The Dark Side of Passion

Thursday, 10:15am
Reno, NV


Sometimes marketers like to pretend they exist outside the “real” world of politics, war and social upheaval.

This attitude is especially evident in certain commercials and ad-heavy publications that reveal a thick-headed cluelessness about life outside the box of privilege. In the past months, I’ve seen TV ads mimicking revolution in the street for a frivolous product… and read articles on celebrities that used references to famine and actual murder cases, trying to be ironic and hip.

These efforts are clunky and embarrassing. Yet, they never abate. (Mind you, I adore irreverent humor and M*A*S*H-style commentary… but you can’t accomplish this kind of wit from the sidelines. Cluelessness makes knowledgeable people cringe.)

I first noticed this disconnect between pain and fun as a teenager waiting for my draft notice during the Vietnam war. The evening news was dominated by combat zone film bringing the war right into America’s homes (something The Man has since realized should never happen again, if he wants to continue blowing people up for vague and unsupportable campaigns)… so for half an hour between typical fluff like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gilligan’s Island”, we were treated to glimpses of Hell, half a world away. Guys just a few months older than me crouched behind shattered walls, bullets zinging into the stucco while swaying palm trees burned under distant napalm assaults. And the wounded were evacuated, swathed in bloody bandages, the stretcher-bearers ducking and weaving.

And then, during the break, here comes this bright and cheerful commercial for laundry soap… with a pretty housewife flying a WWI-era bi-plane, dropping tablets like bombs from the sky. The slogan — and all TV ads back then were centered on slogans — was some bullshit reference to “blowing up” germs in your dirty clothes with this new, improved way of keeping your family clean.

Seconds away from the grime and gore of a real battlefield, here’s Proctor and Gamble laughing through a pun about bombing soiled tee shirts.

Even back then, I was shocked by the tin ear of the marketers.

There were many other ads revealing an almost total disconnect between reality and selling stuff back then… including Pepsi’s attempts to co-opt the anti-war “peace and love” movement, and mainstream Hollywood’s endless (and utterly clueless) desire to both be super-hip (never happened) and entertaining without offending anyone.

The entire culture seemed to be like the Emperor wearing no clothes, and everyone refused to open their eyes.

Say what you will about my generation (and the mainstream media is very smug about pretending to understand what happened back then) (they didn’t then, and still don’t). We at least had the awareness to be shocked and disgusted by the sad state of the world.

And some of us decided to drop out. We flailed at the fortress of civilization, trying to change things… and were immediately beaten back and put on the defensive. The anti-war marches and anti-consumerism of the “counter culture” didn’t stop the war, and it didn’t turn the U.S. into a socialist state.

Still, trying to push that kind of passion back into the bottle was even more futile.

However, the reality of those years is very different than the modern myths told about them.

If you allow the media to define that era for you, you might believe that most of the Boomers were hippies and activists and lived in communes. In truth, only about one in ten tried to drop out or change society. We were NOT a monolithic generation of the same mind.

If you came out of that period, you are likely dazed by the way history is being twisted into tidy, coherent narratives by the likes of Tom Brokaw.

Things were very much NOT coherent or tidy back then. It was friggin’ chaos.

Okay, I’m boring you, aren’t I.

Another Boomer ranting about himself and the times he lived in.

I’ll stop.

But I wanted to make a point, and I believe it’s an important one.

It’s this: Things haven’t changed much since those bad-old-days of upheaval and tidal social wreckage.

We’re just more numb about it.

And, if you want to be a real writer, you need to endure a long, forced reality check.

Someone once said that the goal of civilization is to remove the privileged class as far as possible from things that disgust them. Meat arrives in the supermarket with no trace of blood or violence. Sewage runs underground, flushed out of the house as efficiently as possible. Germs and dandruff and zits are dealt with quickly and harshly.

We walk around pretending to be Barbie and Ken dolls, unconcerned with icky odors and death.

And we have, at best, a hazy notion that, somewhere else, people are butchering each other and starving and drowning under tsunamis.

Oh, and glaciers melt and entire species disappear, while fresh water increasingly becomes a luxury.

