Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man: the story of Howard Luck Gossage, an adman who hated the ‘mad men’ and the hard sell campaigns they produced.
Specially for SOFII Fergal Byrne interviews Steve Harrison, an accomplished copywriter of some standing in UK creative marketing and author of a recently published book of the above title, subtitled, ‘An eyewitness account of Howard Luck Gossage:1960s America’s most innovative, influential and irreverent advertising genius’.
This is the story of the 1960s adman who hated the ‘mad men’ and the hard sell campaigns they produced. So he set out to change the industry – and in so doing helped change the world. David Ogilvy called him ‘the most articulate rebel in the advertising business.’ In Ogilvy on Advertising he commended Gossage’s belief that ‘advertising is too valuable an instrument to waste on commercial products... it justified itself only when it was used for social purposes.’
Which, in itself, makes Howard Luck Gossage the ideal adman for the SOFII site.
FB: What is the book about?
SH:On its most immediate level, it is the story of a 1960s adman who was so far ahead of his time that we’re only just catching up with his ideas. In the late 1950s he introduced a style of informal, involving advertising that he called ‘interactive’. Using press ads and couponed calls to action, he also set out to build communities, inviting readers to respond even when there was nothing for sale.
By producing such participatory work, he encouraged people to ‘opt in’ and identify with the brands he was promoting. In short, he was building communities 40 years before anyone ever applied that term to a loyal brand following.
Moreover, he was the first adman to build public relations into his communications plan. He would write an ad aimed at generating publicity, then he would use other platforms to amplify his message way beyond anything that could be achieved via conventional channels.
Until the mid 1960s he applied all of the above to his commercial clients. However in 1966 he started to do the cause-related work that really interested him. This is where his genius is of most relevance to the SOFII community.
FB: As far as fundraisers are concerned, what is the main message of the book?
SH:This brings me to the other thing that ‘this book is about’ – or its broader message. Gossage was a ‘can do’ hero – and the kind with whom SOFII readers will surely identify. When he saw a problem, he didn’t just sit around bemoaning the situation, as he said, ‘You can’t stop dogs pissing on fire hydrants’ (a more elegant form of the current saying: ‘shit happens’), instead he’d set about solving the problem himself. If this meant taking on forces infinitely stronger than him, then he welcomed the fight. If it meant spending a lot of his own money, then he was willing to do this. And if it meant him courting controversy, then he was delighted to do so.
As he said to his colleague Dugald Stermer: ‘Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man.’ I’m sure SOFII readers will endorse such a view. I also think that, in light of the indifference they must sometimes experience when trying to alert people to the need for change, Gossage’s viewpoint will be encouraging. Indeed the general public has become so emasculated by the culture of dependence that they’re suspicious of the kind of altruistic individualism that Gossage represented. However, while others may be happy to blame the state, the government, the corporation, or whatever big institution they see as controlling their destiny, Gossage would have rejected this form of consumerism and set about galvanising the people into solving the problems themselves. He was a very inspirational individual – an instinctive world-changer.
FB: When he helped save the Grand Canyon from being dammed, what was Gossage’s big breakthrough idea?
SH:There were, in fact, three.
The first was when David Brower, who is commonly regarded as the father of modern environmentalism, came to seek Howard Gossage’s help in stopping the damming of the Grand Canyon. Gossage gave him this advice: the people most likely to support the campaign that Brower had been running were those who were already sympathetic to the cause. Yet the danger lay in the fact that, by raising this issue, Brower had made those people feel guilty because they then felt helpless to do anything about the problem.
Which meant that David Brower had actually been alienating his most loyal supporters.
As Gossage told David Brower: ‘You’ve got to give people recourse. You’ve got to give them something they can do so they don’t feel guilty and therefore hate you for making them feel guilty.’ Gossage allowed people the opportunity to do something. Which brings us to the second breakthrough idea.
He ran a full-page ad in the New York Times explaining that the damming of the Grand Canyon would create a 148-mile lake in the canyon’s gorge. The ad had a series of six coupons down the right hand side of the page, the first addressed to the US president, the second to the secretary of the interior and the rest were addressed to other influential politicians. Readers were then invited to send these coupons off with their message of opposition to the damming of the Grand Canyon.
It was the first time that ordinary Americans had been allowed to put pressure on decision-makers at the highest level – and the response was immense.
Gossage’s third big idea lay in the headline and its reference to the ‘flooding’ of the gorge. He knew that the ad had to attract attention and generate publicity. The campaign about the dams had been running for five years and had failed. What he did was inject the sensational news about the creation of a huge lake and it was this that stimulated the public outcry. The fact that it wasn’t necessarily true didn’t bother Gossage. He had achieved his objective i.e. the attention grabbing headline that would generate more news headlines and make the story into a national issue.
FB: As the man who helped David Brower set up Friends of the Earth, was Gossage what we’d today call an ‘environmentalist’?
SH:I think he developed into one just as he was helping create the sensibility that spawned the environmental movement. Prior to Gossage’s work with David Brower, there was no such thing as environmentalism. Indeed, people referred to their natural habitat as just that, ’nature’. It was only after Gossage got involved with David Brower that the term ‘environment’ supplanted ‘nature’. And it was only then that people who cared about the environment began to form themselves into a pressure group with real political clout.
FB: Your book says that Gossage introduced a new form of cause-related advertising, can you describe it?
SH:After the Grand Canyon campaign, Gossage and a colleague, the great copywriter Jerry Mander, worked with David Brower on numerous environmental campaigns. They fought for everything from the creation of Redwood National Park to the banning of supersonic transport planes (what we knew as Concorde) being built in the USA.
As Jerry Mander said to me, ‘Howard Gossage believed it was possible to use advertising to create issues and cause discussions. With just one insertion and a few dollars he could cause big things to happen. He invented that style, that way of speaking and that kind of shocking way of presenting things so that a subject or point of view broke out that had, up until then, not been discussed publicly. He was an iconoclast. He said he liked to throw a pebble in the water and see the ripples.’
FB: What lesson can fundraisers learn from Howard Gossage today?
SH:Fundraisers have learned that early lesson about what Gossage called ‘recourse’ and now give the public a means to respond and help solve problems.
But maybe they could learn from him in how they identify and describe a problem. Gossage was a genius at identifying the issue that people could get angry about and then ensuring that it was in fact solvable. Fundraisers today need a similar approach. For example, when I see campaigns such as ‘Make Poverty History’ and NSPCC’s ‘Full Stop’ campaign it strikes me that these are a) unrealistic aims and b) too big for the individual to feel that they can have any real contribution to their solution.
Fundraisers could learn a lesson from Gossage’s use of integrated communications i.e. using advertising as merely the starting point for their communications plan. Gossage regarded PR as fundamental to his campaigns and he always looked for alternative platforms to amplify the message. Perhaps fundraisers could do more to integrate their messaging in this way.
Finally we should also remember that Gossage and Jerry Mander weren’t just expert in identifying issues and expressing them in emotive headlines. They assumed their audience was intelligent and interested enough to read a well-reasoned account of the issues involved. Gossage’s ads used long copy to explain the facts. I think fundraisers nowadays should have more faith in their readers’ ability to absorb an argument.
As Gossage famously said, ‘People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.’ If you’ve hit upon a cause that grabs your readers’ interest and have expressed it in a headline that gets their attention then you should set out your argument and convert their interest into action – and, hopefully, money for the cause.