Writers and Copywriters: Literature and Advertising

Before he wrote Midnight’s Children – the 1981 novel which would win not only the Booker Prize for that year but the ‘Booker of Bookers’ award in 1993 – Salman Rushdie worked in advertising. It was during this period in the 1970s that Rushdie came up with several classic advertising slogans: ‘Naughty but nice’ (to advertise cream cakes), ‘That’ll do nicely’ (for American Express credit cards), and ‘Irresistibubble’ (for Aero chocolate bars). He also came up with this, for the Daily Mirror: ‘Look into the Mirror tomorrow – you’ll like what you see.’ Rushdie has said that his work in advertising ‘taught me to write like a job. If you have the client coming in that afternoon for his new campaign, you can’t not have it. You have to have it. What’s more, it has to be good.’

George Orwell may have described advertising as ‘the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket’ in his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), a book which shows a man with high literary ambitions being ‘reduced’ to the work of writing advertising jingles and rhymes. But Marshall McLuhan described it as ‘the greatest art form of the twentieth century’. And certainly, many popular and celebrated writers of the twentieth century and beyond have put their mark on this modern art form. Rushdie is one name among many. The author of The Satanic Verses had actually failed the initial test he took for J. Walter Thompson, a leading advertising company (which was run by none other than the thriller writer, James Patterson). But he persevered, spurred on by a friend’s assurance that it was ‘really easy’.

Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising– Mark Twain

Fay Weldon, author of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), is another novelist who started out in the field of advertising. In this connection she is probably most famous for writing the slogan ‘Go to work on an egg’, in support of a large advertising campaign in Britain in the 1950s supported by the Egg Marketing Board. But Weldon didn’t in fact write the slogan: it was ‘hatched’ (sorry, we couldn’t resist) by someone else, and Weldon merely helped to popularise the slogan (we say ‘merely’, but at the time Weldon occupied the senior role of Head of Copywriting and she was instrumental in making the phrase known in households up and down the country). One slogan which Weldon did write was ‘Vodka gets you drunker quicker.’ This was never used, though, as it was rejected by her bosses. (And this at a time before drink awareness was as high as it is now!)

Back CameraWhile we’re talking drink, it was Dorothy L. Sayers, crime writer and creator of the detective Lord Peter Wimsey, who originated several Guinness slogans used in the 1920s, such as (reputedly) ‘Guinness is good for you.’ (She used her experience working in advertising for the 1933 Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Murder Must Advertise.) One legend has it that the brewery had initially sought an endorsement from homegrown Irish talent, the playwright and well-known alcoholic, Brendan Behan, but the best he could come up with was ‘Guinness makes you drunk.’ (If only all ad campaigns were so honest!) However, this story is unverified and Guinness have denied that they ever sought a slogan from Behan.

Advertising is the very essence of democracy. – Anton Chekhov

Another writer to lend his services to the advertising industry was F. Scott Fitzgerald, more famous as the author of The Great Gatsby and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’. He wrote the slogan ‘We keep you clean in Muscatine’ for a local steam laundry company. Other writers who cut their teeth on advertising include Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, and Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22.

If Marshall McLuhan was right and advertising is a great art form, then it raises the question of the relationship between literature and advertising. Can literary talent be honed by a spell working in the world of Mad Men?


  1. Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like too follow you if thjat would be ok.
    I’m undoubtedly enjoying your blog and look forward to neww

  2. “Everyone’s a writer” as the saying goes. I’ve also been heard people describe themselves in these positions as “hacks”, but I’m not so fond of that. Writing in the PR/adv world can be as challenging as writing a haiku (although perhaps less noble in its subject!) :-)

    • I think you’re right, though: it’s all writing, and still a craft, and coming up with an effective slogan can be just as much of a poetic endeavour as penning a haiku. Mind you, I always have Orwell’s voice at the back of my mind when I say that, and remember Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying…

  3. I do agree with the idea that people who work in copywriting/PR/marketing/advertising do develop their writing skills. It’s the right word at the right time in the right order that will sell the product (although who decides in the end is debatable!) I’ve worked in these fields all my career and consider myself a writer (or “wordsmith” I’ve heard called nowadays). Having to work within such constraints as time, budget, unknown clients’ expectations – all helps to make you as concise a writer as anything else. If you love words, you love words, no matter what you do for a living. :-)

    • ‘Wordsmith’ is quite a good word, since writing is a craft like working with iron or steel or gold in many ways. It needs to be learned, and as you say, advertising and related fields are a great way to learn the craft under testing conditions. I’ve been called a ‘wordspinner’ before, which is a slightly less laudatory phrase!

