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“Secret Sex, A Book Alive Online,” written and lived by John Scott G.
Chapter 29 – “What Do You Do?”
Sooner or later, everyone has a bad job. Usually sooner, because first jobs can be a bitch. My first employment, unless you count mowing lawns, was at a mall where I worked in a Pickwick Bookshop. That chain of book stores is now defunct but I am almost eighty percent positive it wasn’t because of hiring me.
You may think that being a bookstore clerk is better than being a burger jockey, but I’m not sure. I love books but you cannot eat them. This meant I missed out on the free nibbling opportunities at the fast food places.
Plus, look at the anxiety faced by a bookstore clerk when confronted by customers with peculiar and terrifying questions:
“I can’t find ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ How can you be out of it?” (The question was about Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. This was a common problem which we tried to solve by displaying the book under A, D, and F. But the main difficulty was that they were looking for it in the fiction section.)
“Do you have Nosy by Gene Paul?” (He wanted Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre for their college class assignment. I wished him good luck in their study of existentialism. “Exis-what?” was the reply.)
“There don’t seem to be any copies of Camelot. We’ve been all over the non-fiction aisles.” (They had some difficulty accepting the fact that the movie and play were based on a novel by T.H. White called The Once and Future King.)
“That book should be in a section called radical cuckoos.” (He was pointing to The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.)
“This is filth and I do not appreciate my little girl having to see it!” (She was pointing at Nigger: An Autobiography by comedian and social activist Dick Gregory. The book was on a shelf at a little above my eye-level, making it about four-and-a-half feet above her little girl’s eye-level.)
“Which one of these Bibles is the original version?” (I know this seems like an old joke, but yes, I did encounter more than one person who told me they thought there was a version of the Bible that was “written by god.”)
When you interact with customers who are that misinformed, you might prefer instead to be working with hamburger, lettuce, and pickles. You know, because of the higher intelligence. Just how do you deal with people like the oddballs listed above? Do you gently correct them? Try to educate them? What if they argue about it? We clerks were not equipped to cope with this because we were out-gunned; these strange silly stunted people had ignorance, superstition, and prejudice on their side. All we had were facts.
With the casual idiocy, misogyny, theocracy, and racism of a scary-large number of people in our suburban location, things often got really tense down there on the main floor of the Pickwick Bookshop. Somehow, I muddled through even though my head exploded several times a week.
I kicked around for a while after college. Went to Europe for a few weeks to see one of my short films presented as part of a USIS program. That’s the U.S. Information Service, which here at home was better known as the U.S. Information Agency. Why the difference? “People overseas thought the USIA was part of the CIA,” an Embassy official told me.
“It’s not because both acronyms end with ‘IA,’ is it?” I asked.
“Apparently,” was his reply.
“Wow. And I thought Americans were dim.”
“Oh no,” he said. “We haven’t cornered the market on dim.”
Will Write for Food
Once I was back stateside, I took on a bunch of small-time writing jobs. Like a brochure for a realtor. And a speech for a local politician. And translating a company’s jargon-filled employee handbook into English so human beings could read it. I also ghost-wrote a bunch of newspaper and magazine articles for corporation executives who couldn’t write two cohesive sentences if their mistress’s lives depended on it.
A freelance writer is an interesting profession. By which I mean it is a horribly precarious occupation which balances lots of scrounging for work with lots of playing air guitar as your stereo is cranked to the max on something like AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” In other words, some months had a ton of projects; some months had none. When working, I found I had to get at least half of the estimated price up-front. That would be the “kill fee,” the amount I would keep if the project was terminated before I could finish it. But you have to have a client before you can ask for payment.
The feast-or-famine situation made me decide to get a regular job, and it seemed like a cool idea to try working at an advertising agency. Those places always needed writing, often on short notice, and most of their projects were not much longer than a single-page print ad or a 60-second radio script, which fit my generation’s short-attention-span mentality.
