John Fanning profiles Howard Gossage, hardly a household name but a man widely respected and liked by his peers in US adland and beyond
Howard Gossage is revered as one of the most influential creative talents in advertising of all time by some of the most distinguished creative directors in the business yet remains unknown to most people working in advertising today. The main details of his career are undistinguished. He began working in advertising promotions in the 1950’s.
He set up his own agency in San Francisco in 1958. It never employed more than a dozen people, never made any screen commercials when TV was becoming dominant and was closed soon after his death a decade later. However, Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners believed that “the best of Gossage is the best advertising that has ever been done”.
Goodby placed a photo of Gossage in his agency’s reception to inspire his staff. Alex Bogusky is quoted in a YouTube video said that it would be impossible to overestimate the influence that Gossage had on Crispin Porter Bogusky. In the early years, he and his colleagues would sit around and ask themselves ‘what would Gossage do? – and it worked.
So who was Howard Luck Gossage and why did he make such an impression in the world of advertising? Well, he was born in Chicago in 1917, before his family moved to New York a few years later. He studied in Kansas University and was drafted into the arm services in World War II where he served as a navy pilot winning two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Like many of his generation he was traumatised by the experience and never spoke about it; sharing personal traumas was not commonplace then. After the war, he joined a radio station in Oakland as a promotions manager. He went to Europe on the GI Bill to study sociology in Paris and Geneva. On his return to the US, he joined an ad agency in San Francisco.
The agency he founded in Frisco in 1957 was housed in an iconic Victorian firehouse building. He was a charismatic personality, who never thought of himself as handsome although most people thought he was strikingly so. He was intellectually curious, an omnivorous reader with an encyclopaedic knowledge about music and literature.
He became known as the ‘Socrates of San Francisco’. One colleague said Gossage ate, flew, wrote, travelled and talked first class. He also drank, smoked and swore; heavily in all three cases. It was said that he was a man ever in search of an elegant solution to life’s problems who had certain faith that an intelligent person would elect to be generous rather than selfish.
He had a peripatetic childhood; “the smell of poverty, inadequacy and social unacceptability was never far away”. He felt unloved by his parents and developed an actor’s need for the spotlight. Steve Harrison points out that David Ogilvy and Gossage had similar upbringings.
Ogilvy’s biographer said that to understand the man you had to grasp that he was an actor.
Gossage’s first client was wine company Paul Masson at a time when wine was a distinctly minority drink in the United States. His agency’s launch ad was a characteristically provocative attempt to convert Americans to the delights of the vine: ‘Wine collecting takes up less space than antique cars, is quieter than hi-fi and it tastes better than stamps’.
Four paragraphs followed with the copy ending with an invite to write to the company and receive a wine labels collection, ‘to give you a collector’s feel right away’. It was a formula Gossage was to repeat for the rest of his life; a completely unexpected headline, beautifully written copy ending with a coupon to contact the advertiser on some pretext or other.
Account planning was still 10 years away, not that Gossage would pay any heed and he would also have ignored a brief if there had been one, but he was an instinctive high-level strategist. Instead of taking the obvious approach of trying to educate middle class Americans about a subject they knew little about, he reframed the category for hobbyists and collectors.
It was a risky strategy, but original enough to attract attention and interest. His launch ad for Qantas in the US followed the same path; ‘Be the first person on your block to own a Kangaroo’. One insertion in the New Yorker generated over 7,500 responses but the more long-term effect was that Qantas earned instant awareness among the travelling public.
Inventive beyond words: Born in Chicago in 1917, Howard Gossage set up his own agency in California in 1958. He was a charismatic and intellectual character, known as the ‘Socrates of San Francisco’. He is said to have known more about music than musicians and more about literature than writers. The former navy pilot, who fought with distinction in WWII, stamped his talent on the way he tackled advertising and promotions without making a single TV ad.
