Why I’m Mad About ‘Mad Men’


As published in the Providence Journal, April 20, 2014.

Mad Men is back for its seventh season, and I’m thrilled. I love the show’s braided story lines and stylized sets and just about everything Roger Sterling says.

Confession: I also love Mad Men because the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, shares my profession: he is a copywriter.

Like many English majors in college, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took a copywriting position at an ad agency after graduation, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made me write every day. And I loved the challenge of channeling creativity to connect with people through a form they were predisposed to ignore, if not hate.

I tell clients that people say they hate advertising until they see an ad they love – one that makes them laugh or solves a problem they have or connects them to a cause. Really, it’s the idea of advertising that irks people. They hate being targeted for a sell job, especially when it’s intrusive – the pop-up ad that obscures the article they want to read; the inane radio spot jingle that they can’t get out of their head; the e-mail solicitations that cram their inbox.

And yet, when someone loves an ad and it appears on TV, they will stop a conversation to ask a friend, “Have you seen this?”

Advertise derives from the Latin ad- “toward,” + vertere “to turn.” Ads turn our attention to products and services that someone wants us to buy. We love ads that do their work with wit, style, and simplicity. But when ads barge in on our lives with carnival-barker shouts and pedestrian design, we reach for the remote, or swipe the page.

For, as everyone quickly learns in the business, advertising can turn an individual toward, or away, from a product.

In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser points out that “writing is a craft, not an art. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” He could have been talking about advertising, where hundreds of refinements stand between the flash of an idea and an ad that connects with people. Pencils have erasers; keyboards have delete keys; and good copywriters make heavy use of both – just like their colleagues in the “pure” creative arts.

In a Consumer Resistance Study conducted by Yankelovich years ago, nearly 70% of consumers said they were “interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing.” Yet 55% also offered that they enjoy advertising.

Most people’s relationship with advertising is paradoxical. We resist with our heads but succumb with our hearts.

In an early episode of Mad Men, novice copywriter Peggy Olson tells Don Draper that “sex sells.” He corrects her. “You feeling something – that’s what sells.” It’s true of communications at every level. Whether it’s a film or a poem or a song or, yes, an ad, people buy into an emotion honestly felt and artfully conveyed.

If you were an aspiring copywriter or art director during the Mad Men era, you pored over Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen and Avis and Alka-Seltzer, which broke new ground for creativity and intelligence. The agency’s visionary was Bill Bernbach, who said, “let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

When someone says they hate advertising, I’ll suggest that they hate bad advertising – just as they hate bad movies, bad music, and bad advice.

And, hey, who doesn’t?

But among the reasons for Mad Men’spopularity is its keen portrayal of the alchemy that good advertising achieves. At the close of the first season, we see Don Draper transform left-brain strategy into right-brain creative gold. As a Kodak slide projector clicks through old photos of his family, in happier days, he tells us it’s a “time machine.” He names the projector the Carousel because “it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again.” Now, that’s good selling.

To paraphrase Edison, advertising is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I spend 99% of my time writing and re-writing declarative sentences; learning about energy management and hip replacement surgery and commercial lending and other things that my clients do; checking facts and verb agreements; preparing strategy briefs and presentations. It’s good work and I am grateful to make my living this way.

Especially when a 1% moment shines through.


Rooting For Snow At The Super Bowl


As published in the Providence Journal, January 29, 2014.

Now that the Patriots have been eliminated from the Super Bowl chase, which team am I rooting for? The Broncos? The Seahawks? Neither. I’m pulling for the Farmers’ Almanac.

Long before the days of Doppler radar and storm modeling, almanacs served up weather prognostications based on byzantine mathematical and astronomical formulas. The Farmers’ Almanac is still at it today and, as early as last August, predicted a stormy, snowy Feb. 2 for East Rutherford, N.J., where this year’s Super Bowl will be played.

Go, Farmers’ Almanac! I hope we see Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel on the MetLife Stadium sidelines, hyperventilating about snow accumulations.

Holding the Super Bowl outdoors at a cold climate site is the latest stroke of marketing brilliance for an event that has become a virtual national holiday. It wasn’t always that way.