Today, the news is even more full of rage and despair, horror and danger, than usual. It’s a very bad day for the world… and yet I am scheduled to post another blog on marketing and making money.

Will I have to stretch, or hide from reality to make a point? Naw.

For me, the sting of experiencing that disconnect between commercials and the news has never left. Even as I went deeper and deeper into advertising and marketing, I refused to get sucked into the notion that America is somehow encased in protective glass, and I refused to believe it’s okay or desireable to be oblivious of the rest of the world.

I have, however, made that long painful trek from the edges of the counter-culture (back when I dropped out), all the way back to the realization that capitialism really is a great way to fuel a culture. It’s not perfect… but the tools exist to carve out your own personal area of freedom, and also to focus enormous resources on the problems of the world.

No other economic system comes close.

You can set an example, by tending your own garden and living life as well as you can. (And I’ve always believed that is part of the job of the entrepreneur… to engage life with gusto, for the sake of every feudal slave in history and every oppressed schlub today who has dreamed of the freedom to think, act and love without censorship and an authoritarian boot on his neck. You OWE it to him to make the best of your good fortune.)

And when you finally realize you have more dough than you need, you can start spreading the wealth. Donate, get involved… or, like Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, roll up your sleeves and actively change things for the better. (You’ll have to ignore a thousand choruses predicting your demise and glorifying in your blunders and set-backs. Small price to pay, though, if you want to make a difference.)

Most entrepreneurs dream of making enough money to indulge in pleasures and bad behavior without consequence. The jerks succeed. Yet, an astonishing number of newly-rich business owners become neo-Renaissance forces for good.

It’s almost enough to restore your faith in humanity.

In fact, increasingly, entrepreneurs are the front line of humanity, as corporations become anonymous headless beasts that ravish the world regardless of which human happens to sit in the CEO chair. We do have dragons, and the modern world has more in common with Tolkien’s bracing fantasies than most folks can fathom.

So, yeah, let’s talk about marketing.

People ask me how I’m able to write such gritty, fascinating copy. For products and ventures that seem, to the uninitiated eye, so far removed from anything gritty or fascinating.

And the answer, as you by now must suspect, comes from life itself.

For your entire existence, advertisers have sought to “get” to you by being meek and inoffensive and unreal.

So, you’re excused if you think your own copy should be flimsy and weak.

At least, you’re excused until you’ve been exposed to my stuff.

After that, you can’t hide any more.

In my world, advertising and marketing is inter-woven with the fabric of life. I’m simply not cynical about it. (“Cynical” is the new buzzword on Madison Avenue, by the way — it’s replaced “ironic”, and that’s why you’re seeing so many TV spots with absurb comedy and only reluctant glimpses of product. There is zero evidence that hard-core, big-city comedy sells stuff, but most TV ad creators live in big cities and write copy meant to help them save face among their peers… and to them, it’s just uncouth to stoop to actual salesmanship.)

I learned long ago that the key to sales is passion.

But I also learned that there are two sides to passion — the good side we all love, centered on indulging in pleasure and meeting goals and moving ahead… and the bad side, which is evident in today’s sorry news cycle.

Do you understand the kind of passionate rage required to assasinate someone? Can you get your mind around the kind of drooling greed required to starve whole populations so you can build another palace? Can you comprehend the lust of people who abuse power and privilege?

Most of us cannot.

Yet, rage and greed and lust are very common human reactions. The world roils in a tense dance with anarchy and anihilation, struggling every damned day with all its might.

I’ve known many copywriters who give up in despair. How the hell can you care about selling crap while fools in authority wreck everything?

I know well the urge to drop out. Every generation faces the same dilemna upon becoming aware — they realize the world sucks, and seconds later realize they can do almost nothing to change that fact.

This leads to the kind of rage required to kill and tear fragile things apart.

There are, and always will be, issues greater than your humble goals of bettering yourself or accumulating wealth.

If you want to become a great copywriter, you must learn to face reality. All of it. And be okay with what you see.

Most people stumble through life in a haze, half-asleep and yearning to be led like sheep.

The power of being able to write — the power of the pen — is a force that can change history… or change a single person’s life, in a simple yet positive way.