  4. Pingback: Writers and Copywriters: Literature and Advertising | cultureslice

  5. Reblogged this on cultureslice.

  6. Murder Must Advertise is my single favorite book of Dorothy Sayers’. She approaches Charles Dickens in her commentary on modern life, but whereas Dickens drums his point home, Sayers slips it in like a stiletto…until the last passage of the book, which opens the wound and leaves us gaping.

  7. I just couldn’t work in advertising in much the same way I couldn’t write jingles in my former life as a music composer. It’s not that I belittle the work – far from it – I just can’t get into the consumer’s mind that way. I always want to add something that just wouldn’t working in advertising. All credit where its due, Rushdie et al used their creative skills to boil a message down to a single sentence. How many of us writers can do that? Not me, that’s for certain!

  8. Fascinating reading about writers born out of advertising. Love history and interesting factoids–this blog delivers! Must also say thank you for becoming a follower of my blog. I am honored and delighteted you find the posts meaningful.

  9. These days a writer who wishes to hit the best sellers list needs to consider himself a product to be sold. Products like books are bought by the curious and by hyped up advertising. So whether read or end up as a nine day wonder depends on hooking those curious who wants to check out the product. If the writer has written well and has depth and gloss of urbanity to package his ‘timeless truths ‘ the word of mouth must do the trick. Each line to be an ad jingle is boring but the trade of compressing an idea within a para must be brilliant. A reader looking for a needle of sharpness in a haystack of paragraphs must be what keeps reading a pleasure. Advertising is not demeaning but a journeyman scribbler’s stopover. When he does end as a writer of a few unforgettable books these stages do not matter.

    • That’s very true – and there’s a certain herd mentality, where people read a bestseller just because it’s a bestseller and everyone else is reading it (good old-fashioned word of mouth still a powerful force in the world of publicity!). I bemoan this, sometimes – though I suppose advertising itself is an art (or can be)…

  10. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    Art and Advertising? Read on for an interesting essay on famous writers who worked in advertising early in their writing careers.

  11. My first career was in radio advertising copywriting. For 15 years that put paid to writing for pleasure. But the best advice I got, and passed on to all those I trained, was “just start writing”. Somewhere along the lines you’ll find a phrase you can grab, and start again with, to make something that works. Favourite ad-that-didn’t-make-it was for a lawn spray that targetted a vicious spiky weed. I started it “Don’t kick against the pricks” . But – they were more prudish days then….

    • Haha, I like that slogan! It’s interesting how often it appears to be a matter of finding that right phrase which is catchy, accurate, and memorable. ‘Just start writing’ sounds like excellent advice. As a writer once said, ‘Those who writer are writers. Those who wait are waiters…’

  12. Thanks for making the Guiness/Sayers connection. I have several Guiness glasses with slogans (including “Guiness is good for you”). Reminds me I should read something by Sayers as well. I suppose there is something almost akin to poetry in advertising (dare I say that!?). Mostly because so much needs to be conveyed in such a compact form. Thanks for the interesting tid-bits!

    • I think you’re right: jingles in advertising used to be much closer to poetry (Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying demonstrates this, in the early twentieth century), but even now advertising slogans often rely on rhymes and alliteration/assonance/repetition etc. to make themselves more catchy and memorable. And thanks :)

  13. The great American modernist poet, Hart Crane, also tried his hand at writing advertisements. Living off the generosity of benefactors proved to be more lucrative, however. Nonetheless, many of Crane’s poems incorporate snatches of advertisements and jingles. Check out “The River” for a mind-blowing, life altering conceptualization of modern life.

  14. Thanks for the follow! I’ve followed you as well. As a Mad Men fan, who just read a book called “Mad Women” (by Jane Maas who worked in advertising in the 60’s) this post really resonated with me. Look forward to more interesting reads!

  15. Interesting to read that some well-known authors worked in advertising. It would certainly help them to focus on their message I think.

  16. Being a complete Philistine, IL … I think I prefer his ads to his books. :)

  17. Australian author, the late Bryce Courtney also started in advertising. He was responsible for creating an Australian advertising icon, Louie the Fly for Mortein Fly spray. In fact, the infant in the very first Louie the Fly commercial was Bryce’s own son.

  18. Oof. I write corporate copy and it absolutely dulls my creativity.

  19. I like Rushdie’s comment about learning to write like a job. Something to think about… or maybe I should just go and write.

  20. Advertising can teach you how to write punchy and short, but journalism is still probably a better ground, with its humanism and emphasis on telling stories clearly. And putting the most interesting thing upfront.

