it.

I guess I should explain. You ‘pitch’ a client when you want their account. Maybe it’s up for grabs, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s your agency’s account already, and you have to pitch it to keep it. Which is sort of like trying to convince your husband to stay if he’s already ‘looking around’. Even if you do manage to convince him (or the wayward account) to stay, you worry all the time they’re going to leave anyway. Which, most of the time, they do.

Anyway. This was a Biggie. We were gonna pitch the heck out of this one. Wow them, in fact. A Pitch Team was duly formed, and guess who was put in charge. Silly me, I was actually flattered and thrilled by this. Continue reading

General Foods, we salute you

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‘Drinking the Kool-Aid (and Country Time) in the 80s’

Those of us who worked on the General Foods account at Ogilvy used to kid around a lot (big surprise; see ‘Short Men and Flat-Chested Women’ for evidence). We used to say that nothing General Foods made was really a ‘food’. You know, something that could actually sustain life. If you were stranded on a desert island with only GF products to eat, you would, basically, starve.

That’s because everything made by General Foods (or GF as it was fondly known around the shop) was actually a powder. A powder that you stirred into water (Kool-Aid, Tang, Country Time Lemonade-Flavor Drink Mix), brewed with water (Maxwell House Coffee), shook up with meat (Shake ‘n Bake), or mixed with other assorted stuff (Good Seasons Salad Dressing Mix). I don’t mention Jello here, even though it was in fact made by GF, because it (and Bill Cosby) were Y&R’s problem, er product.

My first Ogilvy commercial was one for Shake ‘n Bake. This was in the early 80s, so it actually did not use the famous ‘and I helped’ line. Nope, I got to do commercials with this spokesperson called Pete the Butcher. The 80s were replete with spokespersons: Cora (Margaret Hamilton, who was the Bad Witch in the Wizard of Oz) for Maxwell House, Grandpa for Country Time. And those were just some of the Ogilvy GF spokespeople. (Don’t forget Bill Cosby for Jello; as if you could.)

Here’s a typical example of a Shake ‘n Bake Pete the Butcher spot that I found. I’m not sure if I did this one or not. That tells you something right there, I’m afraid. Continue reading

‘My head feels funny’

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‘The Suit with the Tyrolean hat’

So. Does anybody else out there get the Sunday-Night Blues? Well, I certainly do. Guess it’s a holdover from those Omigosh-I-Haven’t-Done-My-Homework-Yet Days. This particular Sunday it means my Weekly Post is staring me in the face. But I did think of a good story, just now. Whew.

It’s one from my Golden Olden Days of Advertising. And it’s about an Account Guy and his hat.

See, back then there were (basically) two kinds of people: the Creative People, who were the writers and art directors (and producers and music people and many talented others, but for the purposes of this story I am limiting this to writers and art directors), and the Account Guys, who were the men and women (though usually men) who worked with the clients in mysterious ways that involved Business.

You could tell the Creative People and the Account Guys apart easily enough. The Account Guys usually looked really serious, and wore suits. So we called them, affectionately enough, the Suits. The Creative People, both male and female varieties, wore jeans and leather and tee-shirts and much longer hair. And, (if you were female and a Creative) sometimes very short skirts with tights.

I take it back. Creatives sometimes wore suits. I once wore a Chanel Suit (thrift shop, but still) with Converse sneakers to a Big Job Interview. (I didn’t have time to change into the heels I’d stowed in my bag; I got the job. Maybe the low-tops clinched the deal.) But most of the time, if you were wearing a suit, you were the one carrying the bags and driving the car to the client meeting. (Er, conducting Important Business with the Client).

Well, back to the hat. Continue reading