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June 12, 2008
Back to the Future of the Past

Last year Dana Perino, the White House Press Secretary, admitted she didn’t know what the Bay of Pigs Invasion was. When I heard that, I thought, shouldn’t someone working in the White House have a basic knowledge of 20th century American history?

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. As a culture, Americans have very selective memories, and the past is soon forgotten.

Advertising professionals are no different. A while back on AdPulp.com, I got into a discussion about Apple’s “1984” commercial and its lack of product information. The ad has been lionized for 24 years as a shining triumph of advertising and film. But few people remember that in addition to a great commercial, Apple also bought 40 pages of advertising in one issue of Newsweek to explain—with long body copy precision—exactly what the computer did. And even with all that, the Macintosh wasn’t an instant success.

Should we care if our co-workers and clients, as the song goes, don’t know much about history?

The history of advertising, pop culture, and business in general is quite vast. I’ve always believed more knowledge is always better, no matter what the subject. And it’s amazing how a few years of experience in advertising, coupled with a good memory, can hone your inner BS detector.

Some people just entering the business world and the ad industry may not have a full recollection of the 1999-2000 dot-com buildup and meltdown. You can see it with new technology being hyped. When Facebook announced last year it was accepting advertising, its CEO heralded it as a revolution stating, “once every hundred years, media changes.” I wasn’t around in 1907, but I’m old enough to realize he was full of shit.

Perhaps that’s why so few marketing concepts captivate me. I’ve seen them before, albeit probably in a more primitive iteration. And if you’re a student of history, as I sometimes am, I’ve begun to realize that even the most unique ideas today’s agencies produce are built on foundations erected by previous ad people.

Advertising and promotion, in all its forms, has been around for a long, long time. The artist will.i.am caused a viral stir a few months ago by writing and singing a song for Barack Obama. As citizen-generated political marketing, born of genuine excitement for a candidate, it was a cool idea. But it’s not exactly a new one. In the Presidential election of 1840, someone wrote a song called “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” for William Henry Harrison, a war hero who was running for President. It was famous at the time, the “Yes We Can” of its day. And it got Harrison elected.

Okay, that’s an extreme example. But if you look hard enough, you’ll always find remnants of old ideas in today’s new concepts. The trick is to avoid using a library of knowledge to shoot down good ideas. And it doesn’t take long to find someone in an agency, usually a grizzled ACD or CD, who uses their memory to make you feel stupid. You don’t want to become one of those insufferable ad people who looks at every concept and says something like, “so-and-so did that ad back at Hal Riney in 1986 and it’s on page 35 of the CA annual.”

There is a danger in recalling the past so much. I’m beginning to think my brain resembles a file cabinet. I fear there’s a large chunk of it where memories and history are stored, gathering dust and cobwebs, gradually leaving less and less room for new ideas and thoughts.

Yes, advertising is a young person’s industry, and we live in a short-term memory society as it is. But history, when it comes to advertising and marketing or business in general, should serve as lessons for us. Not to discourage experimentation and innovation, but as a building block to always consider the possibilities and prepare for contingencies.

Ultimately, we can use the past to avoid costly mistakes—and sell better work to our clients who can then sell more of their own products and services. So it’s a good idea to know a bit about the past. But even once you know it, you have to focus on living in the present and creating ideas for the future.

Because if you’re not forward-thinking, your career in advertising will soon be history.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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