Copy Chat: Meet Howard Luck Gossage
A refreshing point of view from one of advertising’s great minds.
Howard Luck Gossage (1917–1969), often referred to as “The Socrates of San Francisco,” was an advertising trendsetter whose career peaked during the fabled era of “Mad Men.” A non-conformist who protested established advertising practices, Gossage pioneered numerous innovative techniques that would not receive appreciation until long after his death.
Gossage is credited with presenting the previously unknown media theorist Marshall McLuhan to publishing, broadcasting and corporate leaders. Gossage was involved in some of the first environmental awareness campaigns in America with the Sierra Club and in the establishment of Friends of the Earth.
At the age of 36, he co-founded the advertising agency Freeman, Mander and Gossage. Based in a recycled firehouse near San Francisco’s Chinatown, Gossage created a business that would become known as a place where interesting people would gather. John Steinbeck, Buckminster Fuller, Tom Wolfe, Stan Freberg were among those who, captivated by Gossage’s latest plan for a way to create change in the world, would become friends.
Howard Gossage is number 23 of Advertising Age’s 100 Advertising People of the 20th Century. AdAge.com calls Gossage a “copywriter who influenced admakers worldwide.”
An anthology of Howard Gossage’s writing about advertising called “The Book Of Gossage” includes magazine articles and his book “Is There Any Hope For Advertising?” plus contemporary essays written in homage to Gossage by current day advertising leaders.
In 2009 work began on a documentary about Gossage titled “Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man.” The feature-length documentary is due for completion in Spring of 2012. For more information visit www.Howardluckgossage.com
Gossage was known for his incisive wit:
He called copywriters “very strange people who have only reached copywriting after eliminating every other means of making a living through writing.”
There is too much advertising, he complained. “If you have something pertinent to say, you neither have to say it to very many people –only to those who you think will be interested–nor do you have to say it very often. How many times do you have to be told that your house is on fire?”
Gossage compared advertising to fertilizer. “There is only so much fertilizer one ought to use, but people tend to lay it on so think, that it begins to obliterate the crop it was supposed to nurture. At which point it starts to attract flies, the neighbors complain and the stench is unbearable!”
Some other uncanny observations:
- “Our first duty is not to the sales curve, it is to the audience.”
- “I like outdoor advertising. I just think it has no right to be outdoors.”
- “Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”
- “Is advertising worth saving? From an economic point of view, I don’t think that most of it is. From an aesthetic point of view, I’m damn sure it’s not.”
A Lesson From The “First” Interactive Ad Man
Over a half century ago, a man who detested advertising began a company based on a philosophy that would change the nature of American advertising.
Ironically, most advertising professionals don’t know who he is or what he contributed.
He ranks with pioneers such as David Ogilvy. In fact, the often-quoted “Ogilvy on Advertising,” refers to this man as “the most articulate rebel in the advertising business.”
Howard Luck Gossage made many attempts at a wide variety of careers until he found himself working for an ad agency at the age of 36. He became vice president a year later, and in 1957 he and a couple of associates created a new firm, Freeman, Mander & Gossage.
His advertising career spanned a 15-year period in the 1950s and ’60s. He worked mostly in print, never in TV. Ads at the time were largely straightforward messages driven by advertisers and agencies that believed that consumers should be communicated to on the level of “the lowest common denominator.”
He felt that the people making ads were laboring under a shortage of creativity and information. They relied on the crude technique of repetition of the same monotonous message to impact the buying habits of consumers.
As a result, Gossage formulated a philosophy considered ground-breaking at the time. He believed advertising should be a conversation. Instead of one-way messaging, he wanted to get consumers to participate, to engage. If an ad can establish a connection, the more likely the brand and message will be remembered and acted upon.
Gossage favored coupons, sweepstakes, and other tactics that got people to engage with his ads. But he also believed that a clever headline would grab people and get them to stop and read. The idea that advertising should be interactive is now considered the norm – the standard.
Gossage said, “An ad should ideally be like one end of an interesting conversation.” The happy coincidence is now we have a medium that is perfectly suited for this. The internet fosters the conversation – the interaction – between a company and its consumers. The businesses that can take advantage of these features will be the ones that succeed and profit.