We’re self-quarantining for the foreseeable future which has led to a huge shortage of fun Aussie travel stories. So here’s a different kind of story that’s been sitting in my “Drafts” file for a couple months.
The following story is 100% true. Get me a bible. I will put my hand on it and swear to God. It has absolutely no connection to our travels, but it is a very worthy story nonetheless.
I don’t write advertising anymore. I gave it all up a couple years ago. But every once in a while something completely unrelated reminds me of a story from my advertising past. Tonight we saw an American comedian named Bill Burr and one portion of his monologue triggered a memory I hadn’t had in many years.
At one point very early in my career I landed a job as a copywriter at the biggest and best ad agency in Los Angeles. Just before hiring me, it had won the award for having created Southern California’s top ad campaign of the year for the second straight year. (By hiring me they made a loud declaration to the rest of the advertising community that they did not intend to win for a third time.)
I hated the job. I hated the agency. I hated my creative director. I don’t know why they hired me because I sat in my office day after day after day and was given nothing to do. I was bored out of my mind. I lasted only four and a half months before I quit.
Admittedly, I hadn’t thought out this career move very thoroughly. When I told my practical farmer father I had quit this job to become a freelance writer, he put it all in perspective for me:
Me: I’m now a freelance writer.
Dad: So let me see if I understand this. You had a job where they paid you good money to do nothing.
Dad: And now you’re still doing nothing but no one’s paying you?
Despite his disturbing perspective, I became a freelance writer.
In my mind that meant I would arise late each morning after an evening of carousing with attractive, exceptionally friendly young women, leisurely peruse the morning edition of the Los Angeles Times, and then check my answering machine to pick and choose from a huge selection of fascinating freelance assignments that were sure to come my way.
Reality, unfortunately, intruded in this scenario.
Most of those attractive, exceptionally friendly young women had day jobs that started at nine a.m. so they could not stay out all night. The remaining ones opted to carouse with men who had incomes.
As if that weren’t bad enough, my answering machine mocked me by remaining persistently void of freelance job offers.
(On the positive side of the ledger, I was able to spend an inordinate amount of time perusing the previous night’s baseball box scores in the LA Times while downing voluminous mugs of coffee down at the corner In ‘N Out.)
Then it happened. Filled to the brim with caffeine and baseball trivia, I walked into my little apartment one afternoon and found the red light on answering machine frantically blinking. The message, from someone I didn’t know, said, “I need a freelance copywriter and you’ve been recommended to me. Give me a call.”
Of course, I called immediately. I certainly had nothing better to do. The voice on the other end of the phone was very friendly, very interested in hiring me because of the outstanding recommendation he had received.
“Who recommended me,” I asked.
“Well, I’m really not sure,” he said. “It came from a friend of a friend.”
”Well, that’s not really important. What’s your address?”
I jotted it down. I didn’t know exactly where it was, but I knew it was in a rundown portion of East LA. Not the nicest neighborhood.
“We have some pretty tight security,” he warned me. “When you get here, push the button on the front door and identify yourself. The receptionist will buzz you in.”
“What kind of products do you make,” I asked.
“We can discuss that when you get here,” he answered.
My mind began racing. I’d never before worked for a company that needed this level of security. Some kind of exotic new high technology products maybe? Possibly a secret government contractor? I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but it seemed very exciting.
I arrived at the appointed time on the appointed day. The neighborhood was just as shoddy as I had expected. But right there in the middle of the blight was a gleaming, solid black warehouse building with absolutely nothing in the way of identification attached. No name. No logo. Not even an address. I had to check the addresses of the buildings on each side to make sure I had the right location.
The front door was protected by a solid mesh of iron bars. The glass door behind the mesh was blacked out. I found the button to the right of the door and pushed it. A disembodied female voice said, “Yes?” I identified myself and said I had a 2:00 appointment with the president of the company.
The voice said, “Enter” and the door clicked open.
I walked in and found an ordinary looking lobby with an ordinary looking receptionist’s desk and an ordinary looking receptionist. There was no clue as to what the company’s business was.
“Have a seat,” she purred. “He’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
I sat. I waited. As promised, the president of the company came out a few moments later with a big smile on his face, introduced himself, and shook my hand.
“Come with me,” he said as he lead me down the hallway to his office. “We’ll talk.”
That’s where it got weird. Very weird. In fact, it was by far the weirdest meeting I have ever attended. Because when I walked through the door to his office I discovered that the walls of that office were covered — from floor to ceiling — with what can only be described as sex toys. It wasn’t a small office. It was a large office. Perhaps the largest office I had ever seen. That means there were a lot of sex toys. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I’m talking sex toys of every description. Sex toys for men. Sex toys for women. Sex toys of every size and every shape and every color. Manual sex toys, electrical sex toys. Inflatable sex today’s, deflatable sex toys. Sex toys for every perversion and proclivity. Sex toys for every cavity and every protuberance. Sex toys that jiggled and vibrated and elongated and stimulated some body parts that I didn’t know could be stimulated and other body parts I didn’t know existed. A lot of latex was involved. You name it, you could find it on this guy’s walls.
“Well,” the president said, “I guess you can see what business we’re in.”
“I’m not sure I do,” I stammered. I was young. I was naive. I didn’t really understand that manufacturers of sex toys were part of an actual industry that needed advertising just as much as Toyota or McDonald’s.
“We’re in the sex toy business,” he continued. “And I need you to write a catalog for me.”
I still didn’t comprehend.
“What do you mean you need a catalog,” I asked. “What for?”
“That’s how we sell this stuff,” he explained. “Mail order. It’s all mail order. You can’t go into a store to buy this stuff, so people order it out of our catalog. We deliver it in plain brown wrappers. We have a lot of new products and I need you to write our new catalog.”
I was still not processing the situation.
”What would I write?”
He handed me a copy of his old catalog. There, in glorious color and on high-quality glossy paper, were photos of each of the products displayed on the walls of his office. Each product was accompanied by an amusing headline and a few descriptive lines of copy. I won’t go into any details except to quote one headline and I will allow your imagination to fill in the details. The headline was:
TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE.
My brain pingponged back and forth between How do I get out of here? and Which one of my so-called friends recommended me for this gig?
I flipped through the catalog as quickly as I could, handed it back to him, and said, “I don’t think I’m the right guy for this project. My advice would be to hire the same guy who wrote the ‘Two heads are better than one’ headline. I can’t top that one.”
He seemed disappointed. Very disappointed. But he said he appreciated my candor and would give the previous writer a call. But he also urged me to reconsider my decision.
And with that, he escorted me back to the lobby. I said good-bye to the receptionist, whose sweet, innocent smile had somehow been transformed into a lascivious sneer, and escaped back into the pristine beauty of the slums of east L.A.
Ahhhh, the polluted air of Los Angeles had never seemed quite so fresh, never quite so clean, never so worthy of being breathed.
Years later, when I was the creative director at my own ad agency, I tried to use this experience. Creative teams came into my office to present their work and get it approved. If I liked what they had done, I complimented them profusely. If I didn’t, I often said, “It’s no ‘Two heads are better than one.’“
Unfortunately, none of my friends ever ‘fessed up to recommending me for that gig.