Skewering Madison Avenue for 60 Years

/// Skewering Madison Avenue for 60 Years

October 30, 2012  |  Blog

For six decades, a magazine has been putting the “Mad” in Madison Avenue by lampooning — and frequently harpooning — the huckstering of the advertising industry.

The magazine is, of course, Mad, which is celebrating its history of “humor in a jugular vein,” as its slogan once promised, with an anthology to be published on Tuesday titled “Totally Mad: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity.” Among the 256 pages of the $34.95 book are generous samples of the wicked ad spoofs, parodies and sendups — takeoffs, as the editors call them — that have been an intrinsic part of Mad since the debut issue in August 1952.

“Of course I grew up reading Mad magazine,” said David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO North America, part of the BBDO Worldwide unit of the Omnicom Group. “I still have in a box somewhere issues from the ’60s that I’m sure are dog-eared and coverless.”

The knowing attitude of Mad’s mockery helped the readers who grew up to join the business realize they must sell “a skeptical audience,” Mr. Lubars said.

“The really best advertising understands that people are suspect” of what ads say, he added. “Transparency and honesty are the way to go.”

Richard Kirshenbaum, a founder of Kirshenbaum & Bond who is now chief executive at the boutique agency NSG/SWAT, also has fond memories of Mad.

“I was absolutely a reader,” Mr. Kirshenbaum said. “I actually had a subscription.”

Mr. Kirshenbaum titled his recent memoir “Madboy,” but it was more in tribute to the television series “Mad Men” than to Mad. Still, the heyday of Mad’s takeoffs coincided with what is now known as the “Mad Men” era, and an article like “The Mad Madison Avenue Primer,” which spoofs agency life in 1960, includes jokes about “bourbon for breakfast” that echo dialogue from “Mad Men.”

What he liked most about Mad, Mr. Kirshenbaum said, is that “it pushed boundaries in a way that was unusual for the time,” by being irreverent and provocative.

For instance, he remembered a “racy” Mad takeoff of the classic Maidenform campaign in which women dreamed they were enacting fantasies in public while wearing Maidenform bras (and not much else). In the Mad version, a woman proclaimed, “I dreamed I was arrested for indecent exposure in my Maidenform bra.”

Years later, Mr. Kirshenbaum actually worked on Maidenform ads when the company hired Kirshenbaum & Bond to create its campaigns.

The Maidenform takeoff is not in the anthology, but dozens of others are. For instance, Crest Toothpaste and its wholesome 1950s campaign, which introduced the phrase “Look, Mom — no cavities!” into the vernacular, were parodied in an ad for Crust Gumpaste in which “punks who get their teeth knocked out from running around with teenage gangs” proclaim, “Look, Mom — no more cavities!”

In 1964, the Breck Shampoo “beautiful hair” campaign, featuring portraits of comely “Breck girls,” was transformed into an ad for Blecch Shampoo, aimed at teenage boys who wanted Beatle-length hair; the illustration depicted Ringo Starr.

More recently, Mad has mocked the “I’m the NRA” campaign for the National Rifle Association, with an ad featuring an armed whitetail deer that belongs to the Nature’s Revenge Association; Whole Foods Market, with an ad carrying the theme “Fancy-shmancy food, unbelievably high prices” and offering shoppers fake deals like “Buy one, get one for the same price”; and recruitment ads for the Army during the Iraq war. One takeoff, showing a soldier before an oversize photograph of Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, carried the headline “Mess by Rumsfeld, cleanup by you!”

Ads are “always great fodder for us, the gift that keeps on giving,” said John Ficarra, the editor of Mad, and now, by using technology like Photoshop, “we can really do dead-on takeoffs; we can get them exactly right.”

Mr. Ficarra, who started at Mad in 1980, said he was most proud of the takeoffs on cigarette advertising that the magazine has run since its early days.

“We went at them hammer and tongs,” he said of tobacco marketers, inspired by a belief by the founding publisher, William Gaines, that “Mad should attack stupid behavior, and what’s dumber than smoking?”

The book includes a sendup of ads for True cigarettes, sold by Lorillard, that displays four tombstones, each bearing the color of a variety of True. The brand name is transformed into Truth, as in: “The Truth. That even smoking the one enjoyable ultra low tar cigarette doesn’t make it any less deadly.”

(The Truth parody ran in Mad in 1983, 17 years before the start of the antismoking effort known as the Truth campaign, which seeks to discourage teenagers from smoking with a Mad-like effort to mock the tactics used to market cigarettes.)

This reporter recalls a takeoff on ads for the Oasis cigarette brand, sold by Liggett & Myers, that carried the theme “Let Oasis take you away from the everyday.” The Mad version showed grieving mourners leaving the cemetery after the funeral of a smoker whose habit took him away from the everyday — forever.

Mad’s takeoffs continue into a seventh decade, not only in print but also online, at madmagazine.com, and on an iPad app that will eventually offer for sale copies of all 518 issues to date so that, Mr. Ficarra said, “you could buy an issue from your childhood.”

There are even parodies on the dust jacket of the anthology, poking fun at magazines that, like Mad, are owned by Time Warner. For instance, readers are encouraged to buy Thyme, “the official journal of spices,” whose logo mirrors that of Time.

Link: Skewering Madison Avenue for 60 Years


Leave a Reply