Introducing “Profiles”, wherein we ask several questions of people we believe to have a well-developed sense of humor.
Our first interviewee: Joe Lawson, the writer behind GEICO’s reality show spoof Tiny House. Joe left the dark side of advertising agency account service in order to pursue his dream of being on the creative side. He works for the Martin Agency, a not unsmall agency in Virginia.
“The marriage was built to last, but the house was built too small.”
The first time people see the TV spot for Tiny House they go through a series of emotions – shock, disbelief, anger, denial and finally, relief – after they realize that they’ve been had by yet another ad for GEICO.
Tiny House was recently praised in Slate as “one of the best ads on TV.” If you’ve had the television on for any period of time, you’ve probably seen it, and you’d probably agree.
Banterist: A lot of advertising people would kill to have something like Tiny House on their resume, yet they’re stuck with a portfolio of chicken flop for DayQuil and Monistat. Do you feel differently around those people when at big industry functions?
Joe: The most important thing is to avoid big industry functions. That way you’re not reminded of the transitory nature of goodness in advertising. Every once in a while, if you are lucky, you catch the tail of an opportunity and put something on TV that doesn’t annoy people, but most of the time 99% of us are producing crap.
Now that you’re an accomplished parodist, you’re in a position to introduce yourself to other accomplished parodists such as Weird Al Yankovic. Assuming you were forced to approach him, how would you introduce yourself?
Hi! I like your flip-flops! You are funny! (That’s how my two year-old daughter introduces herself to everyone and it works out great.)
A recent SLATE article by Seth Stevenson called Tiny House “the best ad on television.” Can you think of three situations where you might be inclined to play the “I wrote the best ad on television!” card?
“Look, we know the land was promised to you by God, but I wrote the best ad on television and I’m telling you, you have to take that shit back to Israel.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did you write the best ad on television? Or was it me? That’s right. I wrote the best ad on television and I say we stay here until the Iraqi citizens can hold their own against the insurgency.”
“Am I the one who chose to live in Africa? No. I chose to write the best ad on television. Maybe when you write the best ad on television you can have steak, too.”
Likewise, having written the best ad on television must have piqued the interest of other agencies in acquiring you. Have you noticed your bosses following you to lunch or asking who you’re on the phone with?
Not at all. Advertising writers are becoming a commodity. If I left, another one would simply pop up in my place.
In my experience, every advertising copywriter is a frustrated screenwriter. Can you give me the log-line of the unfinished screenplay that’s undoubtedly on your desktop?
Actually, at the moment, it’s a short story about tiny Vikings.
Speaking of, Tiny House has undoubtedly motivated an aspiring-screenwriter to detour into advertising for a while. Do you have any advice for him or her?
“You’re going the wrong way.”
While at Nobu not long ago, I spotted Donald Trump and reality-show creator Mark Burnett dining. Should I have thanked them on your behalf or violently cursed at them on the world’s behalf?
Assuming you did neither, you did the right thing – you participated in your own life, something the average American has completely forgotten how to do. Burnett didn’t create unfulfilled lives, he just caters to the mass audience that has them.
Probably due to the preponderance of hacks in it, the advertising industry has been known to seize on a theme and do it to death. As soon as someone does handheld camera, everyone does handheld camera, as soon as someone does black & white with a touch of color, everyone does black & white with a touch of color. How many fake reality show ads do you expect to see in the next year?
If people want to take a stab at it, be my guest. I’m amazed Tiny House even ran. The networks were all over our asses about the fact that it looked so authentic. They were afraid the TV-viewing audience, you know, being dumb and all, would confuse it for actual programming, so we had trouble getting it through Legal. Obviously, that confusion was our intention, but the networks really, really care about the poor viewer, because, as you know, if someone confuses a commercial for actual programming then they…go up into the light. Just like in Logan’s Run.
There are many good creative types in the ad industry who are stifled by moronic clients. Is it hopeless for them, or is there some clever approach to get good spots past account executives named Vance?
The problem is, Vance isn’t smart enough or dumb enough. He’s right in the middle. If he were a fucking idiot, good spots would fill the airwaves. TV’s would be art museums. Problem is, Vance knows just enough to sniff out your hidden agenda. The only answer, and even this is low percentage, is tenacity. I presented Tiny House like eight times, never once changing it. You just keep presenting the stuff you want to do, the way you want to do it, and then one day you hopefully catch Vance off-guard because he had too much Smirnoff Ice the night before. Finally, if that doesn’t work, kill Vance. Seriously. Anyone who’s ever done anything half-decent in advertising has had to kill at least one guy. It’s standard practice.
I think if you are looking for creative fulfillment in advertising, you are on a slippery slope. You might find it for a while, but it won’t last. The longer you do it, the greater your tolerance becomes. Eventually you need a bigger and bigger creative fix to get the same buzz. My thinking is, if you’re going to invest that much time and thought and energy into trying to do something good, you should invest it in something you really care about, at least something you can call your own. Having said that, I’m sure there are people who really care about advertising and find it creatively fulfilling.
After watching ten minutes of Being Bobby Brown I was ready to join the Klan. Do you think that show is a simple abomination or a very clever stealth advertisement for racists?
Again, when I see shit like that, I don’t get mad at the network or the producers or the talent. I get mad at America. That show is not an abomination, it’s the American Dream. If keeping soldiers in Iraq allows me to get high as a kite and feed my dog lobster, then hell yes, I say we stay there as long as we can.
Following the London transit attacks, New York’s mayor implemented an ineffective, wholly cosmetic, knee-jerk subway bag search program that lacks a good tagline. Any ideas?
Just Open the Goddamn Bag.™
Look Mom No Bomb!™
Open the Bag or We Open Up Your Head. With Bullets. London-Style.™
Fuck You NYCLU.™
What one word do you think would enrage James Lipton?
Anything you’d like to add?