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“Secret Sex, A Book Alive Online,” written and lived by John Scott G.
Chapter 30 – “Word Nerd”
Even when working full-time, I always accepted freelance writing gigs because of my deep and abiding love of writing and my deep and abiding love of receiving multiple paychecks. I’d work nights, weekends, lunchtime, breaks, whatever.
Conversations would go like this:
“Can you write an ad for us?”
“Don’t you want to know what it’s for?”
“Oh sure. But if it requires an idea and words to express that idea, I can do it.”
In truth, the real answer was “I just want to know what the job pays.” In addition to full-time writing and freelance writing, I also always wrote for newspapers and magazines. I started with music reviews, just to get free albums and concert tickets, but I also reviewed books, movies, sporting events, and music gear. Eventually, I built up a collection of a half-dozen amps and more than a dozen electric guitars sent to me so I could write reviews of them.
What’s in a Name
I invented some pen names, pseudonyms, and aliases when my first newspaper articles were rejected based on the fact that my last name “looks like a typo.” As a result of the stupidity of those publishers and editors, there are articles out there with a byline reading Gerald Laurence, my most successful doppelganger.
Having a couple of extra names also helped whenever I needed to publish something that might make a lot of people angry. Which is why some potentially incendiary articles were written by “Zbigniew Bunk,” “Walter W. Wallace,” and “Bobette Bunson,” to name a few. And my music reviews appeared under such names as The G-Man, Slur, and SIHH (Self-Important Hollywood Hipster).
Writing anything for anyone at any time made me ready to leap back into freelancing whenever an ad agency lost their big account and fired all the little people (you know, those of us who actually did the work).
Several of my freelance advertising and public relations writing assignments were for what is called the automotive aftermarket. That’s when the vehicle has already been purchased but there are add-ons that people want: mag wheels, gun racks, fuzzy dice, skull-topped gearshift levers, chrome-plated dipstick handles, whatever.
“Our client makes the best and most expensive roof-mounted ski rack for luxury automobiles,” the ad agency account manager told me. “We need a headline that’s also the positioning statement.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s your budget?”
“The budget is your daily rate.”
“Because you need the line by tomorrow morning?”
“Okay, give me everything you’ve got about the product and the company.”
They handed me a couple of file folders full of photos, specifications, position papers, etc. “Here you go. The ad is going to feature a BMW with a ski rack on it,” he told me, “and since the roof rack company is in Australia, a kangaroo is going to be driving the car.”
“Kangaroo, right,” I said. Once I was home, I read everything and wrote as many lines as I could in the time allotted. Some of them were fairly clever but the one they picked was: “The Top Roof Rack is from Down Under.” The agency was pleased. The client was pleased. I just shrugged. They asked if I wanted my check sent in the mail. “Or you can drop by the photo shoot tomorrow and pick it up then.”
“Are you using a fake kangaroo or a live one?”
“Oh no, it’s a real kangaroo,” they told me.
“I’ll drop by,” I said. This was going to be interesting.
The photo shoot was very interesting. Which is to say it was a disaster. Apparently, the kangaroo was not entirely pleased with the arrangements. First, the marsupial did not want to get into the car, clawing the gleaming finish of the BMW in several areas.
“Okay, we can retouch that,” the agency art director said. “Can you please get him in the car?”
With sweet-talk and all his strength, the animal wrangler was somehow able to coax (read: force) the beast into the vehicle, which had the driver’s side bucket seat removed to accommodate the rather large creature. But to keep him positioned in front of the steering wheel, the wrangler ended up behind the animal, scrunched down in the backseat of the car, valiantly holding onto the beast’s leather harness.
Once inside the BMW, the ‘roo was still not happy with the situation and expressed its dissatisfaction in a subtle manner. Or by ripping apart the seats, the door panels, the floorboards, the visors, the rear-view mirror, and the instrument panel.
“We can retouch all that,” the art director said. “Let’s just get the shot. Can he smile?”
“Smile?” asked the wrangler with a note of incredulity. “He’s not — ”
At which point the ‘roo kicked the wrangler right where he most did not want to be kicked.
” — an actor,” the wrangler finished, his final three syllables an octave higher than at the start of the sentence.
Next, the animal decided that he could propel himself out through the car windows. Which were closed. The photographer got at least one good shot of the ‘roo’s face squished up against the glass. Wish I had that image because it would make a great album cover.
After several lunges at the windows, all of which accomplished nothing more than getting splat-faced, the ‘roo tried to launch himself out through the car’s sunroof. It was an interesting plan except for the fact that the car didn’t have a sunroof.
“Wow, did you hear that?” asked one of the agency people. “That was quite a THUMP!”
“It was more of a CLUNK!” said an assistant art director.
“Maybe more of a THRUMP!” said another.
However it sounded, there was now a discernible dent in the roof of the car.
“We can retouch that,” the art director said, always the optimist. “Okay, he seems calm now, so let’s get the shot. Can he look a little more attentive?”