It also created an attractive personality for the brand perfectly in tune with its Australian pedigree. In another classic Qantas ad, Gossage devised a competition for the airline inviting readers to submit an explanation for why there was no ‘u’ in the title again eliciting a huge response but also embedding the brand name in people’s consciousness.
Howard’s mischievous mind also devised a headline for a car client based on a famous ad for Rolls Royce: ‘At 60 miles an hour the loudest sound in this new Land Rover comes from the roar of the engine’. The not so oblique nod to Ogilvy was appreciated, he invited Gossage to lunch who inscribed a copy of the ad; ‘To David, Imitation is the sincerest form of larceny’.
He was incapable of adopting a conventional approach but there was more method in his madness than was often realised. His best known ad for Fina Petrol included a long headline which took up most of the ad: ‘If you’re driving down the road and you see a Fina station and it’s on your side so you don’t have to make a U-turn through traffic and there aren’t six cars ahead of you and you need gas or something, please stop in’.
He believed that motorists could not tell one brand of petrol from another so why not accept this and make a polite laid back appeal for consideration. In doing so, he managed to create a highly distinctive image and attractive identity for the brand. The disarming honesty of the approach was deliberately designed to overcome consumer indifference.
There is an important Irish dimension to his story because one of the most famous Gossage campaigns was for the grandly named Whiskey Distillers of Ireland. The initial impetus for the campaign came from the then Taoiseach, Sean Lemass (right). In the late 1950’s Ireland was in the throes of an economic recession that made the recent financial crash look like a picnic.
Lemass believed that a possible way to provide some finance for the beleaguered State was to sell more whiskey in the US which would release it from bond so as to collect the taxes. William Walsh, CEO at the Irish export board, Coras Tráchtála Teoranta (CTT), was entrusted with the task. Being an entrepreneurial visionary, who ran various government agencies in the late 1950’s and 60’s, he travelled to the US himself and was so impressed with the Qantas campaign that he took a chance on the small San Francisco agency.
Gossage travelled to Ireland to get a feel for the group and the nine different distilleries involved and quickly became enamoured with the Gaelic word ‘Flaithulach’ which he had translated as “princely, exuberant generosity and lavishness”. This, he decided, was the core essence of Irish whiskey but I can’t help feeling that he spotted himself in there too.
He went on to create a series of memorable full page ads with long discursive copy of between 600 and 800 words. One of the reasons they became iconic was that they stopped in mid-sentence with a line in small print at the end of the page – ‘to be continued in the next ad’. He claimed this happened by accident, saying “I’d simply written too much copy for the first ad so I said hell, let’s stop here and continue in the next ad”.
PRIDE OR PROFIT
One of the objectives of the campaign was to wean Americans off the idea that Irish whiskey was essentially a drink to be consumed with coffee and cream. In a typical Gossage move, he invented the Boston Coffee Party to which participants were invited to throw their coffee into the harbour and drink neat Irish whiskey. Another ad from the same series invited readers to choose whether they drank their Irish whiskey from a ‘profit’ or ‘pride’ motive.
There were people who gloried in the profits generated for Irish whiskey brands to those who consumed it with coffee and cream. The copy describes the second group, ‘the Prides’ as those who are ‘proud of the taste, proud of the altogether distinctive, burnished, but emphatic flavour of Irish whiskey – they claim the subtlety is quite drowned out in Irish Coffee’.
As usual, there was a coupon for readers to respond with an illustration of two badges; Pride and Profit. Readers were invited to fill out the coupon and declare their preference. The consumer response was such that the badges had to be reprinted three times. But the most interesting aspect of Gossage’s Irish interlude was a campaign that never actually ran.
When he was in Ireland soaking up the culture before writing the Irish whiskey ads he was also asked to propose a campaign for the Irish tourist board, Bord Fáilte. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the book generally credited with kick-starting the environmental movement, was creating excitement and controversy in equal measure across the US.