I put together a resume and faked a bunch of ad concepts, then sent them all over town. I can’t prove it, but I may have been one of the first to use the phrase “Will write for food.” My job search seemed to take forever. I was waiting and telephoning and waiting for something to happen and six whole weeks went by before I finally got hired. Later, I learned that most people spend six months searching for a job in the agency business, and even then they become unpaid interns. I got into the business and won a paycheck in record time. Wish I could say I was clever but it was pure dumb luck.
There will always be a fine and warm place in my heart for the agency where I first began working on full ad campaigns. They are no longer in business, but I am almost seventy percent positive it wasn’t because of hiring me.
Write This, Write That, Right Now
The wide variety of writing assignments is one of the “perks” of being an advertising copywriter. Consider some of the projects and my responses:
“Come up with a name for an athletic shoe store.” (Frontrunners.)
“We need some sort of funny line for a manufacturer of men’s sport clothing.” (Pull On It/Pull It On.)
“What should be the positioning statement for this chain of oldies radio stations?” (The Heart ‘n’ Soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll.)
“Give us a nice line for this 24-hour restaurant chain.” (Good Things Cookin’, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner.)
“We need to send Proposition D down to defeat.” (If The Fat Cats Are For It, You Gotta Be Against It.)
“We need a theme line for a company that has more technology patents than their competitors.” (Beyond state-of-the-art. Ahead-of-the-art.)
“Write a speech for Buzz Aldrin.” (Best line was about the spacesuit elimination system: “I literally was able to go where no man had gone before.”)
Some ad projects were surrealistic while others were just funny. Some were both. For example, the campaign I created for a two-day “going out of business” sale. The firm was not actually going out of business, but their business name was going out of business; a week later, they were operating as usual under a new name.
One of the radio spots I wrote for them included a fake helicopter traffic report about crowds near their downtown warehouse sale location. A local news show did a report on the fact that some people were fooled into thinking the fake traffic report was true. Which, ironically, caused people to drive over to see the fuss, thus making the story true.
You Auto See This
I wrote dozens and dozens of ads for a low-price rental car firm. Nothing too creative: they all showed the face of a car renter with a headline that was “their comment” about the firm. In a shocking turn of events, every one of these people had positive things to say about the company.
The art director and I soon tired of this concept but we were trapped with it because the client was happy and therefore the agency was happy. So we began parodying our own work just for the amusement of the creative department. In one ad, we used a photo of James Bond with the headline: “My license to kill doesn’t mean I waste money on car rentals.”
On another, we used a photo of a scowling Pam Grier from “Foxy Brown” with the headline: “Go Mo Fo Low Dough, Mo-Fo.” Yup, very politically incorrect and there’s nothing you mo-fos can do about it. Not a damn thing! (Please send all complaint letters to eNewsChannels. Thank you.)
One Word Can Make a Difference
We did an ad for a book on how to prepare your own will. One media organization said the ad did not meet their “standards” and this would prevent the ad from appearing in dozens of cities.
I got in touch with them and found out they only objected to the headline, “Beat the Lawyers.” Probably because there was a lawyer on their Standards and Practices committee or whatever it was called. I sent them what I said were “two versions of the ad we are going to run in alternative publications” and they lifted their objection.
One headline I sent them was: “F#<k the Lawyers.” The other had “Kill the Lawyers” and included a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI as the subhead: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Suddenly, our original headline didn’t seem so objectionable to them.
Orson Welles, Edward D. Wood, Jr., Russ Meyer, and Me
When a small chain of pizza restaurants hired our agency to create a TV spot, the creative department was excited. Until the budget was revealed and it only had enough money for purchasing the air time for the commercial.
“There’s nothing in the budget to actually make the spot,” said the agency’s production manager. And she was right: not one cent was allocated for producer, director, art director, cinematographer, lights, hand model, editing, or voiceover. But I was already producing other spots for the agency, so I took on each role and completed the spot by piggy-backing each part of the work during breaks on all the other productions.
After the spot was done, we screened it for everyone and the agency president told me, “So let me get this straight. You wrote, produced, photographed, directed, edited and voiced this spot.”
“Plus, that was my hand holding a slice of pizza.”