“Attentive?” the wrangler said, sounding like he was doing an impression of a drunken operatic soprano.
“Yeah, more proud to be in that car with that great roof rack.”
The wrangler’s response was muttered. It sounded a bit like “Uttaf Uckin Us Old” but was probably something like “What a fucking asshole.”
Finally, I had enough of watching this farce. Plus, I was feeling sorry for the kangaroo. But as I neared the door of the photographer’s studio, there were loud yells from the people around the car. Apparently, the ‘roo unleashed multiple forms of bodily elimination and most of the client and ad agency personnel got sprayed.
To the studio receptionist I said, “Wonder if they can retouch that.”
Lying for a Living
Advertising and public relations work sometimes requires stealth, trickery, chicanery, and deceit. However, we don’t call what we do “lying.” Instead, we call it selective presentation. Or sometimes we call it artistic prevarication. Or sometimes we call it lying. But under whatever name, it happens a lot. (“Actually, it only happens on occasion,” he lied.)
Example: One freelance assignment involved my phoning patients who had undergone eye surgery; then I’d write brief upbeat paragraphs in which these people were quoted saying how excited they were to be able to once again sew, work on their stamp collection, read the Bible, or what-have-you.
The office manager at the ocular eye clinic would arrange for the interviews and give me the phone numbers, but she went on vacation one month without lining up any interviews. The reaction of the ad agency VP in charge of the account was: “Shit, you know what these clowns say, just make it up.”
I never made the bestseller lists with my Gerald Laurence books, the non-fiction The Ego Diet or the novel One Bang-Up Job, but I did hit the charts with a ghost-written book. One of the scummier firms with which I have had dealings hired me to write a get-rich-quick book on legal ways to bilk people out of money in real estate. Although it was phrased a little differently.
For another project, I was given recordings of a real estate expert’s 20-week class on some of the scams (oops, I mean techniques) of that industry. The recordings were made surreptitiously because the name that was going on the book was not the person who was on the recordings.
“Don’t use any of the same wording as on the tapes,” I was told, “but use all the same information.”
“So, basically, this is a plagiarism job,” I said.
“You have a problem with that?”
“Not as long as your check clears and my name isn’t on the book,” I said.
Admittedly, not one of my finest hours. But as Johann Sebastian Bach once said, “A gig’s a gig.” Of course, it sounds more profound in German.
The Malt Dismay organization is large, strong, and zealous. (Note: for legal reasons, the name has been changed.) It also is a very strange place, although that may be true of every corporation. I did quite a few jobs for this firm, sometimes working on my own, sometimes with different ad agencies, and sometimes with Phil Hatten, the designer of this book’s cover. Phil and I created some terrific campaigns for a film about a cute deer, as I recall. Of course, the parody versions of our work were better than the finished product. (We ripped off a classic Harvard Lampoon joke: “Mambi’s mom dies and we’ll kill Mambi if you don’t buy this DVD.”)
In one instance, an ad agency called and arranged for me to write about the re-release of another classic Dismay film. I was to develop concepts and then write ads and collateral (in this case, posters, in-store displays, and direct mail pieces). I finished the assignment, got paid, and received copies of all the work the agency completed on the project (a nice touch, and something that most agencies never did).
Nearly two months later, I got a call from Dismay, or “Mousewitz” as many inmates referred to it. I was invited to drive over to get input about working on ads and collateral for the re-release of a classic Dismay film. The same film I had worked on seven weeks earlier.
“Can’t wait to hear all about this project,” I said.
Arriving at their offices, a whole bunch of us were herded into what they called a Creative Briefing although it was actually a clusterfuck. They had hired every freelancer I had ever met to attend a meeting in which they presented the work the other agency had already done as well as work from their own marketing department.
I could hardly keep a straight face through the meeting. I went home, typed up all of my stuff that had not been used by that first agency, waited until the day before the Dismay deadline, and then turned it in.
Yup, got paid twice for the same work. Sometimes even I like American business.
I confess that I often gave in to an overpowering desire. No, not what you’re thinking. I needed to prank people. Since I never liked physical comedy, I tried to stay conceptual. Besides, while I have no problem wishing people dead, I did not necessarily want to be the cause of their demise. So my goal was to keep the pranks subtle.
I even pranked an agency where I wrote and produced nearly 100 radio commercials for their clients. I appreciated the work, but they ran their organization with complete contempt for their employees. For example, they would often use one of those disgusting Employee Motivation exercises that always fascinate the type of dink who lucks his way into management. Those “Motive-8” campaigns may excite the bootlickers of the business world but they embarrass the hell out of everyone else.
In the lunchroom of the agency was a huge stand-up display. It had a picture of a game board with portions labeled “Communication Corner,” “Teamwork Tunnel” and similar sixth-grade-level jargon. Moveable pieces were on the board, each representing one of the agency’s departments. I walked past this monstrosity each time I was in the lunchroom and couldn’t help noticing that no one was making any attempt to move the pieces. If people acknowledged the thing at all it was only to roll their eyes.
