On Sabbatical

A Professor's Life Outside the Ivory Tower

Tony Kelso

Tony Kelso
February 19
In a previous life, I was an advertising copywriter. Now I'm a professor of media studies. I've written a number of works on media, politics, and popular culture for an academic audience. But writing for a popular audience is more fun.

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MAY 20, 2011 1:37PM

Confessions of an (Ex-)Advertising Man

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            I hate advertising. No, I mean, I really hate it. And not just because it interrupts the TV show I’m watching at least six times an hour, even though I’m already shelling out $100 a month for the privilege of receiving a basic-cable signal. Nor because, before reaching the article I’d like to read in a magazine, I have to thumb through dozens of glossy spreads featuring emaciated models in various contortions who look pissed off at the very idea that somebody might want to glance at their representations. (Wouldn’t you be too if you had to starve yourself and twist your body into positions that defy anything you’ve ever seen in everyday life?) And not only because while I’m perusing the New York Times online a large rectangular ad often descends like a two-car garage door and temporarily blocks me from viewing the content I’m actually interested in. No doubt, I share these annoyances with the rest of the population. But for me there’s more to it than that. You see, I used to work in the business.


            For over a decade, I was an advertising professional, first as a TV commercial producer, and later as a copywriter. There were, of course, things I truly enjoyed about the field. I certainly appreciated the paycheck (although in the early years my pay was so low that I lived with a roommate in a low-income neighborhood one block outside an especially blighted section of Detroit and often had to skip meals to make ends meet). The creative part of the process was undeniably fun. And I loved being asked to travel to both exciting cities and charming towns that wouldn’t have come under my radar otherwise (yet I must admit I would have preferred to take in the sights with a friend or significant other rather than dine in white-table-clothed restaurants with always-on account executives, self-centered clients, and fawning suppliers).

            Yet I could never take the job seriously. That all my colleagues seemed to convey the impression we were engaged in an activity of monumental importance only functioned to intensify my sense of alienation. Using sardonic humor to mock the advertising enterprise (without pushing it too far—I developed a knack for making co-workers laugh without crossing the line) occasionally assuaged my restlessness. But it could never paper over the conviction I held that, at the end of the day, we were devoting forty to sixty hours a week (sometimes more) to generating utterly vacuous expression. When I reflected on the hundreds (thousands?) of man-women hours that went into analyzing the market; researching the consumer; devising a strategy; and creating, executing, and placing the advertising materials; in addition to the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of dollars needed to support the whole unwieldy endeavor, all in the service of producing a campaign for, say, a chocolate candy bar with peanuts, well, I couldn’t help thinking how much human energy—passion and talent that could be put to far greater use—was going to waste.

            Please don’t think me a crank. I know we need to make, sell, and buy goods and services to sustain our way of life. But when such a disproportionate amount of effort and resources is invested in a never-ending, hollow carnival—in giving a platform to myriad forms of the proverbial man in the plaid suit invasively barking at the crowd—at the expense of more fully addressing the pressing problems we face as a people (I needn’t enumerate them—you know what they are), how can I not conclude that something is seriously out of whack here? At the same time, the ubiquitous commercials, print ads, and online and offline billboards that litter our symbolic landscape cater to only our basest values and our most narcissistic tendencies: Never mind the children sewing in Vietnam, forget about the heaps of toxic electronic refuse in China, pay no attention to the breaking glaciers—you deserve yet another summer outfit, an upgrade on your cell phone, a few more inches of headroom in your SUV.

            Well, okay, maybe I am a bit of a crank.

            I remember once participating in a meeting in which a handful of groups, comprised of several employees each, were pitching campaign approaches for a new style of Wrangler Jeans. One of my peers—a guy I looked up to, actually, because I felt he could write circles around me—was describing the archetypal member of the target market for these rugged pants. Earlier, he and his teammates had transformed the conference room into what was essentially a diorama symbolizing the male purchaser we were being asked to consider and all he stood for. The memorabilia adorning the walls captured a stirring slice of a mythic America and the everyday heroes who populate its plains and valleys. In the midst of this moving display to the national spirit, my colleague portrayed a hard-working man, a family man, the kind of person who, if you asked him for a hand loading the truck would without prompting go still further out of his way to help you remove the cargo at the other end as well. This was a morally sound man you could count on, a man who put others before himself without expecting anything in return, an exemplar who quietly shined a light on some of the most meaningful things in life. At one point in the middle of the presentation, I noticed my eyes beginning to moisten with tears. That’s when I caught myself. “For God’s sake, what’s wrong with me?” I thought. “Why am I becoming misty eyed over an Average Joe and a pair of blue jeans?” It was like I was sitting in a Christian evangelical service right before the blow-dried-haired Billy Graham wannabe invites the congregants to come forward and give their lives to the deceased spiritual teacher he claims is a savior: “Yes, yes! I believe in Wrangler Jeans! Wash away all the times I farted through my Levis on a friend or a person in need! Please make mine in faded denim!”