In its humble debut, the Super Bowl was simply known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. The halftime show was two college marching bands. There were only 61,946 spectators in the stands, hardly a sell-out at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Forty-seven years later, the Super Bowl is the most watched annual television program in the United States. The game attracts more than 100 million TV viewers worldwide. This year, 30-second ads cost up to $4.5 million.

NFL marketers built the Super Bowl franchise with great teams — the Steelers and the 49ers, the Cowboys and the Patriots. They built it with halftime shows that had star power and broad appeal. Super Bowl I’s marching bands have been eclipsed by U2, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and an infamous wardrobe malfunction. And now the NFL has pulled another rabbit out of its helmet: the weather.

By playing the game in the Northeast on the first weekend in February, the NFL has generated incremental buzz. For weeks, in addition to the usual pre-game chatter and blather, blogs and sportswriters and ESPN commentators have asked: “What if it snows?”

The 10-year-old in many of us knows the answer: “Game on!” Because when you’re a kid, there’s nothing like playing football in the snow.

I grew up in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where the houses sit on small lots — not much room for running to daylight. There was an empty lot at the corner of Rankin and Moorland, but when we tried to play there, the owners shooed us away faster than you could say “Pete Rozelle.” So we ended up playing touch football in the street, telephone pole to telephone pole.

Unless it snowed or rained.

When that happened, playing tackle football was irresistible. We would hike up to the fields at La Salle Academy or Mount Pleasant High School, mark the end zones with our coats, and “muckle” (a kid verb denoting violent tackling) each other until our cheeks and fingers were numb . . . and then muckle each other some more.

Tackle football in the elements had such appeal that my best friend and I once flooded his backyard on a sunny autumn day just so we could play in the mud. His parents were not amused.

This coming Sunday, I hope the game is close, the ads are entertaining, and the halftime show grooves.

And should snow fall from the heavens? There will be a lot of kids and former kids, including this one, who think the conditions are ideal.


2013 In Review has prepared a cool 2013 annual report for my blog. Check it out, and thanks for all your views this past year. Best wishes for 2014!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 3,800 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Our Love-Hate Relationship With Advertising

Do you hate advertising? Before you answer, click here. And here. And here.

OK, back to my question: do you hate advertising? Depends on the ad, I suspect. The above links show you ads I like – they are entertaining and convey a clear message. Those are good qualities in an ad.

It’s the idea of advertising that irks many people, i.e., being targeted for a sell job, which is often intrusive. (Can you say pop-up ad?) According to the groundbreaking Consumer Resistance Study conducted by Yankelovich years ago, nearly 70% of all consumers “are interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing.” Yet 55% also said they enjoy advertising. So what’s going on?

I tell clients that people hate advertising until they see an ad they love – one that makes them laugh, saves them money, solves a problem that they have, or connects them to a cause.

Advertise derives from the Latin ad- “toward,” + vertere “to turn.” Ads turn our attention to products and services that someone wants us to buy. We love ads that engage us with wit, style, and simplicity. When ads barge in on our lives with carnival-barker copy and pedestrian design, we reach for the remote or turn the page.

In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser points out that “writing is a craft, not an art. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” He could have been talking about advertising. Ideas may come in a flash, but there are hundreds of refinements that stand between a creative spark and the ad you eventually see. Pencils have erasers; keyboards have delete keys.

I’m addicted to Mad Men, AMC’s outstanding series featuring the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ad agency.I love the braided story lines, the brilliant set design, and just about everything Roger Sterling says.

I especially enjoy when Mad Men focuses its lens on the ad industry itself. The show is currently set in 1966, the middle of a golden age on Madison Avenue. If you were an aspiring copywriter or art director during that era, you pored over Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen and Avis and Alka-Seltzer, which broke new ground for creativity and intelligence. Mad Men has referenced DDB several times, including its famous “Lemon” ad for VW. The agency’s creative visionary was Bill Bernbach, who said, “let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

When someone says they hate advertising, I’ll suggest that they hate bad advertising. Just as they hate bad movies, bad music, bad advice, bad anything.

And then I’ll add that I am sure they appreciate good art and good writing, which are at the heart of any good ad.

Why You Should Check Spell Check

Do you check spell check, your computer’s application for flagging words in your documents that may be spelled incorrectly? I do. While spell check is an effective way to give your writing a first scrub, it will never replace proofreading. That’s because there are mistakes spell check will never catch. Often, they involve homophones – words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. (Homophone derives from the Greek homos “same” + phone “sound.”) The word sounds right and is spelled right; it’s simply not the correct word.

