'Adland' Searches For Meaning On Madison Ave.

James Othmer i i

During his two-decade career in the advertising industry, James Othmer worked on ad campaigns for everything from long distance phone plans, to yogurt. DoubleDay hide caption

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James Othmer

During his two-decade career in the advertising industry, James Othmer worked on ad campaigns for everything from long distance phone plans, to yogurt.


Former adman James Othmer spent two decades working in the ad industry as it was in the throes of a dramatic transformation. As more consumers zap commercials on DVRs and read magazines and newspapers online, Othmer has concluded that the Madison Avenue industry as he knew it is dying.

He describes the ad industry's growing pains in his new book, Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet. Othmer is also the author of the novel The Futurist.

Excerpt: 'Adland'

Cover of 'Adland'

By James P. Othmer
Hardcover, 336 Pages
List Price: $26.95

Note: There is language in this excerpt that some readers may find offensive.

On Moral Advertising and Other Corporate Oxymorons

Do you think it would be morally acceptable to work on a beer account? How about light beer? Or hard liquor? For instance, eighty proof sweet stuff with a cool name that goes down easy, especially for those, ahem, new to drinking. Would you sell it with humor? Sell it with sex? Does alcoholism run in your family? Would you sell it to a younger, potentially underage demographic by casting older people who look young? Would you target a minority? What if it ran only on late night cable channels?

What about tobacco? Would you make cigarette ads? Would you make cigarette ads if they had huge "YOU WILL DIE IF YOU SMOKE THESE!" warnings plastered across the bottom? Would you do antismoking ads paid for by big tobacco? Would you not under any circumstances do cigarette ads yet work for a company or holding company that makes hundreds of millions of dollars every year marketing cigarettes and selling them without communications restrictions to the third world? Does cancer run in your family?

Would you work on a military account? Would you if the assignment was to increase the number of eighteen-year-old recruits during an unpopular war? Does your 401(k) portfolio include any corporation or affiliate of a tobacco or defense contracting company?

Would you work on a political campaign if you believed in the candidate? Would you work on one if you didn't believe in the candidate, if, say, you are a Democrat and your boss (who you had thought was a Democrat) asks you off the record if you would like to fly to Maine to work on the campaign of a certain Republican presidential candidate? Would you play off the fears, anxieties, and prejudices of the public if it would sell your campaign and get you promoted?

Would you work on a fast food account? Fried chicken? How about fried chicken with gobs of sodium and preservatives but no trans fats and they list the calories on the bucket and they do a separate "Hey, kids, don't be a fatty!" campaign and put jungle gyms and salad bars at select locations? Does obesity run in your family? Diabetes? Coronary disease?

Would you sell sugary children's yogurt to moms as a healthy snack choice? Would you bypass the moms and go right at the kids with animated spots starring skateboarding alligators and surfing polar bears on Nickelodeon programming?

How about an oil company? Would you take a creative director's position running the account of one of the world's biggest petrochemical companies if it meant a raise and an expense account and an office with eleven more ceiling tiles than that of your nemesis? Would you sleep better at night if your first assignment for mega-oil company was to do a global ad campaign about all the wonderful things it is doing for the environment, even if the media buy for the campaign cost more than the sum total of all the wonderful things they are doing for the environment?

Would the fact that you drive a Prius and intend to switch to compact fluorescent bulbs in less visible parts of your house make doing potentially award winning work for the maker of an SUV that gets eleven miles per gallon easier to stomach?

How about a financial institution? Would you do ads for a bank encouraging people to refinance their homes even though you are a numbers-challenged liberal arts major with no house or savings of your own and if following your Live life to the fullest! financial credo might actually lead families to lose their homes and, by association, cause a national lending crisis and, by further association, a worldwide economic recession?

If you worked in advertising, do you know what you would and wouldn't do, what you could live with?

Would your "moral" choices vary depending upon your financial situation and/or your place in the creative pantheon of your current agency, that is, do you bend a bit more if you haven't sold a campaign in six months and you have a small apartment and a kid on the way and you're this close to being vested and you hear there may be yet another round of layoffs?

Do you still say, "Under no circumstances will I work on the farm pesticides/herbicides/insecticides business or the campaign for the latest miracle boner pill or sleeping aid pharma with thirty seconds of mandatory side effect copy that includes death and blindness, not to mention a questionable FDA situation"?

Or do you get on your high horse and say, "Fuck you!" because last week you saved the $250-million-a-year Fortune 500 corporate consulting account and there's no way you're going to sell crap yogurt, beer, hard stuff, unfiltereds, troop surges, chemicals, or ideologies to anyone (this, of course, is before you happen to check out the Fortune 500 corporate consultant's client list)?

Do you? Will you? Can you?

Think about it. Because your boss wants an answer in two minutes.

Excerpted from Adland by James P. Othmer Copyright 2009 by James P. Othmer. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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