If you were a brand, what would you be?
Are you a Lexus or a Volvo?
Nike or Adidas?
McDonald's or Burger King?
I spent 17 years working as a copywriter. These are the kinds of questions often bandied about in ad agencies and focus groups. We also talk about how awful the word "bandied" is.
I spent a lot of time between projects — early mornings, late at night — working on my other writing, trying to escape advertising. Not that I didn't like it. I just wanted to see if I could make it outside that world. The jury remains out on that.
So imagine my surprise when, having finally sold my first novel (which was released yesterday), my publisher asked me to write a commercial for it.
They said, "Look. We've given you everything you asked for. We gave you an advance of well over a million dollars. We gave you a helicopter. We arranged for you to have a coffee with Miss France. Now we need you to do something for us."
This isn't exactly how the conversation went.
It was more like, "Look. Most of us haven't read your book and we're not exactly sure what your name is, but we hear you used to work in advertising, so maybe do a little promo thingy for it."
It's always struck me as strange that book advertising seems locked in a world 50 years ago. Largely bland print ads with lots of blurbs or 15-second videos with bad stock images and a voice-over speaking purplish prose. "Guy Finkle thought he knew what to expect when he went to the barber. Guy Finkle was in for the surprise haircut of his life."
Admit it. You kind of want to know what happened to poor Guy Finkle, don't you? He died, okay? He died of an atrocious, violent haircut. Happy now?
I sat down to try to write a commercial for my book.
And promptly blanked.
What ideas I did have were horrible. One example:
A spoof of the famous "Mean Joe Greene" Coke spot where I'm the kid and my editor is Mean Joe Greene. And I hand her the book and not a Coke. And she reads it. Except then she would have had to give me her shirt, like Mean Joe did with the kid who hands him the Coke. Which is weird. And her husband is a former Green Beret and threatened to beat me to a pulp if I mentioned the shirt idea again.
Then I called my old art-director partner from my days at Ogilvy & Mather, Rick Knief. He's a director now. He had a great idea: do a fake focus group.
The publishers loved it. I remember their exact words. "We love this more than your book!"
Actually, David Falk, associate publisher at Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster, threw himself into the project with us and was invaluable. As was my editor, Sally Kim.
We had a day to shoot it and almost no money.
But we had Rick, and Rick is a genius.
Mind you, it is not uncommon for a client like a large bank or sneaker company to spend half a million dollars on production costs for a commercial alone. And that number can go up fast, depending on the number of days you're shooting, the number of people in the spot, the special effects, the music, a famous voice-over.
We called some actors we knew — people we'd worked with before. We found a focus-group facility. Rick baked the brownies that we would use in the video. A crew of five, including Rick and myself.
In the future, I think we're going to see a lot more promotional films like this. They're not hard to do. You just need an idea. Or Rick.
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John Kenney has worked as a copywriter in New York City for 17 years. He has also been a contributor to the New Yorker since 1999. Some of his work appears in a collection of the New Yorker’s humor writing, Disquiet, Please! He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
John Kenney is the author of Truth in Advertising