Lessons from Howard Luck Gossage

Several years ago I discovered a delightful and somewhat rare book called The Book Of Gossage about the life and times of San Francisco ad legend Howard Luck Gossage, who practiced his trade back in the 50s and 60s out of a restored firehouse on Pacific Avenue.  Some of you may remember Gossage as the man who came up with the Great Paper Airplane contest to promote Scientific American magazine, or the kangaroo giveaway for Qantas Airline.

We can also thank Gossage for recruiting the dry wit of comedian Stan Freeberg to the world of advertising, producing wildly successful campaigns for clients like Contadina tomato paste (“Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?  You know who. You know who.” After an awkward silence, the announcer would finally give the client’s name at the very end, just in case you didn’t know.)

Gossage was also ahead of his time on the subject of media commissions.  His policy was to rebate all commissions to his clients because he worked on retainer.  I’ve always liked retainers because they put you “on the team” and remove the necessity of selling additional media buys or projects that might not need to be done.  If you want objectivity, why put your agency in the position of having to sell you things to make enough money to staff adequately to handle your account?

I’ve written frequently about the importance of stickiness in advertising.  Gossage’s ads were always sticky because he liked to use coupons.  Sometimes, the stuff he gave away had no value whatsoever, like the “shirtkerchief” for Eagle Shirtmakers, which was merely a way to demonstrate their quality fabrics and stitching.  Or the free “Pink Air” coupon for Fina gasoline, which was a total hoax around the idea that since everything else at a Fina station had already been perfected with additives, making the air that goes in tires pink was the only additional improvement they could think of.

Every time Howard Gossage ran an ad with a tiny coupon in the lower right corner, thousands of people would cut it out, put it in an envelope with a stamp and mail it in.  This whole idea of involving the reader in the message was one of Gossage’s primary contributions to our craft, and sadly, it appears to have faded from the landscape.

The Book Of Gossage includes another book called Is There Any Hope For Advertising?, which consists of many of his speeches to ad groups.  It was published by the University of Illinois Press posthumously in 1986.  (Gossage died in 1969 of leukemia, a disease he said his doctor characterized as “fatal, but not serious.”)  This book-within-a-book describes many of his unique views on the nature and state of advertising, which Gossage obviously felt was badly in need of improvement.

One of his more salient observations had to do with the demise of our “free press.”  Gossage’s point was that we lost freedom of the press at precisely the same moment that newspaper and magazine publishers quit raising their subscription prices to cover the cost of publication.  When they decided that subscription costs only needed to cover a portion of the total expenses, with advertising revenue making up the difference, the decision about whether or not that publication was worth publishing was taken from the reader and transferred to the advertiser.   It’s an issue broadcast and print media managers are struggling with today – how can we charge for content in ways that are acceptable to people who want that content?

It bothered Howard Gossage a lot that many advertisers were trying to solve communication problems by throwing huge sums of “big stick” media money at them.  His favorite phrase was, “using a billion dollar hammer to pound a ten-cent thumbtack.”

Gossage asked us to consider how often you need to read a book, a news story or see a movie or play?  He joked, “If it is interesting, once is enough; if it is dull, once is plenty.”

So when he created print ads, he often did it with the notion that you were going to read each and every ad, and get the intended message without needing to run that particular ad again.  One famous low budget campaign he is known for was a series of ads for the Whiskey Distillers of Ireland in which he ended each ad in mid-sentence with copy picking up right where it left off the next week.

This is revolutionary stuff to a b-to-b guy like me.  My concern has always been about how many times we can run an ad before response drops off.  The problem with this, of course, is that most B2B ads are puffy, self-absorbed exercises in chest-thumping.

Maybe if we started thinking about ways to involve our readers and viewers in the message, once would be enough.

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