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Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet

by James P. Othmer

Hardcover, 320 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $26.95 |


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Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet
James P. Othmer

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Paperback, 320 pages, Random House Inc, $15.95, published June 1 2010 | purchase

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Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet
James P. Othmer

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Adland

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.

The Death of Darrin Stephens

LARRY TATE: You look terrible. What's happened?

DARRIN STEPHENS: Nothing much. I just lost the Caldwell account and my wife all in one week.

LARRY TATE: What? That's horrible.

DARRIN STEPHENS: I know, I can't believe it.

LARRY TATE: Your wife too, huh?

—Bewitched (1964)

Why a Dinosaur Has Never Won a Tony Award

Advertising as I knew it began its death rattle in the fall of 2000 in an old, dark off-off-Broadway theater on the far west side of Midtown Manhattan.

Over the years the theater had been the home to world-premiere performances of works written by the likes of Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, and August Wilson. But on this day the theater's modest stage was going to be home to a different kind of performance, a one-day-only world premiere written by a previously unpublished playwright, a nobody.

This performance would definitely contain elements of drama. And, almost certainly, tragedy. Most involved in the production, and by this time there were dozens of us, were fairly certain of this, but the degree to which it could be classified as tragedy or comedy would ultimately be decided not by the author (me) or the cast (two starving actors) or the producers (the Madison Avenue office of a global ad agency) but by the audience, which was expected to total all of five extremely impatient and not particularly happy people (our clients) absolutely predisposed to hate everything they were about to see.

We were in this venerable theater to make one last desperate pitch that promised a strategically focused, bright, shiny, globally synchronized, and brilliantly branded future to our multibillion-dollar banking client of several years who, by the way, desperately wanted to fire us.

If pressed to classify the type of production we were about to put on, I would have called it a farce.
Because I knew that even if Russell Crowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Sir John Gielgud took the stage that afternoon and had channeled the spirit of David Ogilvy, Jay Chiat, and the original Young and Rubicam, our clients still would have hated it, still would have fired us. In their eyes we were too big, too slow to adapt to a rapidly changing financial and marketing landscape. Time had passed us by.

As the creative director pressed into supervising the assignment, I had come up with the idea of trying to sell this nontraditional, digitally inspired future to a financial mega-brand in this flesh-and-bones, sub-analog space. If they wanted nimble and out of the box, we'd give it to them live, in a theater, with real actors and stage props and lighting and signed black-and-white head shots of Pulitzer Prize winners on the lobby walls.

Why a theater? Advertising was entering a new age. Beyond the thirty second television spot. Beyond print ads in People magazine. TV spots on Friends. Then of course there was that thing called the Internet. No one in big agency advertising seemed to know what to do with it yet (beyond buying smaller digital shops that were better at pretending that they got it), so why should that stop us from pretending that we got it, that we were experts? We chose a theater because we felt that a live performance in an artistic environment was the last thing our clients expected from a dinosaur of an agency like Young & Rubicam, and onstage we could dazzle them with the countless unexpected, nontraditional, highly effective ways in which they could connect with their ideal customer.

Plus, all of our previous old-school, "traditional" attempts to save our asses had failed miserably.
Even though it was a daring idea, and even though I thought it had the makings of something special, I knew we were doomed. Mostly because I (as well as, I suspect, almost everyone else in the business at the time) had no idea what the bright, shiny digital future of advertising was. After all, in 2000, YouTube was years away from its inception, and the guy who invented Facebook was all of sixteen years old.

And did I mention that the client hated us?

In fact, if my voice counted in such matters, we wouldn't have been spending insane money, easily several hundred thousand dollars for a two hour presentation, pitching an account to marketing officers who clearly did not want us anymore. I'd said as much six months earlier after they'd put us on notice. I'd said as much soon after that when they'd put us on double-secret probation.
And I said it again on the day of our last presentation two months earlier, another do-or-die, last-chance meeting during which we prostrated ourselves before them in another lavishly appointed conference room filled with motivational videos, PowerPoint decks, and stacks and stacks of foam-core storyboards, dozens of creatively inspired, insight-driven campaigns from the New York office's finest (bring in that funky young team . . . do we have any African American creatives?) as well as from our network around the world—London, check! Hong Kong, check! India, check! Australia, g'day!

