February 2007


Super Bowl Sunday: A Day to Embrace…  

Yes, there’s the game itself. The one between the yard markers, played out by teams we hardly know—a one-sixteenth chance that ours got in— between armies of men, few have ever heard of. But then again, it’s not really about “The Game” anyway. Nor has it been for at least the last thirty years.

It’s about the parties, the people, the chips, the dip. It’s about the office pools and “buying squares.” It’s about being American. It’s about…THE ADVERTISING! More specifically, it’s about: the embracing of the advertising in all its unabashed splendor.

It’s about “the knowing” that they are trying to get us to buy things we might not consciously want or need. And yet, loving them for it on this glorious day! And loving even more, how much they’re spending to “just do it”, so to speak (up to $2.6 million for a :30 spot this year)!

And it’s about applauding the style of the effort; the sheer entertainment of it—with block-buster film production values; with artsy visual and narrative threads—so that we sometimes don’t even know exactly what it is that we’re being sold. Or forget we were even being sold in the first place: “Ah, those advertising guys are really something. What’ll they think of next? Can I get anybody another beer?”

But WE (as in Former Ad Man) will be the last person to bite the hand that fed us. We spent too many years on the other side of the desk to go that route. That’s not what this is about.

No, this is about the loss of naiveté. A loss interestingly told—we think— through societal reactions over the years to the realization:

That respectable marketers (and even aspiring presidents)
were trying to play games with our heads.

This is no small potatoes (which is why the enhanced font style and indented statement).

And while we’ve now become so jaded, this was once a shocking revelation.

In 1957, when The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard was first published, the disclosure that marketers were using consumer motivational research and subliminal tactics to manipulate consumers and induce desire for products, was earth-shattering. The book sold a million copies!

Think about it. A million copies to a general public that was half the size of what it is today. Can you possibly imagine a book of this nature selling even 1,000 copies today?

Around that same time, BBD&O advertising agency had taken on President Eisenhower, as an account. To quote the Republican national chairman back then:

You sell your candidate and your program the way a business sells its products.

So by 1968, it should have been no surprise that politicians could be sold like a bar of soap. Yet in that year, Joe McGinniss’ book, The Selling of the President, an insider expose about how Nixon’s image was dramatically reworked for public consumption, became an instant mega-bestseller.

Many years later in 1993, a wonderfully literate book came along that gave us still another look behind the “Wizard of Ads” curtain: Mythmaking on Madison Avenue How Advertisers Apply The Power Of Myth & Symbolism To Create Leadership Brands, by Sal Randazzo.

This one was not really intended for mass public consumption, but it continues to be used within the business community and on many college campuses, for its fresh insights.

To quote Mr. Randazzo:

Advertising is not simply in the business of “selling soap.” The thesis of this book is that advertising is an important part of our culture, an enormously powerful medium that shapes our values and sensibilities…

As one of the many examples in the book on building brand mythologies, Randazzo offers us Budweiser’s famed Clydesdales, which have been a staple in Super Bowl advertising for many years now. And it’s no wonder, when you hear how grown men— particularly blue collar types— gush over these almost mythical beasts. Again from his book, this focus group playback:

They’re big and strong…they’re masculine…they’re workhorses…
they work hard, but they have a lot of pride and dignity. They carry
themselves like royalty.

So every year on that hallowed Sunday, we sit back and enjoy ourselves, all the while knowing, that they know… that we know… that they know we know what they’re doing. Those rascally little clever devils!

And when the Clydesdales come into view, we’ll turn to our buddy and say: you know why these guys use these horses in these commercials?

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At One With Nature.          NOT.

We have often said at public readings— only half facetiously— that we are probably the only poet who thinks that nature is overrated. Invariably this gets a small laugh, so incongruous is the concept.

Many people think that poetry and love of nature, are inextricably linked. That the very REASON for writing poetry in the first place, is to pay homage to beauty— natural and otherwise. (She walks in beauty, like the night… How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. ... A poem so lovely as a tree. …).

Sometimes, quite frankly, and in words most un-poetic, nature is a pain in the ass.

It hurts us in ways large and small, making us feel diminished in the process. As this short poem we penned not all that long ago, might suggest.



Two Crows Cawing

Two crows crossing stop to caw.
If they could they would shake hands.
They go back a long ways— that’s clear.
The body language is all there.

On this narrow sidewalk adjacent to
a rectangular sprawl of urban grass
they block my path. I must walk around them.
They take no notice. Given their wings,

they could own the open sky;
they could exchange air mails if they chose.
On foot? Hop over to the grass— caw there.
Pick a branch or bench upon which to perch.

Who here has the right of way?
But for two old friends who have seen it all
they are only aware of each other at present.
And I’m forced to walk around them.