Here are several homophones that lead to common spell check-proof mistakes:

Affect and effect. As verbs, these words have distinct meanings: affect means to influence (The weather affected the outcome of the game) or to feign (He affected an air of confidence despite the fact that the ripcord wasn’t working), while effect means to bring about (The politicians promised to effect change). Effect is more common as a noun, where it means an outward sign or result (The politicians’ promises had little effect on their constituents).

Complement and compliment. As a copywriter, I use the word complement often, as in The new entrees complement our existing menu. Here, complement means to complete or make perfect. It is distinct from compliment, which refers to the expression of admiration or praise, i.e., Customers complimented us on our new entrees.

It’s and its. One is a contraction (It’s raining) and one is a possessive (The band saved its biggest hit for the encore). Here’s an easy way to avoid confusing the two: read the sentence using it is instead of either it’s or its and you’ll know immediately if your usage is correct, e.g., The bank saved it is biggest hit – oops!

Lose and loose. I see writers everywhere using loose when they mean lose – and the words aren’t even true homophones! Lose the extra “o”.

Premier and premiere. Premier is another common word in a copywriter’s arsenal, since we are always looking for ways to say a product or service is the best in its category. But that has nothing to do with a premiere, which is the first performance of a play or musical, or the first showing of a movie.

Principal and principle. The former is a person, the latter a fundamental truth or belief. In an earlier blog post, I shared a simple trick that my fourth grade teacher, Miss McAndrew, taught our class for remembering the difference between the two.

Who’s and whose. Who’s is a contraction of who is, as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Whose indicates possession, as in Virginia Woolf is a novelist whose books are read in college literature classes. To avoid confusion, use the same trick suggested above for it’s and its: read the sentence using who is for either who’s or whose and any mistake will jump out at you.

Your and you’re. Your is a possessive pronoun – your blog, your writing – while you’re is a contraction of you and are: I’m happy you’re coming to the game with us. Again, to avoid mistakes, read the sentence with the contraction spelled out (“I’m happy you are coming to the game…). If it sounds right, you’re right.

OK, time to spell check this post – and then proofread! If you have any spell check-busters of your own to add, please send them along.

Celebrating A Leap Day Birth: What Are The Odds?

Paul J. Harrington was an original.

As a high school sophomore and my teammate at La Salle, he saved up his money to buy an expensive deerskin jacket and wore it religiously, as if it were a high priest’s surplice. Jay was a prolific spitballer. He would chew down whole sheets of loose leaf in religion class and toss moist projectiles at the classroom clock when Sister Mary Keane turned her back. He almost had the clock face obscured when she asked “whoever is doing that” to stop. Jay was tall and lean and, along with his cousins Peter and Fuzz (another Paul, but with a tangle of red hair), a good CYO basketball player.

He was born on February 29. What a surprise. Jay had defied the odds that the rest of us conformed to – about one in 1,500 – and arrived on the day that is added to the calendar every four years. Jay celebrated his birthday for two days during “common” years and for three days during “leap” years. He and Peter and Fuzz would barrel to school in a boat-sized Lincoln Continental, a haze trailing in their wake. It wasn’t always from the Marlboros they smoked. Occasionally, they’d pick me up as I walked to La Salle from my house in the neighborhood. I loved being teammates with the Harringtons.

The term “leap year” dates back to the 14th century and references how fixed festival days “leap” ahead an extra day during such a year. Leap years compensate for the fact that our common 365-day year is shorter than the actual solar year by almost six hours (five hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds, to be exact). If a day weren’t inserted every four years, our calendar would slowly drift out of season. Christmas would creep toward autumn, the 4th of July toward spring. Through a combination of leap years and several exceptions – years that are evenly divisible by 100 are not leap years, unless they are also evenly divisible by 400 – we are able to keep phase with the seasons that our spinning planet brings.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Jay’s practice of spreading his birthday celebration over several days is in full force with “leapers” today. The town of Anthony on the Texas-New Mexico border calls itself the “Leap Year Capital of the World” and welcomes as many as 10,000 people on the weekends that span February 29. This year, Disney is keeping its theme parks open around the clock on leap day.

