Monday, December 4, 2023

Umwelt. And Neil Drossman. And Effective Advertising.

There's a centuries-old concept propagated by two German scientists, Jakob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Sebeok, called umwelt. The plural is umwelten. I learned about it from Pulitzer-Prize-winner Ed Yong's recent book "An Immense World." You can read the New York Times' review of Yong's book here. And you can order it from an independent book-seller here.

Umwelt has a complicated definition: "The biological foundations that lie at the very center of both communication and signification in the human and non-human animal." For my simple brain, I've simplified the definition to how animals, fish, birds, mammals, marsupials, bugs, etc. see and adapt to their surroundings so they can live.

You can try to think about unwelt based on a quotation attributed to German-born scientist Albert Einstein who reportedly said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

In their own environment, on their home turf, just about every creature is smarter than you or I. Sparkle, my puppy, is just eleven-weeks-old and has been living with us in Connecticut for just two weeks. Already she can navigate about her territory using her intelligent ears and nose. She senses things I never would in a million years. Same thing with the small fish swimming in the Long Island Sound not one-hundred yards from where I type this. They understand sounds, currents, patterns in the rocky bottom of the sea that make as much sense to me as Cuneiform. Here's a recent article that gives a good example of Umwelt in hairy-mouthed dolphins.

Now, as perhaps you've come to expect, there's an advertising point in all this.

Humans for too many millennia have been guilty of the citation above by Einstein. We judge fish, so to speak, by their ability to ride ten-speeds.

In advertising--where a premium is placed on youth and coolness--we often judge our audiences and depict them on their ability to thrive in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or some other super-hipster environment. We seem to not take the time to understand or get to know the umwelt of the lives of our viewers.

Remember, we live in the fattest society in human history. Diseases of despair are epidemic. A sizable proportion of America lives veritably paycheck-to-paycheck. There are more gig-workers than ever, with the insecurity that comes from knowing that an app might tell you 'you have no work today.' Minimum wage doesn't pay a living wage. Most people have no financial provision for their old age. And millions have no health insurance or inadequate coverage.

Yet in the commercial, print or digital advertising worlds, everyone is smiling, high-fiving, dancing or about to. Nearly everyone, even the seriously ill in the blight of pharma ads we're subjected to teeters on the brink of euphoria. In technology ads shapely women lay on the floor with their laptops knees bent somehow typing. (Have you ever tried that? It's like a medieval torture.)

In short, in the commercial, print or digital advertising worlds, empathy, realism, love for the viewer have all but vanished. We create work based on the clients' needs or the needs of the Private-Equity-owned Awards-Industrial-Complex, not the needs of our viewers.

Last week the ad trade press covered the death at 83 of one of the great copywriters of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s and 20s, Neil Drossman. The great Lee Garfinkel wrote a memorial to Neil in Ad Age that because Ad Age is paywalled, I will paste it at the end of this post.

Neil, and so much of the great advertising of the past, show an understanding of the Umwelten of our viewers. Ads depicted a sense of reality. Reality is usually not-rose-colored and saccharine. 

There is sweat, pain, fear and overcoming adversity. Just as there is no true happiness without having had to overcome sadness, no highs without their companion-piece lows, no sunshine without the rain, there's no reality and truth in 99.7-percent of today's advertising because we have no understanding or honesty enough to show the full-spectrum of reality.

This ad below is one of Neil's, maybe is most famous.

This is one of Hall-of-Famer Mike Tesch's.

And one by Hall-of-Famer Ed McCabe's.

And here are a handful more written by Neil for Teacher's Scotch. The goal used to be to make advertising that was better, more fun, informative or interesting than the content around it. I remember sitting with my father, an inveterate New Yorker reader as he read every word of these aloud at breakfast one Sunday morning.

Oh yeah, I know. Nobody reads.

However, there are a lot of advertising and client big wigs who read this blog. I've got a freebie for you. You can pay me back with a nice assignment or an AOR engagement.

Become or hire an Umwelt agency.

Umwelt advertising isn't about awards, or even creativity.

It's about touching people.


Lee Garfinkel recalls famed copywriter's influence on advertising


By Lee Garfinkel. Published on November 30, 2023.

Neil Drossman wrote humorous, thought-provoking ad copy that is remembered decades later.


Copywriting legend Neil Drossman died Nov. 25 of cancer at age 83. Drossman, who began his career during the Mad Men era, first earned fame at Della Femina Travisano & Partners before going on to open a number of agencies bearing his name. Here, leading industry creative Lee Garfinkel writes about Drossman’s impact on the ad world and his own career.

