Monday, June 7, 2010

Gods of Advertising: Has the American idea of work gotten mushy?

The “Lonely Man” working late…

Ken Kurson wrote a fine piece in Esquire magazine’s June issue about, plainly and simply, work. Oh, the story had other themes but what I took from it was that work as an operating principle in our lives has gone to seed and, moreover, during economic crisis when we need a work ethic the most, we, as a society, have become indifferent about one, even apathetic. Too many years of entitlement have caused us to atrophy. Instead of digging in to that great American idea known as working we hang on to the notion of saving. Saving is warm and fuzzy, like inside a nest. Working means leaving the nest. Something most of us would prefer putting off until tomorrow.

If I’m reading Kurson correctly -and I might not be- saving alone won’t save us. Politically packaged hopefulness by our government will not solve 10% unemployment. Long-term jobs cannot be handed out like apples. Careers are made, not supplied.

Yet Kurson’s beef is not with our new government. Nor does he fault the old one. Other articles in the magazine do. But not Kurson. He doesn’t mention political parties, or their promises. He is trying for something deeper. I believe he’s suggesting we lack ambition. Success has become a bad word (my interpretation), synonymous with fat cats and greed. Ambition is tethered to albatross like Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand.

Inventor no “slouch”

But Kurson provides living examples, less famous, less flawed. Guys like Andrew Goetting, who invented something called the Slouchback, an inflatable chair perfect for dorm rooms and the parlor. It’s arguably a silly invention, something the world doesn’t truly need. But instead of reviling Goetting for creating another plastic space waster, Kurson admires the young man for his vision.

Vision. Now there’s a word we need to bring back. While “Hope” gets men elected to President, “Vision” changes the world. Vision is an ideal almost always followed by action. Ron Popeil had vision. Lee Iacocca had vision. Leo Burnett had vision. Yes, they were all marketers but they made something too: devices, cars, an advertising agency.

At its best, advertising had vision. We showed the world how it could and should be. We espoused the “new and improved.” We celebrated success on both sides of the cash register. Not anymore. Advertising has become a bad word. Like ambition. Many say it is going extinct. Good riddance.

I’m culpable. “We make you want what you don’t need,” admonishes the header to my blog. Advertising, I declare, is a carrier for sin: greed, lust, envy and sloth. Like Capitalism and jingoism and a slew of other “isms.”

Take workaholism. Instead of celebrating the man or woman preparing for a presentation on Sunday afternoon, society calls him or her a workaholic. As Kurson aptly points out: “Of all the gooey new-age inanities, the one I hate the most is ‘No man dies wishing he’d spent more time at the office.’”

I’ve used that very quote dozens of times, mostly when talking to myself, trying to change my will. Wanting to be a better husband and father, I’ve tried to create devils in the workplace. As a result, it seems I have one foot in the office and the other at home, serving neither too well.

“Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Leo Burnett knew better. He celebrated such a worker, calling him the “Lonely Man.” He imagined a copywriter busting her ass in the wee hours until striking gold, or the account executive toiling over an account -not selflessly but selfishly, because he wanted to get ahead. He had ambition. Mr. Burnett saw great beauty in that. And so did most of us… once upon a time...Gods of Advertising

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