Small book, big wisdom

I’ve spent many years in the advertising industry, and from time to time, people ask me if there are any books about the craft of creating advertising I’ve found particularly valuable. I’ve read many, but the single most influential upon my work is a tattered 1972 paperback that still occupies a prominent place on my bookshelf.

Called “Madvertising (or Up Madison Ave.),” the book was created by the same geniuses who guided Mad Magazine through its glory years. If that seems odd, consider that many of those writers and artists had cut their teeth in the advertising industry. They used the book to skewer (and perhaps, atone for) the many tricks and techniques major advertisers employ.

They were particularly brutal when it came to the arguments presented by those of us who are copywriters. In a play on the promotional materials used by record clubs (if you’re under 50, that may need some explanation), the copy notes: “All records must meet our rigid specifications,” followed by an explanation of “They must be round and have a hole in the middle.” The copy goes on to say, “they are guaranteed to be brand new and have never been played. To be sure they have never been played, we play each one three or four times.”

They poke fun at those evil disclaimers at the bottom of ads — and mind you, this is long before automotive lease and home equity ads appeared. An ad for a remarkably low round-trip airfare deal included this “mice type:” “Fly any Wednesday during Passover that the plane is less than 1/8 full, including the crew, and you must stay in Miami for at least two years, four months, three weeks, and five days and return on a windy Thursday in Lent on any flight that is carrying penguins as air freight.” I think that’s less restrictive than some of today’s cell phone deals.

The book explores misleading headlines, carefully cropped photos, packaging sins, games played with statistics, and more. For me, the best part is an illustration of my all-time favorite advertising strategy: “Nobody has ever died from eating our brand!”