I feel like I say this more often than not, but Jerry Della Femina’s From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor was not quite what I expected.
It was the subtitle that drew me in: Front Dispatches from the Advertising War. Advertising is my field, so to speak. When I’m not overthinking pop culture, I’m a bid writer, which is a specific kind of advertising that calls on you to hold someone’s interest over pages and pages of technical information. It’s tough. It’s fun. If you want to write for your living but also want, you know, financial security, check out becoming a bid writer.
The point being that advertising, the process of advertising, of getting inside your audience’s head and staying there till you’ve said what you want to say, fascinates me. So a memoir about America’s golden age of advertising, by the founder of a major advertising agency, seemed just the thing for a holiday in Norfolk.
(“The cult classic that inspired Mad Men”, says a little silver circle on the cover of my library copy. I haven’t watched Mad Men, but I do love me some 1970s glamour, and so! here we are!)
Here we are, in New York, 1970. The first thing you need to know about From Those Wonderful Folks is that Della Femina is, well, a bit of an arsehole, even by the standards of his time. You can’t read a page, practically, without stumbling on a sexist or homophobic or (as you might have guessed from the title, a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a campaign for Panasonic) racist remark. Fairly unusually for me, the detail of the book was interesting enough that I could tune this out after a while – but your mileage may well vary.
The second thing, the more surprising thing, is that From Those Wonderful Folks doesn’t really have a coherent shape as a book. It doesn’t have a story. It’s not about a man who sets up an advertising agency (though presumably it could have been). It’s not even about a man who starts a career in advertising one day. It’s just…pages on pages of anecdotes, grouped loosely into chapters, written in slangy, repetitive and kind of terrible prose, like Della Femina has just talked at a dictaphone for several hours and some poor ghostwriter has tidied it up a bit and thrown it at the page as-is.
(Come to think of it, that’s probably exactly what happened.)
Another surprising thing: it’s nowhere near as scandalous as the cover copy would have you believe. Della Femina is very keen to establish that there’s nowhere near as much drinking or sex at the advertising agencies as the pop culture of the 1970s says there is. There are some delicate creative types (one anecdote is about a copywriter threatening to push his desk out of a high window), but delicate creatives have existed since Apollo killed Niobe’s children, so.
What From Those Wonderful Folks does have is some lovely insight into 1970s ad campaigns. This was a time when big, stuffy, old agencies with huge overheads were being threatened by younger, leaner, more creative operations, and were becoming more careful, more conservative, as a result. Della Femina looks at campaigns and pitches and business practices from across the industry, at why they worked or why they didn’t. There’s Volkswagen’s famous “Think Small” advert; the Jolly Green Giant; a disastrous campaign for low-calorie beer that failed because 1970s beer drinkers couldn’t give a fig about losing weight. It’s all this precise detail, this fine-tuned understanding of the psychology behind capitalist consumption, that, for me, made it worth wading through that terrible and decidedly unenlightened prose. It’s certainly not my favourite read of 2018 – not even close – but it’s pretty interesting, and worth a read if you’re into advertising and can look past the rampant 1970s prejudice.