An Interview with Steven Heller

Steven Heller, author of the essays in Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era
Steven Heller, author of the essays in Mid-Century Ads: Advertising from the Mad Men Era

Steven Heller is something of a legend in the design community. For 33 years he was an art director at The New York Times, starting on the OpEd Page but spending most of his time with The New York Times Book Review. He is Co-Chair of the MFA Designer as Author Department, Special Consultant to the President of the School of Visual Arts for New Programs. With Seymour Chwast he has directed Push Pin Editions, a packager of visual books, he is author or co-author of over 100 books, has curated a number of exhibitions, and is a recipient of the AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement, among other awards. He also wrote the essays that accompanied the work in Mid-Century Ads: Advertising in the Mad Men Era (which we reviewed here), and graciously took time from his busy schedule to discuss them with us.

big idea

Agency Review:
In your essay “What’s the Big Idea?” you seem to be making an effort to take that concept of “The Big Idea” back from the, for want of a better term, “Creative Revolution-aries” – to give it more of a business relevance. In other words, that advertising in the 60s moved from merely presenting products to actually creating demand – which are different business functions. But isn’t the real insight of “The Big Idea” that advertising is more than words and pictures – that there’s an insightful concept that those words and pictures communicate, and that THAT is the real business of advertising?

Heller:
I have to be honest, I have not reread that intro in years. And I don’t care to now. I hate rereading my stuff. So I don’t know how to respond.

Agency Review:
Well, you should, because it’s really good.

Heller:
I have a great fondness for The Big Idea and what it did for our senses of humor, irony and creativity. But advertising was only guided to a certain degree by the philosophy and aesthetics of that moment.

Agency Review:
Are you saying that its impact has been overblown? That it’s easy to point to the “good stuff” and create the illusion that everything created during this time was brilliant? And if so, why? Why has The Big Idea become the grail that all ad folks seek?

Heller:
The Big Idea was a big idea, but like so much advertising verbiage it became short hand for not so big ideas. Although its nice that its still the grail. Wait isn’t the grail a chalice? How can a big idea be a chalice??!!!

That said, I can listen to George Lois talk about making ads for hours on end. If nothing else the Creative Revolution taught all of us that creativity is possible and necessary in every part of our lives.

us?

Agency Review:
One can’t look through the two beautiful volumes you and Jim Heimann compiled without being impressed by the range and breadth of content assembled – the good, the bad, the obvious, the obscure, the beautiful and even the bizarre. Indeed there’s so much that one of the cumulative takeaways is how much the 50s and 60s were an “Age of Print”.

But our era is increasingly dominated by technology-based marketing – twitter, facebook, instagram, websites, youtube, and all manner of digital banner. Indeed, so much so that newspapers and magazines have been closing. Do you think this means beautifully catalogued archives like Mid Century Ads will not be possible 50 years hence – both from a form and content perspective?

Heller:
You have a good point. I think there are two things at play in the book. The sociological evidence of a different era, perhaps more naif, perhaps more focused on hard sell. As the books progress in years, the ads become incrementally more sophisticated. But time plays a role. We look at the old as “how could we have bought into that?” and laugh. We look at the sophisticated latter-day ones and say “those were smart and funny, where are they now?” It’s all about nostalgia. There will always be terrible work and amazing work, with the majority somewhere in the middle. I just think we’re in a middle area now and maybe for the next few years.

Agency Review:
Why? What makes you feel like we’re in a trough between two “high” points? And when exactly was that was the last high point – the 60s? Or more recently?

Heller:
The sixties was good. But the 80s with Chiat Day was great. That 1984 ad for Apple still fills me with joy. But TV is not where creativity is today. Things are all very professional but not extraordinary. It’ll take time for the mediocre stuff today to have a patina of nostalgia.

warts and all

Agency Review:
One of the reasons we love thinking and talking about advertising and digging into the work of the past is because we believe that ads deliver the most honest picture of American culture that subsequent generations are ever likely to get. A picture that naively and boldly displays our dreams, dreads, desires and devils. We were reminded of this looking at Mid Century Ads and reading your essays. Do you agree? And why do you think this is so?

Heller:
As suggested in my answer to your former question, nostalgia plays a role. Frankly, we know the ads of the 50s were not honest pictures of anything. They were the idealization of one big mess of the mass. We like them because they reduced everything to what we can now call cliché – to Norman Rockwell, who was a great fantasist.

Agency Review:
To be clear, we weren’t thinking so much about why it’s nice to look at old ads, although we agree there’s an element of nostalgia and certainty that’s always comforting.

No, we were asking about this idea that advertising, in a way that other popular forms don’t, inadvertently reveals the glaring truths about an age. We think this might be because it’s always been such a fleeting medium – quickly assembled, quickly consumed, quickly forgotten, and thus, very much of the moment. We were wondering if you saw that in the ads in these books, or generally in the ads of the past, and, if you agreed with this idea, why it was so.