It’s easy to mock advertising. Because most advertising sucks, and is irrelevant.

Yet, people need things. And they need bargains, and inside info, and the resources of thinking, involved insiders who care enough to push for positive change. Customer by customer.

It may seem silly to care about soap today. But bad hygiene continues to be a major killer in the world. There are places where a bar of Ivory could save lives.

And there are places where simple tips on dealing with the disgusting details of life near the edge can bring entire generations several steps up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

We just forget these facts. We live inside a box of privilege, spared the gritty details of staying alive in a hostile environment.

You don’t need to get on a soapbox. In fact, it would kill sales if your copy swerved off into tangents about the state of the world in irrelevant ways.

Yet, the job of the top copywriter involves being engaged with the reality of the world in a much deeper way than the average prospect.

The more you understand the way things really are — outside of ideology and wishful thinking — the more you become a truly powerful communicator.

It’s almost like being in a priesthood, of sorts. Early scribes, in Egypt, were treated and lived as a special privileged class… and formed guilds where the secrets of communicating through the written word were passed on to apprentices sworn to treat their power with respect. If you’ve ever hung out with copywriters in the bar after a seminar, you know how esoteric and passionate we can get over what most people consider a very simple craft of putting words on paper.

Your job, as a creator of ads, is to bring with you a nuanced and loving knowledge of life that is beyond the experience of your reader.

It’s a big damn responsibility. You must learn to face truths that are, at times, extremely unpleasant. And you gotta read the news.

But your job is precisely where the necessities of life intersect with the powerful passions of being human.

Let others mock and pretend to be too hip to care or go deep.

Writers — and especially writers who understand the psychology of classic salesmanship — live better lives. The rest of the population will refuse to feel things too passionately, because it scares them. They like being numb.

As a writer, you voluntarily give up your ability to remain numb and dreamy about reality. You engage, and pay attention to your emotions, your passions, and your fears.

You’ve got a special job. And civilization is relying on you to do it, no matter what.

Today is a sad day for the world. Death and chaos abound.

It remains your duty, however, to engage with that sad world. And to allow your writing to help others engage. Yes, even on a simple level like advertising a new product.

Civilization may or may not continue on this planet. Unless you’re a mover-and-shaker with a finger on a button of mass destruction, it’s doubtful you can do much on your own to dramatically change things.

Still, each person must confront both reality and the inner turmoil of existence… and if you choose to be a writer, you cannot back away from what you discover.

It’s a complex universe out there.

Sometimes, just doing your job is enough.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

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  • Darwin says:


    Thanks for writing and posting this. It was exactly what I needed. It almost seems like you were sending a personal letter to me. Much appreciated.


  • Chris McMorrow says:

    John, thanks for this rant. These are encouraging words. They also make me think, “Every customer my hard-earned copy writing skills bring in, I must treat with the utmost in respect, and try to deliver the best deal and service I can.” With this attitude in mind, maybe I can at least contribute some good to this fallen, sin-cursed world. And maybe, in my own small way, I can help build credibility and trust in advertising. Thanks again for these words of wisdom.

  • Sarah Albers says:

    Rest in Peace…Benazir Bhutto 1953-2007

    And, in truly crass fashion, the 148 slide slide show on Yahoo about her assassination, too many slides were of people watching the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

    Hmmm. capitalism rocks, but maybe some respect should be applied.

    Thank you for the rant John, for a moment there, I didn’t think anyone cared or noticed this very sorry, sad event.

  • […] Carlton went on a big damn rant on his big damn blog about how out of touch the Madison Avenue side of advertising can be with the […]

  • Anonymous says:

    The Dark Side Of Passion…

    Sometimes marketers like to pretend they exist outside the real world of politics, war and social upheaval.
    This attitude is especially evident in certain commercials and ad-heavy publications that reveal a thick-headed cluelessness about life outside…

  • […] John Carlton is a very good copywriter – and has posted a great column linked here: […]

  • John, I just clicked a random link into your archives. Found this.

    Amazing post. I think this is even more relative today. You should consider re-posting this!


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