WALKING TOILET DOG. (…And Other Flush-Worthy Assignments From a Life In Advertising)
For every writer who captures the natural wonder of Walden Pond, there’s an advertising writer who will be asked to construct straight-faced sentences about an overactive bladder. For every newsman who pulls on his life jacket and documents the miracle of Dunkirk, there’s an advertising writer who puts on a drab smock and measures the staying power of enamel paint. For every writer whose words soar with the first flight at Kitty Hawk, there’s an advertising writer jotting down the technical specifications of the Commodore 64 computer. And for every novelist who poetically reminisces about love’s first kiss, there’s an advertising writer detailing the symptoms of mononucleosis.
There’s the romantic notion of writing, the brightly lit storefront of writing, then there’s the dim back alley, the sausage factory of writing. This is a story that’s short on romance and, well, long on sausage. It’s a story that takes all of the fun out of writing but, as it turns out, would be pretty fuckin’ funny … If it wasn’t about me.
Like so many accomplished writers, I was raised in Downey, California. My dad built the house we lived in. There were six of us kids and my mom was Carol Brady, and though we didn’t have a maid named Alice there was a lady named Marie that came every so often to clean up a bit. My mom used a lot of hairspray and if you went into her bathroom barefoot your feet would stick to the floor as if it was covered with flypaper; Marie spent most of her time mopping the linoleum. When I wasn’t busy humiliating myself, my mom was doing it for me. She made me wear Plain Pocket jeans from JCPenney, the kind with the snap button instead of the button fly Levi’s had. I could never get them snapped, so every day before I went out into the neighborhood to get my ass kicked because of our family’s denim choice, my mom had to snap my pants for me. My mom and dad, very often, needed to get away from us brats and we had a babysitter who mostly did only two things, take us out to dinner at Fosters Freeze and break up fights.
I went to college because my brother did, and by the time I was ready to matriculate I knew absolutely everything I would ever need to know … about football and rock & roll. I made a lot of bad choices in college, mostly on multiple-choice tests. But I found one true friend there—the essay question, and I discovered that you could get an improved grade with volume, so I learned a few words, added punctuation to convert those words into sentences and then used them over and over and over again.
For over thirty years, in ways both mainstream and totally obscure, I’ve called myself writer, the kind you probably never knew existed. Other people usually call me something else. A writer of my kind is like the brother-in-law who’s a proctologist; he’s a doctor, but nobody can bring themselves to think of him as such. He makes a good living, supports a family, but we don’t talk about how that money’s made. We thought he would be a brain surgeon; we had such high hopes for him. At parties, he gets introduced as a doctor, but when asked about his specialty everyone gets on his bike and starts backpedaling, “Oh, Sam’s a generalist, but he’s now on the backside of his career.”
That’s me (not the backside part). If I’m forced to divulge that I’m a writer, everyone, and I seriously mean every single person I’ve ever met says, “Oh ya, what do you write?” And to make the conversation stop I just always say: “Advertising!” That satisfies people. They think they know what that means. I can hear what they say to themselves as they walk away: “See that guy over there? He wrote Got Milk? and Just Do It and the Oscar Mayer bologna jingle.” I didn’t. It’s not like that.
Advertising is bright and shiny and so pinstriped suit. All the bosses are named Larry Tate and all the secretaries are smokin’ hot and the accounts are really big—life-changing big, actually. And when the junior copywriter who invents the slogan that lands the agency-changing account (using a Magic Marker and the back of a cocktail napkin) he gets his name on the door; Black & Decker & Montgomery & Ward & Bartles & James & Macke. Mad Men fantasyland aside, that’s not really how it works.
There are of course some big agencies that write Super Bowl spots with fountain pens, that use Labrador puppies to sell low-carb beer. There are executive creative directors, guys with titles like Chief Dream Catalyst and receptionists that wear nylons and who will fetch your lunch. But for every address on Madison Avenue, there’s a strip center in the City of Commerce or an industrial park in Chatsworth or a converted warehouse on Manchester and Vermont. These backwaters, where unpublished authors like me write most of the words, drive the engine of commerce in this country (well, I can’t actually prove that). These backwaters are where products and procedures and the ideas of the enlightened and the foolhardy are packaged and marketed, not during a commercial break of the Academy Awards, but via ridiculously inconspicuous websites and trade magazines.
These backwaters: I have a cubicle there.
How did I get here? In the chapters that follow, I’m gonna tell you, but the short story is by accident, a terrible, kind of amazing accident. My college diploma said I was a journalist (a damn lie that someone should be sued over) and, well, one company after another believed it, and for better or for worse, the kind of job you take, maybe out of fresh-from-college desperation, starts to define who you are and what you can do. It snowballs.
The story of the jobs I’ve had and the written propaganda I’ve manufactured is the story of technical minutia and alien lifeforms. I’ve written about mini blinds and wallpaper, PCs and printers, drum kits and synthesizers, multiple kinds of breast implants, fiber-optic cable, digital multiplexers, spray paint, cataract lenses, nuclear body scanners, digital cameras, home automation systems, Disneyland, eye drops, online education, burgers and fries, electric guitars, glaucoma drugs, civic projects, software, process improvement, genomic sequencing, symphony orchestras, microprocessors, birth control pills, Token Ring networks, surgical instrument sterilization, computer hard drives, HIV/AIDS, motion pictures, viscoelastic, laser eye surgery, femtosecond lasers, consumer credit, oncology, luggage, skincare, mergers and acquisitions, dermal fillers, home audio equipment, phacoemulsification systems, cosmetics, sleep disorders, art supplies, diagnostic testing, container shipping, medical publishing, California-grown cotton, veterinary health, soap, and ultrasound machines.
