Wednesday, June 3, 2020


About two weeks ago I read a book called, “Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodard and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring.” You can buy the book here.  And you can read a few book reviews here  and here  and here.

The action of the book takes place in 1946, a few months after Sgt. Isaac Woodard is honorably discharged from the Army, having served three years fighting the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. Sgt. Woodard received a battle star, a Good Conduct medal, a Service medal and, like all American participants in the war effort, a World War II Victory medal.  

On the bus home to rural South Carolina from Ft. Benning, Georgia, Woodard, still in uniform asked the bus driver, Alton Blackwell if he could stop the bus so Woodard could use a restroom. Greyhound drivers were instructed, in that era, to accommodate any such request from a passenger. But Blackwell said to Sgt. Woodard, “Hell, no. Goddammit. Go back and sit down. I ain’t got time to wait.”

Woodard replied, “God damn it, talk to me like I am talking to you. I am a man just like you.”

For that, Blackwell called a cop on Woodard. The cop beat the hand-cuffed Sgt. Woodard in the face with a blackjack, hitting Woodard repeatedly in the face. He gouged Woodard's eyes. Then Woodard was locked in a cell for the night.

A local judge fined Woodard $50 and sent him to the state hospital who in turn sent him to a Veteran’s hospital which would admit black people. Woodard was permanently blinded from the assault.

This part of this all-too-relevant story, however, is not the point of today’s post, which is, to a degree about advertising.

Two white men, President Harry Truman and Judge J. Waties Waring are the point. They’re the point because they, like us in advertising, did something that’s unusual today or any other day.

They didn’t listen.

They didn’t listen to what public opinion told them to do.

They didn’t listen to advisors and confidants and pollsters or even common sense told them to do.

They did the hard thing.

They adhered to their convictions, their code, their beliefs.

Truman risked losing the 1948 Presidential election—in the wake of the Woodard beating, as a way of saying all are equal, Truman issued an Executive Order to integrate the United States Armed Forces and the Federal workforce. His own Joint Chiefs of Staff were against him, including George C. Marshall, his future Secretary of State, and arguably the most powerful and popular man in America at that time.

Judge Waties Waring, who eventually overturned the laws backing South Carolina’s segregated school system and helped indict the cop who beat and blinded Woodard, faced death threats, lost all his friends in his district and had his house fire-bombed.

In advertising—and on the client side—there’s something we should pay attention to that we don’t. There’s a reason conference rooms have 17 or 24 or 31 chairs. Because we’re asked to consider that many points of view, we’re asked to “satisfy” that many people. That’s not counting our qual and our quant. And the CEO and the CEO’s husband.

In fact, most ads—even a sign asking people to sign up for the javelin-catching team—are the product of hundreds of “stakeholders.” It’s why I once caustically remarked that most of what we produce are negotiations not communications. They make everyone happy by doing nothing for no one.

Let's stop listening to the wisdom of crowds. And begin listening to our wisdom. Let' stop doing what we think will please some target as defined some dopey focus group or online survey or biased research. Let's start living and breathing the essence of what we are and the people we work to inform--not just our bosses, boss' bosses and twenty-seven rungs up the ladder of banality.

If we as industry professionals are ever to reassert our personal integrity and the integrity of our industry, we can start by standing up for what we believe. Not what others say they do because it’s expedient.

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