Campaign Report on Creative DM: The master’s voice - Howard Luck Gossage’s press ads were the guerilla marketing of his era and the legacy lives on today, Eleanor Trickett writes

Ask anyone about creative gurus over the past 50 years or so and they will probably name the usual suspects - David Ogilvy, David Abbott, Bill Bernbach and Rosser Reeves. But this is a report about direct marketing, a young industry that is a little short on gurus. One name, however, will pop up over and over.

Ask anyone about creative gurus over the past 50 years or so and

they will probably name the usual suspects - David Ogilvy, David Abbott,

Bill Bernbach and Rosser Reeves. But this is a report about direct

marketing, a young industry that is a little short on gurus. One name,

however, will pop up over and over.

Howard Luck Gossage, the ’Socrates of San Francisco’, approached

advertising with a punter’s eye for what works and what irritates beyond


His ad agency, set in an old firehouse, only existed for 12 years, from

1957 until his death in 1969. The first agency to bear his name (after

unhappy times at big agencies) was Weiner & Gossage, which became

Freeman & Gossage and finally Freeman, Mander & Gossage. Months after

his death, the agency closed.

In today’s terms, Gossage’s style of long-copy press ads with nifty

responsive elements might best be described as ’guerilla marketing’. He

had a formula, summarised by Jeff Goodby, of Goodby Silverstein &

Partners, in the Book of Gossage (a compilation of Gossage’s writing and

others’ on him), as: ’Ask the client what his biggest problem is, then

write an ad asking readers to help solve it, providing a coupon for that


Goodby says Gossage aimed to make advertising ’something that involved

people at the upper levels of their capabilities, that searched for the

audience’s highest common denominator rather than its lowest’. Gossage

himself said: ’Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and

sometimes it’s an ad.’

Big budgets were anathema to Gossage. He deemed it more useful to aim at

influence and effect than at mere mass circulation, explaining: ’You

don’t have to bruise an elephant all over to kill him. One shot in the

right place will do.’

His favourite tool was the coupon. Not sexy, many think. But his coupons

were a polite cough to attract those that had read far enough down the

ad. One ad for Whiskey Distillers of Ireland simply pondered the

efficacy of advertising during summer, accompanied by a coupon which had

the reply box ready ticked: ’I read it’. The US audience had to send the

coupon to Ireland (they did).

It’s difficult to get a client to spend money on a responsive campaign

that doesn’t actually sell anything off the page. But Gossage’s

campaigns made the consumer want to buy the product - rather than

hectoring them to do so.

’He had a remarkable eye to see the product through the eye of the

consumer and strip the message of all pretence,’ says Steve Harrison,

the creative partner of HPT Brand Response who, as the creative director

of OgilvyOne, spread the word about Gossage. ’The thing we lack is the

sense of perspective that he had for advertising. Compared with him, we

have no idea about the medium in which the message is seen.’

Rory Sutherland, who succeeded Harrison as OgilvyOne’s creative

director, agrees: ’His philosophy runs counter to that of standard

advertising, in that he aimed to affect a small proportion of the

audience hugely; rather than a large amount slightly.’ Gossage once

said: ’I don’t know how to speak to everybody, only to somebody.’

An example of Gossage’s non-hectoring style is a 1962 ad for Fina, in

which the small print in the footnote reveals the offer - a pink valve

cap. This is another trademark, in that it has been written


Who else hides the good stuff?

The ’pink air’ campaign for Fina cocked a snook at advertising by coming

up with a spurious product enhancement, in this case, a free sample of

pink air for inflating tyres. Not only did it make rival gas companies

look as if they were trying too hard, but it made the consumer feel that

the product was beyond improvement.

Gossage’s real forte - generating staggering response - was admirably

demonstrated in his Eagle Shirtmakers ads, which inspired correspondence

that was published as a book, Dear Miss Afflerbach. Gossage tried to

explain why people wrote in: ’It has something to do with them getting

involved with our problems or projects ... An ad ought to be like one

end of an interesting conversation. First we say something, then you

make some sort of a response ... then the next time, we either amplify

our remarks based on your assumed response or say something new; and so


Working with a product’s weakness was another favourite, so a Qantas

brief - when it was still a tiny airline - was a gift. On the basis that

there’s one thing anyone associates with Australia, the headline

announced: ’Be the first one in your block to win a kangaroo’. A

competition to name Qantas’s newest aircraft generated 7,500


An early ad for Rover called on readers to help out, asking: ’How do you

feel about billboards?’. By making readers feel that they were

responsible for the medium as well as the message, the ad involved them

to an extraordinary level.

Gossage’s legacy is twofold: a body of criticism of advertising

structure and practice that is still relevant today; and an

unconventional advertising philosophy that can be recognised in many

effective campaigns of recent years.

In Gossage style, this piece should perhaps end with a beguiling coupon

inviting people to write in and explain why they should be the proud

owner of the Book of Gossage. Answers on a kangaroo.


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