If the subjects of my brochures and websites have been complicated and obscure, the people I encountered have been quirky and maddening. There have been women who own 789 colored markers and men who believe advertising is a holy calling and scientists and electrical engineers and doctors and they all somehow shared a common objective — to rewrite every word I ever wrote.
How these people and the rather random jobs we shared turned a perfectly promising writing career into a long strange trip can be summed up in just two words: Toilet Dog.
Toilet Dog wasn’t a real pup, but he was a real concept. The fact that he lived any life at all is both a commentary on the pathetic trajectory of my professional life and a telling snapshot of an industry that has generally lost its way by not being able to say “no” to clients and by forgetting to give consumers credit for having even the most rudimentary measure of human intelligence.
So some of the people who worked for me, an art person and a mid-level creative lead, sat in on a meeting to discuss creative ideas and parameters for a new product we were asked to market. The product dealt with frequent urination; that is, it was a drug to help mostly men avoid having to get up and pee eleven times every night. At this meeting, they talked about what this must be like, that these men begin having an awkward, personal relationship with the toilet. They brainstormed ideas about how best to depict this malady, or more accurately, what kind of concepts and visuals might give the afflicted a quick idea that this is a product that may result in more sleep and less pissing.
An account person opined that the urge to frequently urinate must be a lot like having a dog that, every time you start to nod off, barks or prods you with his muzzle to be let out. People agreed (of course, you can’t disagree in these situations because EVERYONE needs to feel that their ideas have merit). Ya, someone said, it’s like the toilet is the dog and he constantly needs your attention and he’s ruining your life and I had a boxer once who . . .
Anyway, the meeting ends and my guys get tasked with flushing out some ideas (headlines and images), and before they leave an account girl or maybe the creative director says: “ . . . And a few of the ideas should include an animated depiction or character. The client specifically asked for some type of character to be included in the concepts because these characters are memorable and take the scariness out of it all.” They show up in my office at meeting’s end and say that they had some ideas to chase over the next few days, and the concept that seemed to have the most momentum was Toilet Dog.
“Ya, someone thought that frequent urination was analogous to having a dog that needs to be let outside all throughout the night. But instead of the dog nagging the man, it’s the toilet calling.”
“They say they want a version of this concept animated” (that means drawn as a cartoon character).
I say, “First off, the toilet is completely innocent here. It’s not calling out to these old fuckers, it’s just sitting there ready to catch whatever comes out. It’s not the reason they need to pee. Second, why pick on Fido? A dog wakes its owner because it lacks an opposable thumb so he can’t let himself out, in fact, the reality that he asks to be let out instead of just letting loose on the carpet makes him a hero. This idea makes man’s best friend a dirty dog.”
“Maybe, but one of the concepts has to be a character, and this is the only idea that lends itself to that treatment.”
This is classic circular logic in the world I’ve inhabited for the last thirty years. The concept is off strategy, but it fits the vessel the idea needs to be crammed into. So often the right idea takes a backseat to the idea you can sell. Three days later I’m looking at a drawing of a rambunctious young pup. It’s TD. He’s your basic American Standard white porcelain model. He has toilet-paper-roll ears, and his muzzle is essentially the toilet bowl with the seat raised from the body of the throne to create a mouth. Other body parts were rigged somehow, but sure enough, by all appearances, this was a perfectly happy pooch carved from a toilet.
“Nice drawing,” I say. “Why’s he so happy?”
“Well, you can’t really have the dog looking all glum.”
“So, he’s happy because he’s about to get peed on, um, peed in…About once every twenty minutes for the next eight hours? And I repeat, this terrier toilet represents the problem, not the solution. When the desperate old guy hears his imagined bark, bark, bark his mind will say, I gotta pee, I gotta pee, I gotta pee.”
“No, no. The friendly pup will draw him in, like seeing an old friend and then the headline will say something like, ‘It’s time for your bathroom to stop being your closest friend.’”
I thought to myself, I’ve heard dumber things before but only because I work here.
Toilet Dog never got unleashed on the American public or its physicians, but with a straight face, it was presented to actual paying customers as a viable branding statement for a new pharmaceutical to treat chronic going. It apparently got brownie points for being memorable, but it was ultimately determined that the visual of peeing on/in/with your labrador was a bit too much, even for man’s best friend.
It’s true some aspects of my writing life are reminiscent of a bathroom stall, but life’s just a word game anyway, and in a lot of ways, I think I’m winning. In my advertising writing career I’ve derived two universal truths: (1) writing about impossibly obscure things, is writing just the same, and in certain cases is more challenging and pays more than traditional forms and (2) people who write and design with the sole intent of selling something are really just propagandists, what we do isn’t criminal but neither is it noble.
This then is the story of me writing about stupid shit and the funny, awful, lame things that can happen when words get mixed up in technical discussions and the engine of commerce and a workplace that is nothing like what you’ve seen on TV.
Photo credit: D()MENICK on VisualHunt /CC BY-NC-ND