    • Good point – you need to make things eye-catching right from the start with journalism and still need to write economically. And, of course, you still need to write to a deadline. I think there’s another good post to be written on the links between journalism and literature – many famous writers started off in journalism after all…

  21. Very interesting post. I didn’t realize so many authors began their writing careers in advertising.

  22. Leopold Bloom was a serial masturbator who SOLD advertising SPACE and only wrote dirty letters.

    • True, his creative talents were directed elsewhere, I suppose…

      • I’m well aware of that, but the fact that he was involved in the advertisement business led to several discussions about “the modern art of advertisement” in 1904 Dublin, like in this passage from the penultimate chapter :

        “What also stimulated him [Leopold Bloom] in his cogitations?
        The financial success achieved by Ephraim Marks and Charles A. James, the former by his 1d bazaar at 42 George’s street, south, the latter at his 6-1/2d shop and world’s fancy fair and waxwork exhibition at 30 Henry street, admission 2d, children 1d: and the infinite possibilities hitherto unexploited of the modern art of advertisement if condensed in triliteral monoideal symbols, vertically of maximum visibility (divined), horizontally of maximum legibility (deciphered) and of magnetising efficacy to arrest involuntary attention, to interest, to convince, to decide.

        Such as?[…]
        Such as not? […]
        Such as never?
        What is home without Plumtree’s Potted Meat?
        With it an abode of bliss.
        Manufactured by George Plumtree, 23 Merchants’ quay, Dublin, put up in 4 oz pots, and inserted by Councillor Joseph P. Nannetti, M. P., Rotunda Ward, 19 Hardwicke street, under the obituary notices and anniversaries of deceases. The name on the label is Plumtree. A plumtree in a meatpot, registered trade mark. Beware of imitations. Peatmot. Trumplee. Moutpat. Plamtroo.”etc. etc.

        And let’s not forget that the meeting between Stephen and Leopold is a meeting between Writer and Canvasser, (and in a broader sense Artist and Scientist.)
        Sorry for not being this clear in my first comment!
        Thanks again for this post!

  23. A really interesting side of literature, seeing that the 20th century brought up numerous new styles of writing, and this is definitely one of them. Whether or not it is detrimental to literature as a whole is not a question here, since it didn’t force writers to commit solely to it, but rather to expand their own style and push them toward innovations.
    And by the by, couldn’t help but remember Leopold Bloom when I read ‘Guinness makes you drunk’ who was himself an advertisement canvasser in ‘Ulysses’.
    Thanks for posting!

    • Of course, Leopold Bloom! I’m kicking myself over overlooking such an excellent link. May have to amend the blog post shortly to include that marvellous suggestion – thanks for the great comment!

  24. I think that any vocational pursuit that involves use of the imagination is fertile ground for future authors.

  25. I agree; it is definitely an art form. It has all the ingredients: it can make you laugh, it can make you think, it can make your stomach turn, etc, does it not?

  26. poetry, of course, is where advertising indeed
    meets literature, the leaner prose, the artful
    grammar, alliteration, onomatopeia, ingenious
    use of punctuation, a terser, tauter text, a
    catchy musicality, rhythm, bounce

    Marshall McLuhan was not at all wrong, he’d
    been getting it straight, and in spades already,
    from Andy Warhol in art, though Warhol on
    that account, on that very account, had been
    considered highly controversial, still is

    love your “Interesting Literature”



  27. I have been meaning to read some of Rushdie’s works, this makes great inspiration. Advertising and marketing are the nightmare of most writers I know, but it’s so important!

    • Indeed – in the modern world promotion becomes more and more important all the time. I suppose writers who have seen things from across the advertiser’s desk have a stronger sense of that! And Midnight’s Children is generally acclaimed as Rushdie’s best, so that’s perhaps the one to seek out first :)

  28. Salman Rushdie worked in advertising??!!! I didn’t know that. My mind is blown, but in a good way.

  29. Of course Guiness is Good For You! — YUR ;-)

  30. ‘Go to work on a Bed.’ – Marcel Proust (unattributed)?

  31. How inspiring. Now lets see how we can rivet our readers with 140 characters

  32. Thanks for this post! Helpful since I’ve just joined the ad industry and Rushdie’s comment about it teaching him to write like a job rings true! People think it diminishes your creativity or writing talent, but it only adds to it discipline.

    • Good to get an insider’s opinion, Nandini – I can understand that about it adding discipline. I guess one of the things many aspiring writers struggle with is the issue of writing to order and self-discipline, but ad-writing forces you to be creative to order and with a deadline looming. Glad you enjoyed the post :)