Baby did a bad, bad thing.
The earth does indeed revolve around the sun. And every time it does a little something happens to it. Especially in regards to the attitudes and behaviors of the people on board for the ride.
Eventually, stuff that was totally fine at one time often becomes unacceptable at another.
When I was a kid, growing up in Texas, on a fairly regular basis we would ride in the back of a pick-up truck and it was totally NBD. I’m not talking about the back-seat of a crew cab. I’m talking about the bed of the truck. The big open box behind the driver with no seatbelts and nothing more than an iffy tailgate between you and the pavement.
There’d be six or seven of us back there sometimes. We’d all fight over who got to sit on top of the fenders. Those were the best seats in the bed. And as we cruised down the freeway, on our way to baseball practice with a bag of a dozen or so aluminum baseball bats and 30 -40 water-logged baseballs next to us, no one gave it a second thought.
But today, I sure as hell wouldn’t let my kids ride in the back of a pick-up truck. First, I don’t own a pick-up truck. And second, if I did, I would be pulled over immediately by either a cop or a pack of outraged soccer moms and hastily reported to Child Protective Services. They’d be at my door before I could unload the bats.
Things change. Usually for the better. And I support that.
Cigarettes used to be super cool and you could smoke them anywhere. I remember when I was a kid, there used to be a smoking section on airplanes and whenever we flew my parents would take turns going up front for a smoke break.
When I started my career in advertising at Leo Burnett, in the early 90’s, I was given a smokeless ashtray for my desk along with a rolodex and several packs of ballpoint pens.
The first brand I worked on was Ameritech. I don’t think they exist anymore but they were the phone company. After that I worked on a bunch of Kellogg’s brands. That was so much fun. I wrote a campaign for Kellogg's Cornflakes that had Jennifer Anniston in it. Friends had just come out and I had an enormous crush on her. The client actually bought it. But sadly, Jenn turned it down.
I bet she wouldn’t turn it down today.
Oh, Jenn. We could have had something so special.
After Kellogg’s I worked on Nintendo, then Reebok, Dewar’s, Maytag and a little bit of Coca-Cola. That was the great thing about being at Leo Burnett. You could just keep rotating in and out of different groups and you’d get to work on a ton of great stuff.
I never worked in the Philip Morris group. They had their own floor. Marlboro was enormous. At the time, they did so much print advertising that they were the world’s largest consumer of 35 mm film.
For an art director, it was actually a great brand to work on. They shot all over the world. The budgets were enormous. I know more than a few really great creatives who started their careers on that account. They all moved up fast because they were all constantly out on production- shooting and learning. At my level, you were lucky to go out on one production a year. But the art directors working on Marlboro brands were always selling work. They simply learned more than we did.
But even back then, and even at an agency like Leo Burnett- the birthplace of the Marlboro Man- nobody made you work on tobacco.
You were always given the option not to if it made you uncomfortable. Which was the option I always exercised. Even though I smoked at the time, I didn’t want to be responsible for helping to convince someone else to do it. Plus, if you were a writer, there wasn’t much for you to do except write: Welcome to Marlboro country.
I never worked on tobacco. I always said no thank you.
One time, I didn't say no thank you.
One time, I said, “Okay.”
I did a bad, bad thing.
I was bored. I didn’t have a lot going on. That’s another thing that’s changed. You don’t ever really not have a lot going on in advertising anymore. You can always work on next month’s social if there’s nothing else to do.
My boss came over and told me that he knew I didn’t work on tobacco but he was in a jam and asked me if I’d be willing to help him out.
He didn’t pressure me. And he was a totally solid guy that I could have easily said no to and he wouldn’t have even thought to have held it against me.
But I didn’t.
I said, “Sure. I’ll do it.”
Which is what you’re trained to say in advertising. Always say, yes.
Unless it’s tobacco. That’s a different ballgame. That's when it's okay to say no. Believe it or not, people in advertising do have morals. And sometimes they actually follow them.
I guess my morals decided to leave early that day.
I justified it because it was for Europe. Everyone smokes in Europe. I don’t think they even have cancer over there. And like I said before, I was bored. Plus, it was TV.
It wasn’t for Marlboro. It was for some other Philip Morris brand but for the life of me I can’t remember which one. We had two weeks to do the work. I don’t remember what we came up with, but my boss liked it enough to put it in the mix and after we did a few rounds of revisions he handed me a first class plane ticket and informed me I would be flying to Philip Morris tomorrow to present the work to the clients.
I hadn’t expected that. I kinda thought it was a “just come up with the ideas” situation. I really like those. You just come up with a bunch of ideas, turn them in and walk away. I didn’t know I was going to have to actually stand by my work and represent it. That kind of bummed me out. But I looked down at the first class ticket I was now holding and that cheered me up.
It’s not this way anymore, but back then when you travelled, they’d buy you a regular class ticket and give you a voucher for a first class upgrade. So, when you got to the gate if they had first class seats available, you’d hand them the voucher and they’d hand you a cocktail.
This was a little different. He gave me a real first class ticket. And he said that I would be picked up by a car service. That was unusual as well. Even back then, juniors rarely got car service. We took the train. It was fine. I had mastered the Blue Line. It drops you off right inside O’Hare. But hell, if he wants to send a car for me, I wasn’t going to turn the man down.
I drank too much on the flight. That was a rookie mistake. I was young. The drinks were free. The first class thing kind of went to my head. As did the cocktails. Free drinks were still quite a novelty to me. So, I wanted to try them all.
When we landed there was a chauffeur waiting for me, holding a sign with my name on it. I had never had someone in an airport hold a sign with my name on it before. It was a real life moment for me.
