New Biography of Howard Gossage

03May12

Howard Gossage was the San Francisco advertising innovator, sometimes referred to as the “Socrates of San Francisco,” who introduced and promoted Marshall McLuhan in media and intellectual circles in San Francisco and New York in the mid-’60s. You can read about him in Philip Marchand’s biography of McLuhan, pp. 182-183 and in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Gossage .

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Tim Lindsay reviews Steve Harrison’s book, ‘An eyewitness account of the life and times of Howard Luck Gossage.’

Advertising books are like buses; none for ages and then three come along at once.  Following on from ‘Hegarty on Advertising’ and Andrew Cracknell’s ‘the Real Madmen’ comes this intriguing and essential account of the life and times of Howard Luck Gossage.

I know you’re busy but I’m afraid you’re going to have to read it.

Most of us in this great business of ours – certainly those of us of a certain age – can give a roughly accurate account of the creative revolutions in advertising and design that occurred first in New York, then in London, in the 50’s and 60’s. Bill Bernach and his agency loom large, as do George Lois, Julian Koenig, Jerry Della Femina, Bob Gill, Terence Conran, Colin Millward, Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Hugh Hudson, David Puttnam, Colin Fletcher and many more.

You’ll have your own list.

What Steve Harrison has done is bring someone else to our attention – someone who I suspect most of us either haven’t heard of, or know very little about. Steve calls Gossage ‘1960’s America’s most innovative, influential and irreverent advertising genius’.

Really? That’s some billing. What did this guy do?

He did some amazing stuff. Allow me to quote the dust jacket. This is the story of a man who ‘set out to reinvent advertising and then change the world.…he introduced interactive, PR-generating stunts and social media…saved the Grand Canyon and kick-started the Green Movement…launched Wired magazine’s patron saint….and all with a flamboyance that inspired the likes of Tom Wolfe, John Steinbeck and the makers of the counterculture’.

Incredibly he did all this from a base in what was then an advertising backwater – San Francisco. His agency was never big and after a while he got bored with working for commercial clients and turned his talent and energy to the kind of work described in the uncompromised and Gossage-like title of the book – changing the world.

But before we get to that, what were the ads like?

Well, they were pretty much all print, and mostly ran in the New Yorker magazine.  They were for products that Gossage himself liked, and written only for an audience with which he felt he could identify.  He didn’t do campaigns, preferring to write an ad, run it and then write another one based on the feedback.  And there nearly always was feedback; the ads mostly had coupons even if there wasn’t an offer attached.

Gossage liked to know how folks felt about things.

So; feedback loops, embryonic communities built around products and services, ‘parallel structures’ instead of Mad Av’s painfully direct approach and some almost surreal (and very modern) ideas; He invented ‘pink asphalt’ and ‘pink air’ for Fina, a paper aeroplane competition for Scientific American, a competition to win a kangaroo for Qantas. This was a long way from Rosser Reeves (with whom Gossage had numerous spats, public and private) and his USP.

Then he really got going.

He read a book called ‘Understanding Media; the Extensions of Man’; loved it because it articulated his own beliefs; rang the author, an obscure Canadian academic, in the middle of the night and ‘launched’ him, like a new product, to a young America in the midst of a social, sexual and cultural revolution. The audience embraced this new messiah of the media age with religious fervour.   

The academic was Marshall McLuhan.  

He got involved with a campaign that prevented the flooding of the Grand Canyon by the power companies, supporting and inspiring the movement’s leader, David Brower, and casually christening Brower’s grassroots activist organisation.

The organisation is called ‘Friends of the Earth’.

He was involved with Ken Kesey, the Merry Pranksters and the LSD experiments that eventually became Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test’. His agency, the Firehouse, was used as a safe-house and meeting place for people who became heroes of the counterculture.

The events that were planned there are known to us as the Summer of Love.

He did all this and much, much more with an enthusiasm, a love of life and a boundless curiosity about people and how the world worked, inspiring love and loyalty in nearly everyone around him.

Then at the age of 51 he got leukaemia.   Read the rest at http://tinyurl.com/cvfkcxc .

You can read Gossage’s essay “Understanding Marshall McLuhan” here: http://tinyurl.com/cj7ljbd

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4 Responses to “New Biography of Howard Gossage”

  1. Steve’s book is an excellent introduction to the life of Howard. We’ve been working on a documentary about Gossage for the last 5 years (a labour of love if ever there was one!). His forgotten impact on the world of advertising is, as Steve discusses in his book, something that all of us in the industry should know about. More important though is his greater attitude to the world of work and how we can all make a difference.

    Howard approached all his life with a sense of flahoolick (an Irish Word that he used in one of his campaigns – which means a generosity of spirit). It was this that most influenced his attitude to not just advertising, but applying ideas to the wider world.

    His approach to creativity started the environmental movement, created the first forms of social media with pen and ink, established a new nation in the Caribbean and attempted to stop the Anti Ballistic missile from his death bed.

    You can find a trailer for the film, (which is due out the start of next year at the Sundance film festival) here – http://www.howardluckgossage.com

    And there is much more information, research and relevant articles on the Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/pages

    Ashley Pollak
    Creative Director, ETIO

    • I have posted information about the fascinating Howard Gossage on this site before. I am aware of your efforts and very much support them. I will keep the McLuhan studies community informed about your film. It would be great to see it presented at the Hotdocs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto next year. See http://www.hotdocs.ca/ . Thanks……AlexK

      • Alex, thank you for your kind support, I look forward to showing you the film! Hot Docs is on our radar after the film is launched, so hopefully that will be an opportunity to say hello. All the best. Ashley


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