In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle ponders the links between famous writers and advertising slogans
Fay Weldon, author of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), is one of several famous novelists 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 endorsed by the Egg Marketing Board.
But Weldon didn’t in fact write the slogan: it was ‘hatched’ (sorry, I couldn’t resist) by the creative team, Ogilvy and Mather, which Weldon headed at the time. But a good literary origin-story involving advertising slogans – especially one as ubiquitous as ‘Go to work on an egg’ – is, it would seem, too good to resist, even if it isn’t true.
At the time that ‘Go to work on an egg’ took hold in the British popular consciousness in the late 1950s and 1960s, 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. Of
course, a reported £12 million advertising campaign – a vast fortune in the 1960s – helped, as did a series of adverts using the new and exciting medium of television featuring Tony Hancock of Hancock’s Half Hour fame.
So, Weldon didn’t actually coin ‘Go to work on an egg’. But one slogan which Weldon did write herself 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!)
While 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 (reportedly) ‘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 that 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.
Another famous copywriter-turned-writer is Salman Rushdie, who also worked for the same agency as Weldon. 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 – Rushdie worked in advertising and composed some of the most celebrated slogans of the era. Among his many successes were ‘Naughty but nice’ (to advertise cream cakes), ‘That’ll do nicely’ (for American Express credit cards), and ‘Irresistibubble’ (for Aero chocolate bars). The last of these came to Rushdie while he was listening to the stammering panic of a colleague who had failed to come up with an ad campaign for the chocolate bars (he is reported to have stammered that it was ‘impossib-ib-ib-ible’), and Rushdie decided that such a stutter could form the bubbly basis of the slogan itself.
However, perhaps the most famous of these, ‘Naughty but nice’, wasn’t exactly a new phrase when Rushdie used it. A silent film from 1927, and a film musical from 1939 starring Dick Powell, both had the title Naughty but Nice. But Rushdie’s co-opting (whether consciously or unconsciously) of this pre-existing phrase for the UK Milk Board’s campaign to advertise fresh cream cakes took off, aided by a series of successful adverts featuring Kenneth Williams, Les Dawson, and others.
Rushdie also came up with this, for the Daily Mirror: ‘Look into the Mirror tomorrow – you’ll like what you see.’ The Booker-Prize-winning novelist 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 1936 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’. Which view is correct? 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. And he had actually failed the initial test he took for J. Walter Thompson, a leading advertising company. But he persevered, spurred on by a friend’s assurance that it was ‘really easy’.
Another writer to lend his services to the advertising industry was F. Scott Fitzgerald, more famous as the author of The Great Gatsby. 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, the 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? Mark Twain was certainly aware of its power: ‘Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.’ And Chekhov once claimed, ‘Advertising is the very essence of democracy.’
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.