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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?