Gossage was an early convert to the embryonic movement. Therefore, his first reaction to the possibility of an Irish tourist boom was to create a more up-market sophisticated image for the country and to banish what he termed the ‘Disneyland of leprechauns, Mother Machrees and Paddywhackery’ which had characterised many Americans’ view of Ireland.
Wanting to protect the country from an anticipated tourist boom, he devised a campaign that would take the form of a questionnaire which intending visitors would have to complete before being accepted as potential tourists to ensure that they were sufficiently cultivated to ‘enhance the lives and enrich the experience of their host’ – namely, the people of Ireland.
If they passed the test, they would be allowed in on payment of a large entry fee; after all, you can’t expect to become a member of an exclusive club for nothing? He hoped Ireland would become a “land free from crass commercialism and also an aspirational tourist destination”. Lemass presented the campaign to his Cabinet colleagues who turned it down.
However, ironically today, 60 years later, some European tourist destinations like Venice and Dubrovnik are toying with the idea of limiting tourist numbers by charging entry fees. A campaign for the Scientific American magazine displays the full force of Gossage’s idiosyncratic style, extraordinary strategic planning and completely original creative mind.
The aim was to increase ad revenue by persuading advertisers to include the magazine in their media schedules. Gossage decided to focus on one product category; airlines, on the grounds that many of the readers were likely to be frequent flyers. The campaign idea was classic Gossage – said to be the first International Paper Airplane Competition.
Detailed copy followed talking about developments in Boeing and Lockheed engine design. It was then outrageously claimed that these designs had been emulated by amateur paper airplane designers decades previously; “we do not mean to question the men at Boeing and Lockheed or their use of traditional forms but it seems to us unjust that several million paper plane designers around the world are not given due credit”.
The ad called for competition entries 11,000 from 28 countries. The story was covered in all the main national newspapers and TV channels across the US. American Airlines even provided airline passengers with entry blanks and paper for creating designs in-flight. As a result Scientific American, started to see a rise in ad bookings from airlines.
The fact that Gossage is not well known in advertising today has more to do with the insular attitude we often adopt and the lack of curiosity with anything that happened yesterday, let alone 60 or 70 years ago. But I believe we can learn an awful lot from him, which is directly relevant to our time. For a start, his emphasis on creatively distinctive advertising has never gone away and is arguably more vital in today’s noisier digital world.
I heard it said recently that young people these days are less interested in ads. They would do well to dwell on one of Gossage’s most quoted lines; “no one reads ads, people read what interests them and sometimes it’s an ad”. That is as true in today’s digital, always-on world as it has ever been. The need to create ads that interest people has never been greater.
Gossage’s advertising looked and sounded better than others because he set out to appeal to his audience on a higher level and in a more personal way. He also believed that his first loyalty was to the audience, not the client or agency. The second reason for his continuing relevance is because of his anticipation of the recently mentioned digital age.
The mid-late 1960’s air in San Francisco was infused not just with cannabis and other drugs but also with intimations of the digital age which would not emerge until 30 years later. But the city was already home to the Grateful Dead, the cult pioneering rock group that urged fans to record shows and trade tapes. They developed a mailing list and sold tickets direct.
The band built its business model on live concerts rather than album sales, cultivating a “dedicated active community collaborating with their audience to co-create a deadhead life style, giving away ‘freemium’ content thus pioneering many of the marketing concepts we now associate with the digital age”. Frisco was also the home of the Whole Earth Catalog.
The publication was described by Steve Jobs as his ‘bible’ when growing up and the equivalent of Google 30 years before its arrival. Gossage’s colleague, the wonderfully-named Jerry Mander, was on the editorial board of the catalogue. Gossage was heavily involved in the artistic and intellectual life of the city and it could be argued that in his approach to advertising he was anticipating some of the new age’s coming communication innovations.