            When I was cutting my teeth at my first agency, I struggled to spark an inner flame for the profession by reading David Ogilvy’s classic text on the trade, Confessions of an Advertising Man. I was thoroughly impressed by his integrity and, truth be told, did in fact feel inspired for a while. But I came to realize I simply wasn’t cut out to be an ad man. Eventually, then, I quit my career and moved to New York to pursue my PhD at New York University. (Things were financially hairy for a while—it wasn’t long before I was so desperate I took a job as a bike courier, which lasted all of a week, ending the night I was sideswiped by a cab while delivering, of all things, two advertising portfolios. Soon afterward, however, enjoying a last laugh of sorts, I was able to fund my education by securing freelance work as a copywriter—I guess my professional experience finally yielded something fruitful after all.) Today I am an Associate Professor of media studies and have found my calling. And you’ll never guess what I was originally hired to teach. Yep, you got it. But that’s a story for another day.

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Man, spot on. Glad you were able to escape the grind. Great piece.
wow, no comments???
I think the public is dumfounded by your revelations.
advertising and capitalism go hand in hand. oh yeah and Corporatocracy.
hey whats your opinion of Mad Men? Ive never watched it but people sure rave about it.
Entertaining account Tony. It isn't just advertising that adds up to nothing. Much of the corporate world is the same. Glad to hear you found your real calling.
Since even good advertising is basically a form of clever lying and pursuit of the trivial the wealth of the industry has financed the entire culture into sophisticated literary trickery. I realize that the potential for this has been a basic mental set for humanity ever since speech was invented and advertising merely invested it with some of the best minds but that is a major tragedy for the species.
I really enjoyed this, and so glad you eventually got what you wanted. My post today was sorta ranting on the same subject, who is targeting who to buy what. It is very interesting that you saw so clearly through the crap of some types of advertising, even though you were a part of it, but hey a guy's gotta eat! :) Congrads on EP, great article!
Congrats on the EP!

One of my highlights of my arts admin career was landing a sponsorship for my theatre company with a major national airline. They gave me 25 round trip tickets so we could get actors from NYC to come to our little city for a show, and I would put them all over everything, lobby, program, print ads, website, e-lists...and yes, product placement in at least one production. We put a display of their new jet interiors in the lobby until the artistic director made me take it away, because it messed up the space for after show parties. Anyhow, even things you might think of as non-commercial do sometimes benefit from advertising.

But, glad to hear you found a path you can live with now.
As I've worked in advertising for many years, I can relate to much of your essay. I don't believe there is anything inherently wrong with advertising in itself: in order to sell goods and services, the word must get out there, musn't it? But the industry has become a monolith, a culture-crushing, populace-deluding juggernaut of bullshit. History shows us that when life in the empire comes detached from the basics, the people look to topple the monoliths.
I’ve been ranting and raving about advertising and copyrights for a while now; glad to hear you’re no longer doing it. You’re not the only one in the industry that feels that way as I’m sure you already know. Juliet Schor indicated that she encountered many people that had reservations about what they were doing when she did research for “Born to Buy.”

We need more sincere people that are willing to abandon this absurd practice which is leading to escalating lies and reduced quality of everything. It’s getting so that it is as bad in the USA when it comes to getting good quality stuff at a reasonable price as it reportedly was in the USSR when there was an enormous amount of propaganda saying that Capitalism was the only way to go. Since then they have moved to a much more extreme version of Capitalism though.
...brings fast fast fast relief, and doesn't upset your stomach!!

If you wrote that one, you've warped me for life, podnah. But I enjoyed this confession.
In the movie Myra Breckinridge someone asks the devil what he's done of any significance and he thinks for a second and says "advertising" - I love that bit.
Anyway, I actually don't mind advertising for the basics - food, clothing etc. but advertising for services to change my mind and get me thinking the right way skeeve me out.
Oh, and how come every time they depict a happy wholesome rural situation there's a green 53 Chevy pickup?
I hate the slo-mo commercials the most. I guess it's supposed to signify grace and gravity. It gives me gas.
Walking away from advertising was a little easier for me. After spending $50,000 on an advertising degree, I was promptly fired from two small Detroit ad agencies before I was 23. Loved the article, though, and agreed with everything you said.
"Please don’t think me a crank. I know we need to make, sell, and buy goods and services to sustain our way of life."

I like your piece, but this seems like it might be the essence of your angst. It's self-referential, and circular reasoning in the most distilled form I have seen today. This IS our way of life. Consumption. Isn't it funny that that's what they used to call the formerly terminal disease of tuberculosis?

My world has no TV. No radio. No ads thanks to adblock stuff and I don't miss it at all. I watch the dance that society performs and smile from the sidelines, in amazement of how many think it's important.

I am so glad you are out of it. Make sure the kids you are teaching realize that how destructive their path is to the spirit. That's a legacy worth striving for, worth missing meals for. Go for it!
You left advertising for a university appointment and find it a breath of fresh air? You must have been very lucky because the politics of universities can be just as bad.
Another entertaining piece, Mr. Kelso. I hope you might sometime address the odious advertising niche of political campaign ads.
That these exercises of behaviorism actually work is a sad comment on the average American's ability to reason. That they directly shape the future of our society is terrifying. Will paid campaign ads someday be be legislated out of existence? Will we go back to a time when we voted on what candidates believe in rather than what their opponents say about them? Doubt it. There will be too much ad money in the campaign ads supporting campaign ads.