Monday, September 12, 2011

Six Authors Who Were Copywriters First

From The Awl: Six Authors Who Were Copywriters First
or many writers struggling for publication, advertising has proven a useful field (it does pay, after all): F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, Dorothy Sayers, Don DeLillo, Joseph Heller and Helen Gurley Brown all worked as copywriters early in their careers—some with more success than others. Rushdie came up with "Naughty. But nice" cream cakes for Ogilvy & Mather; Sayers introduced "Just think what Toucan do" to Guinness and founded a dotty, fictional (and wildly popular) "Mustard Club"; and, thanks to Fitzgerald, streetcars in Iowa once ran with the promise "We keep you clean in Muscatine" sparkling on their sides.

Yet for all six, advertising was mostly just a means to an end—a day job to keep them solvent until they were lucky enough to leave. But their time in advertising wasn't a waste: as copywriters, some learned how to write economically and on deadline; others discovered fertile subjects in the office life and business culture around them; while others used office hours to work on the books that would later make their names.

[I share only the bit about Dorothy Sayers]
In a 1922 letter to her parents, Dorothy Sayers wrote, "I've no idea whether I shall make anything of this business." She was in London, in the midst of a month-long trial period at the advertising agency Benson's. Her letters from this period are filled with fretting over whether she'd get cut from the job, which paid four pounds a week, a salary she needed to supplement earnings from Whose Body?, the first of her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

But Sayers was brought on permanently and landed a raise and an office to herself on the agency's top floor. She relished the creativity and the word play of the job, notes James Brabazon in his biography. When she went out to pubs with her coworkers she'd wear a lapel badge of the Froth Blowers, the beer drinkers' union.

Sayers wrote ads for a number of sandwich ingredients, including Sailor Savouries, margarine and mustard. In another letter to her parents, in 1923, she wrote: "Mustard again! It is astonishing that they should want so many advertisements for mustard. However, let's hope that's the end of it for a bit."

It wasn't, though. The creation of the Mustard Club—one of the most popular ad campaigns of the time—occupied her time for the next few years. Hatched from an inside joke between Sayers and her future husband, journalist Atherton Fleming, the club was described in one ad this way:

The Mustard Club (1926) has been founded under the Presidency of the Baron de Beef, of Porterhouse College, Cambridge. It is a Sporting Club, because its members are always there for the meat. It is a Political Club, because members find that a liberal use of Mustard saves labour in digestion and is conservative of health. It is a Card Club, but Members are only allowed to play for small steaks.

The motto of the Mustard Club is 'Mustard Makyth Methuselahs,' because Mustard keeps the digestion young. The Password of the Mustard Club is 'Pass the Mustard, please!'

While Sayers was never formally acknowledged as the campaign's chief copywriter, Brabazon observes that the entire campaign had Sayers' touch: from its fictional characters (Miss Di Gester, the secretary; Lord Bacon of Cookham, among others); to a prospectus that claimed the club had been founded by Aesculapius, the god of medicine; to the recipe book, which included a Shakespeare and Chaucer reference by a "Devilled beef" recipe: "Who sups on a devil should have Mustard in his spoon." The fictional club grew so popular it issued roughly a half-million real memberships before the war.

The agency's offices had an iron spiral staircase, and Brabazon describes Sayers descending the stairs, her cloak waving behind her, a cigarette holder in one hand and the other hand in the pocket of a black jacket or holding scribbled concepts. One frequent destination was the office of illustrator John Gilroy, with whom Sayers worked, in 1928, on the famous zoo adds for Guinness. The collection of these ads on the Guinness website says the campaign didn't debut until the mid-'30s, after Sayers' tenure at Benson's; and according to the Guinness Collectors Club, Gilroy continued producing Guinness ads into the '60s, using the same themes. But Sayers is widely credited for her work on the concept and the original jingle: "If he can say as you can/Guinness is good for you/How grand to be a Toucan/Just think what Toucan do."

In 1930, Sayers would leave the agency to pursue her writing full-time. By then she'd published five mysteries and a collection of short stories. In 1933, she used her memories of the place to speedily come up with the premise for a mystery in order to hit a deadline (she later hated the book because of how rushed its writing was). The book, Murder Must Advertise, was centered around the mysterious death of a copywriter who falls down an iron spiral staircase. Lord Wimsey, going undercover at the agency to solve the case, finds that he has a surprising knack for copywriting and comes up with a successful campaign for Whifflet cigarettes. Gazing into a mirror one day, Wimsey remarks, "Strange, to think that a whole Whifflets campaign seethes and burgeons behind this solid ivory brow."

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