His writing style tried to create a more personalised approach. He once said that he didn’t know how to talk to everyone, only to someone. The interesting word there is ‘talk’, he regarded good advertising as the “start of a riveting conversation”. Also, the coupons that accompanied most of his ads were there to encourage co-creation.
One contemporary said he “advocated and created the kind of work that invited involvement from the audience, that went out to them on their own terms and got them to laugh, think, send something in, make a suggestion, appreciate something that they might never have noticed”. Read that sentence carefully and consider how digital age he was in the 1960’s.
But this is not surprising given that much of the theory underlying what would emerge in the digital age was being actively discussed in San Francisco, in particular the work of Norbert Weiner, the mathematician and philosopher who originated the term cybernetics to describe the nature of feedback which was to become a feature of the digital age.
The old communication model was passive; sender, medium, message. But Weiner foresaw how machines would transform communications as a process of interaction; “I send something out to you, you in turn send something back to me and this, in turn, triggers another communication so we go forward together”. Gossage was instinctively trying to simulate this process in his advertising. He also understood that for people to respond, the original message had to be much more interesting than conventional advertising.
The third reason why his work deserves to be re-examined is that he was arguably the first and unquestionably the most forceful advocate for marketing communications becoming involved in societal activism. He had come to adopt this position from two different strands of his thinking. The first was his deep suspicion of the ethics and morality of advertising.
He believed advertising led to unnecessary levels of consumption and was a very early advocate of limiting consumption; “there must be some sounder prospect than that of endlessly consuming more, force feeding like so many Strasberg geese”. He was dubious about the economic worth of advertising and contemptuous of its aesthetics. He believed that outdoor advertising was a blot on the landscape; “I like billboards, I just don’t like them outdoors”. He disliked the commission system which was the main method of payment at the time. He only worked for fees and was concerned about media’s dependence on ad revenue.
However, Gossage’s dislike for his chosen profession must be put in context. During the 1950’s and 60’s, US advertising was arguably more powerful than at any other time in history. Two important best-selling books at the time, JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, castigated the ad industry.
Galbraith made the more substantial case accusing advertising of “moulding and manipulating the public morals in a way never seen before in a democratic society”. Packard went even further, telling tales of admen using psychological research and psychiatry to plumb the depths of our unconscious to uncover deep insights which could be used to manipulate consumer buying behaviour without people’s knowledge.
The book was full of loaded language, the juxtaposition of vague truths with spurious speculation and an almost complete absence of empirical evidence for any of the allegations. The real crime of ads then was that they were boring and insulting to the intelligence. In comparison to today, budgets for the leading consumer goods were so large that advertisers could afford to bomb their audience into submission, with endlessly repetitive mindless ads.
But even in the 1950’s, a backlash was underway and when a creative revolution led by Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy in New York produced more elegant thoughtful and sophisticated ads, the dominance of the unique selling proposition (USP) came to an end. Operating in the less noisy western side of the US, Gossage was equally appalled at the crassness of most of the industry output and made his own unique contribution to the creative revolution. However, unlike his fellow revolutionaries, he was highly vocal in his criticisms.
It was no accident that his only book was titled, Is There Any Hope for Advertising? But a second line of thinking on the subject partly answered that question because he believed that ads had the potential to do good by making the world more civilised, particularly with regard to the environment. He longed for the day when advertising could become an occupation for adults. He famously said: “Changing the world is the only fit subject for a grown man.”
He was determined to do just that. One of his first clients was the Sierra Club, a foundation established in San Francisco in 1892 to protect the wilderness and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources. When the government announced plans to build dams in the Grand Canyon, impacting on the spectacular beauty of the place, the agency produced a classic Gossage ad; long, stylishly-written copy explaining details of the proposal.
The ad outlined why the plans should be opposed, with coupons addressed to legislators from readers voicing their disapproval and a vintage headline; ‘Maybe We Should Flood the Sistine Chapel so the Tourists Get Closer to the Ceiling’. Shortly afterwards, the client at the Sierra Club was let go as it is thought that he may have exceeded the promotional budget.