As I approached him, my eyes locked on the sign he was holding. I fumbled for my wallet and then attempted to hand him my ID. I figured he’d need to see it. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was but surely, proof needed to be presented. Anybody could have walked up and said they were me. But he just laughed at me, waved it off and asked if I needed to go to baggage claim.
I didn’t. I had a backpack.
He probably reached out for it but I was shoving my ID back into my wallet and missed it. We get to the car and it’s a limo. We don’t get limos anymore. Things change. Now we take Ubers. A lot of times they’re Nissans. Just an observation.
Inside the limo there’s a basket filled with cartons of cigarettes.
“Are these for me?” I ask.
He says, “Take as many as you like.”
He laughs and says the same thing again. “Take as many as you like.”
I shove a carton of Marlboro lights into my backpack and pull a fresh pack out of one of the other cartons in the basket. I ask him if it’s okay to smoke and he laughs at me again and says that it is.
I think to myself: of course it is, you idiot. You’re in a Philip-fucking-Morris limousine packed with cigarettes and on your way to the Death Star. It’s definitely okay to smoke.
I roll down the window. The combination of seeing someone in an airport holding a sign with my name on it, riding in a limo with free cartons of cigarettes and fresh air starts to sober me up. I was foolish to order the tequila sunrise after the second vodka tonic. Inside the limo there’s a little fridge with beer, wine and soda. I choose wisely this time and go with a diet coke.
When I get there, it’s all white. At least, that’s what I remember. This was a long time ago. My memory is spotty. I just remember it being really big and shiny and white everywhere. Sparkling white granite on the outside and cold, imposing white marble columns on the inside. The cavernous lobby was busy with the hustle and bustle of men and women in business attire walking briskly towards the elevator banks while talking and smoking.
I began unconsciously tucking in my shirt when a man with a clipboard and a chipper smile approached me and asked me for my name and who I was meeting with.
I said, “My name is Jeff.”
Which is totally stupid.
I’m still not an adult yet.
It feels weird to say my first and last name. I explain to the nice man that I’m presenting some advertising for whatever brand it was and he takes it from there.
He looks down at his clipboard and runs his finger down a column, flips the page and starts to run his finger down another column. Finally, the finger stops and he looks up at me and says, “Jeff, you’ll be in Second floor, main. I hope you have a wonderful day here at Philip Morris. Thank you for coming.”
He hands me a badge. I tell him thanks and head for the elevators.
I get to the second floor and it’s not hard to find the main conference room. It’s the biggest conference room I’ve ever seen in my life. Still, to this day I’ve not seen a bigger conference room.
In the middle there’s a massive square table. I’m guessing you could easily sit 100 people at this table. Behind the table there are four rows of chairs. And behind the chairs there are three rows of stadium seats. This room was huge. REO Speedwagon would kill to play a room this size. That’s how big it was.
Inside the conference room, all of the white was gone and replaced with mahogany and black leather. In the middle of the massive table there was a pyramid. The pyramid had a square base that was about 6 ft x. 6 ft. And the pyramid was made out of cartons of cigarettes.
People start to file into the room. As they walk in and find their seats each and every one of them grabs a carton from the pyramid. Eventually, I get up and grab one too so as not to be rude. I shove it into my backpack next to the other carton from the limo.
The room fills quickly. With people and smoke. Luckily, it’s far from a full house. I think we only filled up about half of the table. REO Speedwagon would still be happy to get the gig, but even they would have probably played a stripped down acoustic set to better accommodate the intimacy of the venue.
Right before the meeting starts, a door opens from the back of the room and two men in white jackets and black bowties come in wheeling a cart of coffees, cappuccinos, espressos and pastries. I get a cappuccino with three sugars and a cherry danish. They’re both excellent.
It’s so weird to think back on it now. It was such a different time. Things change.
Everyone knew cigarettes were bad for you. It was 1997 for Christ’s sake. But they were really only beginning to become socially unacceptable. You could still smoke in bars and restaurants. The tide was definitely turning but it was still sort of okay to be advertising cigarettes. I don’t think they even had the warning labels on them yet.
Today I’d feel like a monster. Good heavens. Cigarettes are vile. They’re disgusting and I can’t stand being around them. I hate to say it but I look down on smokers. It’s just such a gross habit to me now.
And that’s good. Smoking is down.
Vaping is up.
But smoking is down and that’s progress.
I can’t remember exactly what happened with the spots we wrote. They went into testing and that was the last I ever heard of it. I couldn’t have been happier to be honest. I didn’t really want these things to go any further than they did.
On the trip back, I felt pretty shitty about myself and made a promise that I would never work on cigarettes again.
I went cold turkey. And I’m proud to say I haven’t touched a cigarette brief in over 20 years.
I love advertising. I believe in it. I think it helps consumers make better buying decisions and helps companies make more money that I insist on believing will be used to benefit its employees.
It's a powerful tool. And I hate to see it misused for ill purposes. We, as an industry, need to realize the power we have and divest ourselves from sectors that promote unhealthy products, environmentally unfriendly practices and guns.
Someday, and I really believe this, guns will be like cigarettes. They'll still be available but society will have finally gotten to the point where they're considered unacceptable and looks down on those who still cling to them. The bumper stickers that say, "Come and take it." will be gone. The culture that obsesses about them will dissolve. And the few who cling to it will go back into their closets.
Yes, on legislation. Yes, on activism. Yes, on any and all gun reform. That's where we need the most friction to occur because that's where the rubber really meets the road.
But, until we get to the point where society places guns into the same category as cigarettes, I really don't know if the change that we so desperately need will actually happen.
Things will just stay the same.
And the bad, bad things will keep happening over and over again.
Thanks for reading. I'll see you again real soon.