The First Interactive Ad Man

Over four decades ago, a man who hated advertising had a vision of what it should become. He worked in the industry he hated. Some would argue his philosophy changed the nature of American advertising. The funny thing is most advertising professionals (at least from a casual survey of people I’ve asked at my agency and elsewhere) don’t even know who he is or what he contributed.

He’s often mentioned in the same breath as David Ogilvy and other well-known advertising mavericks. Ogilvy himself, in his often-quoted “Ogilvy on Advertising,” called this man “the most articulate rebel in the advertising business.” He was inducted into the Advertising Copywriters Hall of Fame after his death, yet few would recognize his photo or name. I discovered him only recently and immediately became enamored with his story.

Howard Luck Gossage was born in 1918. He bounced around in many different (and widely varied) careers until he found himself working for an ad agency at the age of 36. He became vice president a year later, and in 1957 he and associates created a new agency, Freeman, Mander & Gossage.

His advertising career spanned a 15-year period in the 1950s and ’60s. He worked mostly in print, never in TV. Ads at the time were largely straightforward messages driven by advertisers and agencies that believed (in Gossage’s opinion) consumers weren’t the brightest bunch. Repetition was the key. In his book, “Is There Any Hope for Advertising,” he answered the title’s rhetorical question:

From an economic point of view, I don’t think that most of it is. From an aesthetic point of view, I’m damn sure it’s not; it is thoughtless, boring, and there is simply too much of it.”

He believed people developing ads suffered from a lack of creativity and information. They relied on repetition of the same dull message to break through to consumers.

Gossage obviously didn’t like the approach and developed a philosophy considered absolutely radical at the time. He believed advertising should be a conversation. Instead of one-way messaging, get consumers to participate in the ad. If you can, you’ve made a connection. It’s more likely they’ll remember your brand and message.

He was fond of coupons, sweepstakes, and other gimmicks that got people to engage with his ads. But he also knew how to use a clever headline to grab people and get them involved. This idea, that advertising should be interactive, is now conventional wisdom, even at offline agencies that deal primarily with passive media. When I was in school, studying advertising before the Internet boom, we were taught this at every turn.

Gossage said, “An ad should ideally be like one end of an interesting conversation.” That’s what we were taught decades later. The challenge in making passive media interactive is significant, but many in the offline world have achieved this. We’ve all seen gimmicks that force interactivity, sometimes awkwardly (both online and off-).

Others manage with elegance, such as a recent Volkswagen Jetta ad I saw in a magazine. There was a basic photo of the car parked on a small-town street. You turned the page, and there was what appeared to be the same photo. Small copy in the margin read “The new Jetta. Worth a closer look.” In the opposite margin: “Find all 18 things we changed in this picture?” It reminded me of the “Highlights for Children” magazine I always thumbed through as a child at the dentist’s office. I took the time to find all 18 changes.

There are countless other offline examples, from Apple’s “1984” to eToys spots a few years back. We’ve all got favorite ads we really connected with, ads that made an impact and stuck with us over time. I’d wager most of them have one important thing in common: They let the consumer participate in figuring out the message.

Jon Steel’s book, “Truth, Lies and Advertising,” introduced me to Gossage, so it’s only appropriate to quote him:

Advertising works better when it does not tell people what to think, but rather allows them to make up their own minds about its meaning. They participate by figuring it out for themselves.

What’s the point of all of this? Howard Gossage had a vision more than 40 years ago. Until recently, marketers and agencies have had to deal with inherently passive media. Finally, in the Internet, we have a medium that’s interactive by nature. Gossage’s vision can now be fully realized.

It’s not a new message. I’ve written a lot lately about interactivity in online advertising (mostly about how so few use it well). History’s an excellent teacher, and introductions to great minds like Gossage remind me the concept of interactive advertising is nothing new. Rather, we have a new medium and a new set of tools to realize that vision.

Don’t underestimate the tremendous power of marrying these different types of interactivity — the literal lean-forward nature of the Internet and the engaging spirit of “figure it out” concepts. Embrace the power. Experiment. Learn how to use it, and keep the consumer at the center.

Join us at ClickZ’s upcoming AdForum and at Search Engine Strategies.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.