He decided to set up another environmental group and asked Gossage to come up with a name. What emerged was Friends of the Earth. In another pro bono campaign consisting of one ad in the New York Times, he claimed to have secured independence for the small Caribbean island of Anguilla. Britain had threatened to merge it with two other much bigger islands, the Anguillians refused and contacted Gossage. He crowd-funded the money for the ad which created enough of a fuss that Britain decided to abandon the plan.
Gossage was convinced that advertising should be used more by institutions like the Sierra Club but also that businesses should contribute to a more civilised society; “I see no reason why advertising shouldn’t take a stand that may be unpopular with some people, or even a lot of people; there’s a good deal more room for corporate expression than people realise, it’s good for companies to speak out”.
He would have been amused to see more and more companies taking his advice in the 21st century. His final lesson for us today may be the most important of all; the need for marketing communications to have a more acute understanding of the intellectual currents that are making or are about to make waves in our society.
Artists in different disciplines are invariably gifted with the ‘psychic secrets of the time’ and marketing communications infused with this thinking is always going to be more effective. I can think of no adman in this or any other century who cultivated such a wide range of intellectual firepower. Gossage was once described as having a ‘salon-type of mentality’ and he regularly presided over rumbustious gatherings in the Victorian firehouse.
Lunch at the agency became a San Francisco institution where it became the centre for all kinds of intellectual gatherings, fashion shows, art previews and seminars. Guests who arrived regularly for lunches, cocktails or dinners included novelists John Steinbeck and Tom Wolfe, writer Jessica Mitford, world-renowned paediatrician Benjamin Spock, architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, film director John Huston, comedian Stan Freberg and a then obscure Canadian academic by the name of Marshall McLuhan (above).
One of the participants wrote later about “legendary lunches where you’d find yourself building a pastrami sandwich beside Dr Benjamin Spock, pouring a beer for John Steinbeck, listening to Buckminster Fuller or laughing at the bad jokes of Marshall McLuhan”. The latter was only becoming well known thanks to Gossage, a voracious reader, who had picked up on something McLuhan had written in an obscure academic journal.
He instinctively realised the importance of McLuhan’s theories on how different media affect us personally and phoned him in Canada with the irresistible line “McLuhan, do you want to be famous?” He then undertook to make him a celebrity by opening all kinds of doors for him in West Coast society and popularising his theories in his many articles for literary journals.
McLuhan’s most famous publication, Understanding Media, published in 1964, concluded that technology’s impact on the individual was so profound that content became almost irrelevant compared to the medium through which it was transmitted. In the 1960’s, he already saw the world as an ‘electronic village’ with everyone connected to everyone else.
Gossage understood that we were entering an age when generalists would be the only ones capable of understanding the changes he intuitively felt were on the way. He believed that in order to understand the new age we needed to step outside our own specialised area and take account of the wider world. He summed this up in his own inimitable way; “I don’t know who invented water but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish”.
Howard Luck Gossage was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1967 and given six months to live. He returned to the agency announcing that the diagnosis was fatal but not serious. Never a man to do things by half he lived for another year. After his death, his agency partners considered selling the business but felt that Howard would have been horrified.
So they simply settled all debts and quietly dissolved the company. It was probably for the best. Adland was about to become infused with what Stephen King witheringly referred to as “city values” which would have been equally offensive to Gossage. He was as well out of it. He had established his role among the advertising immortals, neatly summed up by Rory Sutherland: “Gossage is the Velvet Underground to Ogilvy’s Beetles and Bernbach’s Stones; never a household name but to the cognoscenti, a lot more inspirational and influential.”
Main references for this article: The Book of Gossage. A Compilation by Friends including his main publication; Is There Any Hope for Advertising? The Copy Workshop. 1995. Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man. Steve Harrison. 2012 Adworld Press.
John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School; firstname.lastname@example.org