“So on this commercial, you literally did it all.”
“Gotta tell ya, it doesn’t look half bad.”
“The client seems happy with it,” I said.
“Well, congratulations,” he told me.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Now don’t ever do that again.”
“Yeah, I know,” I told him. “Not cost-effective, right?”
“Hell yeah it’s not cost-effective. We need to bill for everything! Look, people,” he said, raising his voice, “especially everyone on the account management teams: you have got to ABC on these projects. A, always; B, be; C, charging. Always Be Charging. We’re in the communications business and the most important part of that term isn’t communications, it’s business, damn it!”
(Note: for those of you who are fans of Glengarry Glen Ross, I hereby salute Mamet’s writing, including the Alec Baldwin speech in the film version. “Always Be Closing.” I heard it my way in real life before I heard it his way in that film. And I don’t know this for certain, but from what I’ve seen, I believe that ‘Muricun bidnessmen all use variations of “ABC” in their inter-office communications.)
Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty
Luxury items often feature exotic animals in their advertising. This is almost always an indication that neither the agency nor the client can come up with anything worth saying about the high-priced product. One of my encounters with furry critters involved a photo shoot with expensive furniture, an impeccably coifed actor, and a leopard.
The actor-model was totally unfazed by the situation. He followed every direction. “Sit on the couch next to the leopard.” “Pet him.” “Let him put his head in your lap.” “Hold his tail.”
The guy did everything the account manager asked without saying one word of protest. Without lifting an eyebrow. Without so much as a shrug. He was calm. He was cool. He was collected. He was not in his right mind.
“You are so good with the big cat,” I said to him during a break. “Did you get to interact with the animal before the shoot?”
“Nah,” he said, popping a pill. “I’ve had three Valium.”
“So that one makes four. Isn’t that over-doing it?”
“Isn’t what over-doing it?”
Diazepam, which is the drug marketed as Valium, can work wonders when properly administered. If only they had given some to the leopard.
During the next part of the photo shoot, the large feline got spooked by something. Maybe he caught the scent of someone putting on perfume or using hand lotion. Maybe he was hungry, because models are often anorexic or bulimic. Since a leopard can hear things we cannot hear, maybe a high-pitched electronic noise alarmed him. Or maybe he was having a bad fur day.
Whatever the reason, the leopard suddenly decided to leave. Not by getting up and walking off the set as any other self-respecting egomaniacal actor would have done. Instead, the 200-pound cat leaped from the couch to the wall to the ceiling. We all stood there in wonder at the scene before us: expensive living-room set; well-dressed actor sitting on a leather couch in the middle of the set; large leopard, now hanging upside down from the ceiling of the set.
The big cat remained up there, growling, his tail lashing back and forth with so much force it was making a dull drumbeat sound each time it struck his own ribcage.
The actor had gone white as a sheet. “You people!” he fumed. “You people!” he said again, rising to his feet, something that seemed unwise considering he was now bringing his head closer to the enraged leopard. “You people told me he had been de-clawed! I’m calling my agent,” he said, storming off the set. As he brushed past me, he popped another pill.
I made a mental note to begin writing all of this down because it would make a good chapter in a book. Meanwhile, we all continued to stare at the animal on the ceiling.
“Can we call his agent?” someone asked. “This isn’t in his contract.”
“I think we can get him back,” I said. “He now has five Valium in his system. It’ll be a miracle if he can dial the phone. We’ll just prop him up on the couch.”
“Screw him. I meant call the cat’s agent.”
While we stood there watching the angry leopard, the guy delivering lunch arrived at the studio. He looked at the scene for a moment and then delivered the best line of day:
“Nice pussy,” he said.
The agency lost that account but I am almost sixty percent positive it wasn’t because of hiring me.
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“Secret Sex, A Book Alive Online,” written and lived by John Scott G, is Copr. © 2011-2012 by JSG, all rights reserved under U.S. and international copyright conventions. Commercial use in any form is forbidden without express written permission of the author. Originally published on eNewsChannels.com with permission. Credits: Book cover design: Phil Hatten.