Once I read Jerry Della Femina’s book, “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor," I knew that I wanted to get into advertising.

After months of working on my portfolio, I decided to finally show my work around. I very naively decided to call Della Femina’s agency. And I remember the conversation I had with the receptionist.

“Hi, can I please speak with a creative director?”

“Which one?” she asked.

“Any of them would be fine.”

I don’t know if she laughed or not, but she did connect me with a creative director named Neil Drossman.

Little did I know that she not only connected me with a creative director, but she connected me with one of the best writers in the business.

Our conversation was short, but he agreed to look at my portfolio.

On the day of our meeting, I had two interviews lined up. One was with a well-known creative director from a big agency who hated my work.

The second was with Neil, who also didn’t like most of my ads. But Neil’s comments were the exact opposite of the first guy and I really liked his point of view.

Probably feeling sorry for me, Neil took a couple of award show books off his shelf to show me what good advertising looked like.

The books were filled with Neil’s ads.

Seeing his work transformed my views of what advertising could be. Each headline was smart, funny, insightful, unexpected and thought-provoking.

I didn’t know that advertising could be so clever and feel so fresh.

Neil’s Teacher’s Scotch ads written in the voice of famous comedians were simply brilliant. They were so good that people like Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, Tommy Smothers and Zero Mostel never changed a line of Neil’s copy.

For Mel Brooks (dressed as a caveman holding a glass of scotch while sitting on boulders), Neil wrote “2,000 years ago when you had a scotch on the rocks, you really had a scotch on the rocks.”

For Groucho, Neil’s headline read “Whenever I think of Scotch, I recall the immortal words of my brother Harpo.”

The body copy for all of these ads was equally brilliant. Imagine long copy ads that people actually enjoyed reading.

Neil also wrote ingenious headlines for Emery Air Freight. Over a photo of the world-traveling Henry Kissinger exiting an airplane, Neil’s headline simply read, “Emery flies to more places than he does.” Another lesson learned. Using current events to make your advertising relevant and fresh.

When Purina introduced a new cat food called “Meow Mix,” Neil wrote the great tagline, “The Cat Food Cats Ask For By Name.” A turn of a phrase, a twist on a cliché, a wordplay, a pun. Neil could take anything and make it fresh and provocative.

His headline for Chemical Bank’s local branches read, “Flatbush Isn’t Flushing.” How do you read that headline and not want to read the body copy?

At the end of my interview with Neil, he said, “Now go home, write some more ads. When you have 12 that you like, come back and show them to me. If I like them, I’ll recommend you to a few people.”

That short time with Neil changed everything. It was the best advertising lesson I ever had. It changed my perception of what advertising could be and just as importantly, it gave me hope.

True to his word, Neil met with me again a few months later. He looked at my work and occasionally banged his fist on his desk. I realized much later on that when Neil banged his fist, it usually meant he liked something.

Finally, he closed my portfolio and said “Here’s a name. Call this guy.”

Luckily for me, that guy was the super talented John Russo. And thanks to Neil, John hired me at Levine, Huntley, Schmidt, Plapler and Beaver. Which was one of the best creative shops in New York.

Once I started working, I never stopped looking out for the latest Neil Drossman ad. The list of his groundbreaking work is limitless. 

One piece that many copywriters say is their favorite Neil ad is for Goodwill Industries. The visual shows a man in a wheelchair fixing a TV set. The headline reads, “What you see here is a TV set repairing a man.”

I always looked forward to his weekly Einstein Moomjy carpet store ads in the New York Times. Imagine looking forward to reading advertising? For a carpet store?

But that’s part of what made Neil’s work so special. It didn’t really feel like you were reading advertising. Neil’s work not only sold, it enticed and entertained you. His ads made you smile.

Once when I was at Lowe and Partners, I needed to hire a freelance writer. I called Neil who was working at his new agency, Ryan Drossman. Neil said as a partner in a new agency, he couldn’t freelance. So I did exactly what you would expect, I hired his entire agency.

Years later, when I was chairman of the Andy Awards, I asked Neil to be a judge. At the judges’ dinner, I thanked Neil for helping me out and for changing my life. He seemed a little shy and maybe perplexed by how important he was to me. 

Over the years, we had become friends and perhaps he even forgot about those first two times we met. Which in retrospect makes sense. Neil has helped and inspired so many great creative people, how could he possibly remember every person or moment.

But I for one, will always be thankful to this brilliant genius and the time he spent with a naïve guy from the Bronx.

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