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Name-Dropping and the “Art” of Dying


While spotting Maria Shriver a couple of Sundays ago after mass— husband Arnold off to the side conversing with our parish Monsignor— we stopped to ask her if she might put in a good word of support to our suggestion, that the church bookstore immediately stock Art Buchwald’s final memoir: Too Soon To Say Goodbye.

We had just read the book the previous night in one sitting (two days after Buchwald’s passing) and found it so disarming in its raw courage: a man facing his own death with such humor and grace. Especially, since we personally tend go into a state of utter existential despair —virtually losing our will to live— upon coming down with the commonest of colds.

“Yes,” she concurred, with that distinctly Kennedy-esque New England inflection, “He was a great man. I’ll mention it to the Monsignor.”

Maria and her mother Eunice, are mentioned in the book, as just two of the prominent guests who visited Art Buchwald in his final, albeit extended, days. He drops many more names and even entitles one chapter: Name-Dropping in the Hospice.

Some of the more notable mentions: John Glenn, Donald Rumsfield, Ambassador Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame, Ethel Kennedy, Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Ben Bradlee. And when Governor Schwarzeneggar called, the first thing Buchwald said to him was: “I want a pardon.”

Being funny at a dinner party is one thing. Being funny in the face of death is quite another. Very few can pull it off. Though of course, some have.

Oscar Wilde is purported to have uttered this classic on his deathbed:

Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.

Only Bogey (who died 50 years ago this past January 14th) could say:

Should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.

George Bernard Shaw offered this oft quoted gem:

Dying is easy, comedy is hard.

Gertrude Stein said to Alice B. Toklas:

What is the answer? [upon receiving no response] In that case,
what is the question?

Ah, but Art Buchwald has upstaged them all.

For one thing, his final words went beyond the deathbed; beyond the grave. He left a last video interview to be shown immediately following his death. He begins it in this manner:

Hi, I’m Art Buchwald and I just died.

But Buchwald’s case is a lot more than clever one-liners and funny sound bites. To begin with, he chose his fate.

Having already lost a leg to gangrene to forestall his loss of life, he decided to eschew dialysis when his kidneys began to fail, and checked himself into a hospice to spend his last couple of weeks. (Against his family’s wishes).

Those expected two weeks, inexplicably, stretched into months. Then almost a year. He finally died on January 17, 2007; almost eleven months later than expected.

And in that time he…

• held court at the hospice
• resumed his newspaper column in The Washington Post
• solicited eulogies for inclusion in a book
• published that final 200 page book!
• checked out of the hospice to spend one last summer in Martha’s Vineyard
• planned his funeral
• chose the speakers at his memorial via an invitational letter, that read in part:
“While I can’t give you an exact date, I can tell you how long
we’d love you to speak. I think three minutes would be a perfect
amount of time to tell me how wonderful I am.”

Finally, amidst all the humor and off-beat approach to his demise, he is sure to remind us of a very fundamental question, and his stated reason for writing the book:

The big question we still have to ask is not where we are going,
but what were we doing here in the first place?

A question for us, the living, to ponder. And to help us in that search for an answer, we send in the scientists, the philosophers, the theologians; we send in the artists, the poets, the clowns.


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LA County Museum of Art Rolls Out the Carpet for Magritte

Say this for LA, it’s a place that marches to the sound of its own drummer. (That that drummer is sometimes out of step and tone deaf, is another matter for another day.)

It’s a place that loves to play dress-up and make-believe. No surprise, it being the home of creativity and fantasy: Hollywood! Disneyland! That grand exercise in obsessive-compulsion—The Rose Parade! Oh and yes, Halloween night in West Hollywood. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that).

So when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) decided to curate a show entitled, Magritte and Contemporary Art: the Treachery of Images, we feared for the worst. How would they showcase this fabulous artist’s work?

Surrealist painter and sculpture Rene Magritte, needs no help from Hollywood. His impact has far transcended the art world. Many of his works have influenced our pop culture and graphic arts, in ways that many of us may not even be aware. For example, how much more mainstream can you get than the CBS Network TV logo eye first designed in 1952, inspired by a 1929 Magritte painting.



William Golden, logo for CBS Television 1952


Magritte. The False Mirror, 1929
Oil on canvas, 54 x 81
The Museum of Modern Art, New York


And so with some trepidation, we ventured over to 5905 Wilshire Blvd. to see what LACMA hath wrought. And sure enough, there it was; the whole nine yards:

Museum guards adorned in signature Magritte bowler hats, vests and red ties; the ceiling “wallpapered” in an LA Freeway motif pattern; a “cutout” door; café chairs and other plush furniture scattered about; and “da’ piece da’ resistance”— lining the whole gallery floor in a dense carpet of clouds.

Oh God, how hokey. But you know what? It works! Have a look.







We even bought a bowler hat from the gift shop on the way out.



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