My first real job, at 21, was a minor position at the legendary ad agency Scali, McCabe, Sloves. The firm was famous for stark imagery and smart, arresting headlines, and it was there that I fell in love with the co-dependence of form and content, of a bright idea smartly articulated and illustrated. I absorbed all the hallway conversations and took classes at SVA given by the firm’s top creatives, one of whom advised us to “only give ‘em 75 percent of the message. Make ‘em think about that last 25 percent. Make ‘em fill in the blank.”
The idea was that engagement with the message creates retention of that message. Perhaps that’s why obvious “Buy Now”-type ads that are all call-to-action minus even a scintilla of come-hither cleverness wash right over me. (I’ve probably missed out on a lot of great President’s Day White Sales because of that.) I crave that 25 percent. I’ll negotiate down to 20, even 15; just show me that you tried.
In 2009 JetBlue launched its Flyer’s Collection campaign, a catalogue of phony products that travelers on other airlines would need in order to experience something like the pleasures of flying on JetBlue. It was so well conceived and executed that first exposure to it induced a double-take. First you’d ask yourself “What is that?” and then read the copy to find out. I got a 35 percent jolt out of that.
Of course, there are those ads of such a bizarre nature or contain such blatantly quirky content that you can’t help but stare at them. The New York subway system is a haven for such comical and curious advertising. There’s the infamous zit guy, Dr. Zizmor, of course, who at long last received the parody he deserves with Comedy Central's fake Puppy Lift ads.
For several years one ubiquitous ad for a law firm (don’t ask which one, I couldn’t tell you) has as its central image a tight close-up of longtime local newscaster John Roland. I hadn’t seen or thought about the man in years, and boy did he get old, especially at that dpi. (The blogger Adam Sacks created some wicked parodies of this ad.) Beneath Roland’s headshot is a disclaimer, in type sized for clarity: “Compensated spokesperson”. Though in the ad he does not speak. No quote in the headline. Nothing. Nor any other reference to him. Perhaps the idea is that this photo alone could cause mass whiplash among straphangers, producing a stream of angry litigants to the firm’s offices intent on suing the MTA. So hypnotic is Roland’s gaze that I find myself staring back at it regularly. It’s perverse, I know, but I find myself thinking about this ad a lot.
Just not in the way my old Scali mentors intended.