But of course my voice didn't count in such matters. I was a slightly jaded creative director/copywriter, and slightly jaded creative director/copywriters with an aversion to leading large groups did not typically weigh in on high level decisions, or run pitches for $500 million accounts, unless their superiors had already resigned themselves to losing said accounts.

We had gotten the mega bank account in the first place because global capabilities had been the big thing in the merger crazed 1990s (now, apparently, it's small and nimble and digital, but that could change by the time you finish this paragraph). Sharing ideas and resources with a far reaching global network—satellite partner agencies around the world—had become an absolute necessity as brands themselves became more global. And our network had become so bloody global that there were times we could have used United Nations interpreters to have a simple strategic conference call between regional creative directors, which in retrospect probably wasn't a good thing.

Anyway, the result of the last meeting, which we had sworn would be our final attempt to salvage the business, was that they were not impressed. They were going to put the account up for review. They were going to open things up to other agencies.

This was a not particularly subtle way of telling us that we were history.

Being put up for review is akin to having your spouse announce in front of everyone you know that he or she no longer loves you and for the next several months he or she will be seeing other people—dozens of smarter, younger, cooler people, many of whom, by the way, you know quite well—and then having all sorts of kinky, experimental sex with the most interesting and promising of them, probably no more than six, often doing many of the things that you may have once suggested but were never allowed to.

Sometimes during this process your spouse will describe his or her ongoing antics in excruciating detail for you. Sometimes you'll simply read a steamy, anonymous insider's account of it in the press. And then, after six months of this, six months of holding your tongue and continuing to do all the dishes and dirty laundry and seeing to the upkeep of the home you once shared, the children that mean so much to you, you will finally get your chance to say—after I've given you every ounce of my energy and passion for so many years, after trying to rekindle better times with romantic weekends and couple's counseling, after he or she has slept or flirted with just about every one of your friends and neighbors, not to mention several total strangers—"Here's how I've changed, sweetheart, and here's why and the extent to which I'm willing to publicly humiliate myself to win you back."

At that point, if you were the client (or spouse), would you want to take you back?

In 1985 the length of the average client-agency relationship was more than eight years. Today it is half that. In a 2007 poll taken by the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council, more than half of the 825 CMOs surveyed said they planned to fire their advertising agency and change direction in 2008. This was before the markets collapsed in October.

Sometimes, in a rare instance, a client will put an account up for review to light a fire under its agency, secretly hoping that the agency will snap out of its complacency and produce brilliant, winning work. But this clearly was not one of those instances.

At that point, if our client was to light a fire under us, it would not have been with a match. It would have been with a flamethrower, and we would have been lashed to a stake, neck deep in dead storyboard kindling.

In part this is because the people who hired us—old school people with long-standing relationships with our senior management—were no longer there. They had been replaced on almost every level, most notably by a pair of young, progressive, meticulously dressed, and ambitious marketing executives who clearly wanted nothing to do with the likes of us—an old, stodgy advertising behemoth whose upper management was bloated on recent IPO cash (the agency had recently been sold to a large holding company) and had taken its collective eye off the ball.

What this new regime wanted was what every smart brand steward wanted in 2000: a smart, nimble, young, hip, hungry shop that had some kind of handle on global branding and the world of digital—a.k.a. new-media, a.k.a. nontraditional—advertising.

"We absolutely should not participate in the review," I told my boss (an executive creative director, who reported to a U.S. creative director, who answered to a global creative director), six weeks before the pitch. "They despise us. They sneer at the clumsy diplomacy of our global network. They detest our musty, 1950s-decor offices. They can't stomach our—okay, my—bad fashion choices. We embarrass them. We could show them the most innovative, strategically brilliant work possible right now, and they would not buy it."

From the Hardcover edition.