By Jack Cashill
I had worked full time in the business for four years before I really, completely believed that advertising worked. The event that convinced me took place 15 years ago this week, and the product in question was none other than my very own house.
For no good reason, I had decided that I could sell the house without a real estate agent. A friend, who had sold her own house, served as my guide on this unlikely adventure. She began by bringing over her “For Sale by Owner” sign. You’ve seen them. They are small, black on white, and, I suspect, a subtle form of sabotage propagated by the real estate industry. They look much too much like the generic macaroni and cheese boxes that fed me through college to attract anyone but the homeless.
I’m in advertising,” I told my friend, “I’ve got to do something splashier.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I answered, “like balloons or something.”
“Baloons?” my friend responded with eyebrows arched. “That would be in bad taste.”
Maybe so. From then on, everything we did would be in good taste. We redecorated the house in a kind of country kitchen motif and ran nice little ads in the daily newspaper. On Sunday, for open house, we put cinammon on the stove and wood in the fireplace and waited for the flocks of eager home buyers.
And waited. And waited. And waited. Four weeks later, I got my first nibble. A pleasant-looking fellow came to the door in jacket and tie. “Excuse me, sir,” he said.
“Yes,” I answered hopefully. My neighbors would be pleased if this guy bought the house.
“Are you at peace with the Lord?” He was a Jehovah’s Witness selling Watchtower Magazines. It didn’t matter. I took him on a tour of the house anyway. I wanted someone to smell the cinammon and soak up the wood-burning ambience before summer arrived. Needless to say, he didn’t buy the house, but he commented that it was a very nice house, and were he able, he would buy one just like this. In return, I bought several Watchtowers.
Six weeks after starting the sales process, my family and I had to pack up our belongings, even the cinammon pot, and ready them for the move to a new house. This was crunch time. Starting Monday, I was looking at two mortgages. I was in advertising. I had to do something.
At the time I lived on East 59th Street in the humbler end of Brookside. Like every fourth street in Kansas City, 59th had enough traffic to justify my proposed marketing scheme. My friend, of course, tried to talk me out of it. My wife was more favorably inclined until the last moment when I started to transfer the scheme to public view.
“Jack,” she yelled behind me as I headed out, “are you sure you want to do this?”
Yea. I was two mortgages sure. I walked several blocks down 59th street and asked my neighbors if I could post a sign on their property. None of them said “No,” not exactly anyhow. I had ten signs in all--black lettering on yellow sign board stapled to tomato stakes. I placed the signs about 50 yards apart. They read as follows:
I had fought my first impulse, which was to write something cool and existential, something that distanced me from the folly at hand. But then I realized I was acting too much like the clients my colleagues and I always kvetched about. No, I had to go direct and simple, sell the benefits, and conclude with a premium at the end to encourage response.
The signs posted, I moved into phase two of my multi-media campaign. I started calling local TV stations. Something to remember--if you want to get on the news, shoot for Sunday. The stations are as desperate as you are. My first call went to KMBC. After a few misdirections, I reached the news director. “Yea,” she said brusquely. “Whaddya got?”
“Well,” I said timidly, “there’s this guy on my street with these incredible signs.” I explained the signs. The news director hesitated, then asked, “What’s his name. Where does he live?”
I could vacillate no longer. “Truth is,” I admitted sheepishly, “It’s me. If you promise you’ll send somone, I will give you an exclusive.” She promised she would.
That afternoon I manned a box on my front porch. That was all that was left in the way of furniture. I had no cinammon this week, no logs on the fire, no country kitchen décor. All I had were my boxes and my signs.
And that’s all I needed. That afternoon seven serious sets of lookers stopped by to walk through the empty house. A hundred others honked or waved. At the end of the day the crew came by from Channel 9. They shot the signs and interviewed me. I could not have asked for more. That evening they ran the piece twice and even showed the phone number. Since my phone had been disconnected, I posted my friend’s number. She was thrilled--people called into the wee hours. In any case, we received 14 serious inquiries in all and sold the house on Monday at the asking price. I was a believer.Jack’s Big Night
Largely for vanity’s sake, I recorded the TV piece. When the announcement came for the OMNIS, Kansas City’s glam ad competition, I proposed to enter the two-minute VHS tape in the “sales promotion” category. My boss was hesitant. It cost money to enter, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to squander the company’s good name on a cheesy $20 promotion. I whined until I got my way, sent in the video, and awaited the results. Lo and behold, the entry made the show.
I was pumped until I got there and saw the program. 22 entries made the “finals” in the sales promotion category. This was probably the Ad Club’s way of building self-esteem and/or juicing attendance. Scarier still, many of these promotions were spectacular six-figure jobs by the corporate biggies, all prominently and depressingly on display.
Bummed, I resigned myself to another ho-hum night at the OMNIS. This meant, for me like most attendees, an unceasing stream of liquor-enhanced cattiness about the preening competition, their lame entries, and the stupid judges who gave them awards that my friends and I should have won.
And then they called Sales Promotions. I sat up as they started to list the bronze “winners.” I kept waiting for them to call my name, but when the bronze category ended after ten entries without my name being called, I stood up and announced to table that “I won this MF-ing contest.” “How can you be sure?” a colleague asked. “There are at least a dozen entries left.”
“Maybe so,” I answered, “but if my entry isn’t a bronze, it’s a gold, because it ain’t no silver.” They started to call the silver. Half-way through I covered my ears. I didn’t want to hear anymore. But by the looks of my colleagues’ faces, I knew I had prevailed. Hot dog!
In the larger scheme of things this was a stupid, trivial moment, but dang it was perfect! Yes, I realized, advertising does work. The judges in these competitions are wiser than I thought. The OMNIS do have value. My colleagues and competitors are really swell folks. And, to be sure, advertising was one heck of way to make a living.
Maybe it’s time to move again.