But what about Lent? How do leapers reconcile their “party on, Garth” spirit with traditional Christian penitential practices? Not to worry. Lent always lasts for 40 days, omitting the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, when the season’s disciplines are relaxed. Turns out February 29 gets a pass, too. Call it a leap of faith.

Paul J. Harrington followed his own path in high school. While his cousins and I spent countless hours chasing schoolboy basketball glory in the tiny gym at La Salle, Jay did the unthinkable: he left the team. He didn’t like the pressure of the games, and he wanted to concentrate more on school. So he turned in the uniform that, in tryouts, more than a hundred kids had coveted. I admired his independence. Unconventional, yes. And true to the spirit of February 29.

Happy birthday, Jay, wherever you are.

Remembering Dick Parenteau


I’ll never forget the day I met my neighbor, Dick Parenteau. Deb and I had just moved in next door to him on Peirce Street with our young sons, Peter and Evan. As we emptied the moving van, the parade of boxes seemed endless, as did our to-do list. Oh, and Deb was four months pregnant.

The morning after the move, I took the boys across the street to the basketball court at Academy Field. As we walked back, Dick approached us in the police station parking lot, calling out hello in that strong, clear voice that would become so familiar to our ears. He said he had seen us moving in the day before, but didn’t want to bother us.

Over the next 16 years, I would discover that this was pure Dick. As a neighbor, he was always present and always considerate. The morning we met marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So what was Dick thinking on that first day? I never asked him, but I bet it was something like this: “Are these people out of their minds?” Deb and I bought the Rose Cottage with rose-colored glasses firmly in place; we had no idea of what we were getting into. But Dick sure did. He’d been living next door for years. He knew the plumbing would fail, which it did. He knew the roof would leak, as it did with every heavy rain. He knew the windows wouldn’t open, which they didn’t. He probably didn’t know that a family of possums would find its way into our basement via a hole in the foundation… but when they did, he wasn’t surprised.

A neighbor two doors down met us later that week and said, “Rose Cottage… Someone had to buy it.”

But Dick never passed judgment on our purchase, never said a word about our naivete. And as the contractors came and went, he was the constant: part foreman, part inspector, part peanut gallery, part therapist. “Look how far you’ve come!” he’d exclaim, finding the glass half-full, even in our ghastly kitchen. When our spirits sagged, he adjusted our focus: “How are the boys? How’s Juliana? You have a great family. I love your kids.”

And we loved Dick. In the 90s, he took Peter and Evan to the Patriots’ training camp at Bryant along with his grandson Rick. Years later, he summed up the day: “The boys watched Bledsoe; I watched the cheerleaders.” He helped Deb build out our gardens, planting trees, moving bushes, and setting up an elaborate watering system. Up before six every morning, he would grab the Providence Journal from our sidewalk and place it at our doorstep, and then walk down the street to do the same at the town library. When we went away on summer vacations, he organized our mail, made sure our houseplants survived, and dozed in the chaise on our front porch. We always came home to a house that was cool and serene: Dick had turned on the air conditioners and lights earlier in the day.

Most people knew Dick as the Mayor of Peirce Street, yelling at cars that ran the stop sign at Dedford Street; chiding the police and public works crews; saying hello to the stream of runners and walkers who all seemed to know him; telling people about the majestic elm that stood in front of his house – the one he said he would chain himself to if they ever tried to take it down.

But we also knew him as the kind neighbor who knocked on the door on Christmas morning to give our young children gifts and have a piece of Deb’s coffee cake before heading out to spend the day with his daughter Renee and his grandchildren. With his presents, white beard, and easy laugh, he was our belated Santa.

Dick and I both loved Peirce Street on Sunday afternoons in the summer – quiet and sun-dappled, with breezes washing through the trees. That’s when he would ask me if I was making the gravy. He knew it was my ritual, simmering a tomato sauce for Sunday dinner. He knew, because occasionally I’d need an onion. The first time it happened, I told Deb I was running out to the store, but she said to knock on Dick’s door; he would have one. Which, of course, he did. Months later, when I knocked seeking an onion yet again, Dick opened the door with one already in hand and a smile on his face. “Making gravy?”

Always present. Always considerate. Always helpful.

Some Sunday soon, I’ll need an onion, and Dick will be present again – in my thoughts as I drive to the store, remembering and missing a dear friend.

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