Around this time, I had been sent a CD by a band named Mr. Woody, whose logo was a drawing of a proudly smiling penis, also named Mr. Woody. A trip to the office copier and Mr. Woody was reproduced in the exact size of the board pieces. These images were glued on top of the board game’s moveable pieces and attached to the display.
No one said anything for weeks. One day, I was in the lunchroom with a member of the creative department. I pretended to suddenly notice Mr. Woody. I laughed and pointed him out at various sections of the display. The news spread quickly through the agency until one of the company’s executive nerds carted the whole useless thing away.
On another occasion, I changed a line of type on the Emergency Exit posters. Where they formerly said “You Are Here” I changed them to say things like “Not Mentally Here,” “No One Will Hear You Scream,” and “You Are Not Anywhere At All.” I was in and out of that place for several years and the posters never were corrected. Apparently, no one ever reads those things.
One ad agency bigwig complained to me about low productivity in his office. I told him I could speed everything up and it would only cost five hundred dollars. After he wrangled my price down to a hundred bucks, I had the receptionist order chocolate-covered espresso beans which we left in bowls all around the agency. That place was soon humming and I had more work from them than ever. Of course, everyone who gave me the jobs had deep circles under their eyes.
Ross Russell, in his excellent book, Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker, made a great observation about “the traditional odd employments of a writer,” including “advertising account executive, publicity director for a dragstrip, photographer for a bullfight monthly, teaching courses in Afro-American music at the University of California and continuation English to high school dropouts.”
My career paralleled his in several ways. Don’t believe me? Let’s take his items one at a time:
Advertising: While I was never one of “the suits” on the account management side, I did work with ad agencies and public relations firms off and on for years.
Auto racing: I wrote campaigns for an auto racetrack that featured weekly events including many forms of destruction derby, like “Chain Races,” where several autos are chained together for the racing action, and “Figure 8s,” where the racing autos must continually cross the path of on-coming racers. Either way, “mayhem ensues,” as one of our ads put it.
Unusual sports: I created TV and print ads for one of the teams in the short-lived USFL, the pro football league that played its games from February through July. At the time of production, not a single player had been signed so I was capturing images that might stand in for future players. I must have done okay because the TV spot and print ads resulted in the sale of 20,000 season tickets for a team that, at that point, didn’t actually exist.
Teaching: I spent one semester as “artist in residence” at a school in Compton as part of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This was an experience full of contradictory emotions for me. . .
Your City Lies in Dust
“Looks like you’ve had some fire damage,” I said on my first day during a tour of the inner city school.
“They come over the fence at night and set the lockers on fire,” one of the school administrators said. She didn’t elaborate on who “they” were, but sure enough, the lockers outside every classroom were charred and twisted. Some were fused tightly shut, others had their doors swinging slowly whenever they were caught by a breeze.
“Where do students keep their books?” I asked.
“What books?” was the chilling reply.
When I spoke to the kids in their classrooms, the pupils usually divided themselves into three sections. Clustered near the rear corner of the room were boys who were sitting in sullen silence.
“Don’t you be going back there,” one teacher told me.
“What’s their deal?” I asked.
“They’re just waiting until they’re old enough to leave school.”
I looked again. The guys were very stoic. None of them ever uttered a word. They just sat there.
“Do they ever say anything?” I asked.
“Never,” the tight-lipped teacher told me. “Not a single word, ever.”
On the one hand, I was appalled at their steadfast refusal to take part in anything. On the other hand, I had a grudging admiration for their will power. Man, if they had put a bit of that commitment into learning, just think what they could have accomplished. At moments like that, I felt ashamed to be working in advertising and public relations because those pursuits seem to ignore society’s challenges.
The students in the middle of the room were all restless wiseass jerks. Sure, some were pretty funny, but mostly they were members of the spitball-and-paper-airplane brigade. This is what any school class can become if a teacher loses control of the situation. And control sure appeared tenuous to me in that place.
Sitting up front in the first two rows were the few students who wanted to learn. They were ready, willing, and able to soak up any information you could give them. I was someone from the outside world and since that represented new data and new points of view, they seemed happy to interact with me.
We talked about art, movies, the media, and the English language. We examined George Bernard Shaw’s observations about phonetics. I put “tioght” on the blackboard and they enjoyed seeing how it can be pronounced “shift.” (The “ti” from “nation,” the “o” from “‘women,” the “gh” from “tough,” and the “t” from the end of “that.”)
I brought in my 16mm camera and we spent several weeks making a documentary about their school. The School Board administrators were uninterested in it until the kids and the teachers demanded they view it. Whereupon a special assembly was set up to present it to the entire student body. Afterwards, I gave the film to the school with the idea that something like it could be completed each semester or each year. Never heard if anything was ever done.
I regret to this day that I did not stay in touch with any of the students. Perhaps one of them will read this and let me know where they are and what they’re doing today. It would be great to hear if anything created even a slight tioght in their lives.
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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.