Heller:
Sure, sure. Advertising is great history fodder. Its as useful as old newspapers and vintage radio shows. Everything that emanates from the past that is meant to appeal to the mass says something unique about the times. They are markers of progress and regress.

surprise

Agency Review:
Of course the collection isn’t comprehensive, but it does feel, as we point out, remarkably representative. That said, were there ads that surprised you, that you didn’t recall seeing before or had forgotten? Were there ads that surprised you because of their message, their design or their point of view? What did you discover that you didn’t expect to find and conversely, what were your expectations going in to the project and were they met or disappointed?

Heller:
I only saw the book after it was done. Jim was the primary editor. I didn’t see outtakes. But I’m aware that there were so many things that I don’t recall because they were from magazines I didn’t read. Just think about all the ads in the U.S. that were produced since the turn of the century. Billions, perhaps? There have to be some shockers in that number. Curiously, the ones in the book fit into a good part of my real or perceived recollection.

Agency Review:
“Real or perceived recollection”? Meaning what – that you sorta had a thesis walking into the project and you were happy to find Jim’s selects bore that out?

Heller:
Kind of. I was happy to see all those ads I had never seen and those I had. My thesis is that advertising of the eras up until the 80s-90s was devoted to selling white America on its bounty. These books tell that story, more than less.

Was I disappointed? No way, it was representative of a certain kind of America that governed us but wasn’t us.

Agency Review:
Again, a curious phrase – “governed us but wasn’t us” – I’m not sure I understand what you mean, or who exactly “us” is.

Heller:
Us is we the consumer-citizen. The recipients of America’s dream-state. I don’t know if you’re part of the us. But you probably are, if you’re not one of the them.

voice

Agency Review:
You talk about the ads in the collection lacking a voice, but in our review we respectfully disagreed, pointing to two distinct points of view that we felt emerged time and again across the two volumes; in the 50s, the “Technology is our helpmate, science is our friend and Outer Space is our playground” vision of the future, and in the 60s, the shift of focus from ineffable horizons to our own insufferable navels. So our question is, do we disagree because of vocabulary (what you’re calling “voice” can’t be interchanged with what we’re calling “point of view”), or do we disagree because of the understandably limited sample size (we might each be projecting our thinking into works not represented here), or do we disagree because, well, we’re just stupider than you are?

Heller:
Yes there is an agenda, technology + science will better the world, smoking is good for your image, nice clothes equals self-esteem. These are not Voices but pitches, using our collected data as a skeleton key to our conscious lock-boxes.

Agency Review:

Okay, but I think you’re seeing the trees and missing the forest. Optimism is a voice. A point of view. Something that informs everything it touches. And even reveals its own blind spots. “We will make the future better – be it with computers or with cold cream”. And narcissism is a voice – placing everything in the context of one’s own petty needs: “But enough about me; what do YOU think of my dress?” And that’s different from a pitch, because a pitch is, as you illustrate, more goal-oriented – buy these cigarettes for your image, by these clothes for your self-esteem. Of course, have a deeper understanding of these things than I do, so perhaps you can give examples of voices from other eras that would illustrate what you mean.

Heller:
That requires tapping into my memory, which has been failing me of late. Advertising uses any narrative that works at any particular time. For instance, when it was useful to separate us from them, there was an awful lot of racial (and racist) and ethnic (and insulting) stereotypes used to sell goods. This includes negative and positive ones like Aunt Jemima and black porters who do the white man’s bidding. But don’t ask me to go on, I get morbid.

future

Agency Review:
In our review, we talk about the marvel, inspiration and embarrassment that one experiences looking at these ads. And of course, every age can look back at every other age and experience these feelings. So let’s leap ahead fifty years – what do you think will make people marvel, be inspired by and be embarrassed by in the ads from our age (and by “ads” we’re referring to all forms of marketing – print, sure, but social media, events, digital, TV, whatever-is-being-concocted-as-we-speak) – assuming, of course, we’ve figured out some way to assemble them in some sort of collection?

Heller:
This is going to sound aloof, pretentious and even disingenuous, but I have no idea what will make the nostalgia hit parade from today because I pay little attention to it. From time to time an internet ad strikes me because of its special effects. I still love to look at fashion ads in T-Style, but those will always be markers of time and place. But the GREAT thing about our new technologies is the ability to prohibit ads from entering our field of vision. Of course, that’s not entirely true because we’re hit virally all the time and through product placement. But I’m more apt to respond to a great package than an invasive ad.

Agency Review:
Okay, but again, we’re not talking about “nostalgia”; that word implies the need of a future generation to comfort itself against it’s own troubles with disconnected elements from the past, investing those elements with meanings often divorced from irrelevant to the elements own times.

No, we’re curious about the things that will seem iconic of our era. That good or ill, future generations can look at and say “Yup, that was them. Without even knowing it, they revealed themselves there.”

And if packaging works better for you, fine, use that. What packaging – or perhaps, combination of packages – do you think will be iconic, will compel people to point to and say “that is emblematic of what it was like to live in the first quarter of the 21st century”?

Heller:
I’m going to be elitist and say that the packaging that will be iconic is not the “advertising package” but the Apple IPhone or iPad package. They will become, if they haven’t already, as iconic as Kleenex, I think, or Golden Blossom Honey (designed by Gustav Jensen).

You can read our review of Mid-Century Ads here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Illustration of Steven Heller by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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