MADISON AVENUE: The Greatest Story Ever Sold

Photography by Marili Forastieri

The End of World War 11 was a good day, because on August 14, 1945 two thousand men descended on Madison Avenue to sell soap, sex, and sophistication. They were advertising men and they would add style and swagger to everything bought and sold in America for the next 50 years.

They had been at the other end of a 100 million-mark war machine. They had learned a lot. Much of it from the dead men they left behind and from now on they were going to have a hell of a good time doing what they did best. And what they did best was tell stories.  

Not the one about 5 years of war. No, the one created over martinis, and countless cigarettes in the back of a taxi. It would be an American story brought to you by Campbell soup and Chrysler cars, Wonder bread and Lucky Strike. It was a fast story told on radio and television. You saw and heard it in Hollywood and in your hometown. It made you a believer in the power of General Electric light bulbs and the softness of Charmin. Advertising gave you the cola wars, painted airplanes, and the confidence to think small and buy a funny looking little German car called the Volkswagen bug.
Advertising lived on a 10-block strip up Madison Avenue from Y&R on 40th street to Doyle Dane on 52nd. The companies on it weaved the capitalist dream of suntan oil and red shiny lipstick for the most kissable lips on the planet and the best tans from Southampton to Southern California. The storied ride of the advertising business would turn American culture into a work of art.
It had a new dress code and a new attitude. Tapered grey flannel suits, black knit ties, white shirts and a woman next to him who was better than he was. Advertising women would leave a bigger mark than a lot of the men and in the end stole the show. He wore slick pointed black shoes and a white Burberry raincoat. She wore a black Givenchy suit fit tight and sexy with black Channel eye glasses that made the commercial she just read you feel like it was written by George Sand.
Advertising was unlike any other business in New York City and New York City was like no other city. It was the big time, and everyone knew even if Chicago and LA didn’t like it.
To most it really wasn’t clear what advertising was all about or why it made you want that glass of scotch or soda. But you wanted it and you wanted it bad. It could describe the taste of a jar of peanut butter and how it made you a better mother for serving it. And it felt good. Advertising photography could turn a hamburger into a Whopper or a tighty whitey into a sex symbol. The commercials would create demand for products because they weren’t about products. They were dreams of freedom, desire, thirst, power, sex with a little humor sprinkled in.
There was no Internet at the height of the business instead there were cathedrals of alcohol and smoke. The 21 Club, The Colony, The Oak room, or Algonquin where you could pick up your mail, a tip on a stock or a client without logging in or leaving that deep leather chair next to the bar. The advertising and media business would descend from their seats of power to lunch with a scotch and a steak. The network was fast and powerful. They didn’t send PDFs. They sent invitations for a weekend in Bermuda or a couple of tickets to Hollywood to meet Frank Sinatra your new spokesman. An advertising lunch had all of the ceremony of a high mass. Stiff white napkins, crisp cold drinks, tough terse wickedly smart conversation. Words that served commerce making your advertising idea smart, and your client rich.
Hollywood fell in love with Madison Avenue from the very beginning and cast it’s biggest stars to play the role. A few came close to the real thing: Fredrick March, Clark Gable, Cary Grant and the man in a grey flannel suit Gregory Peck. It’s most lovable character Jack Lemon played at the end of the glory days in ‘The Prisoner On Second Avenue’. And then there is the greatest advertising man of all time, the real thing: Hugh Hefner. There is no other industry that could ever come close to what advertising was. Because advertising wasn’t work: it was fun. An industry filled with comics, conmen, singers, salesman, actors, artists, and writers that would rather be dead than dull.
It is hard to imagine how different the business of advertising is today full of ROI’s, search engine optimization and viral marketing. Are you kidding? Given that option most of what was Madison Avenue would go back to war. When the AD business was king you could do anything you wanted. You could sell anything even the idea of an industry that didn’t happen at a desk but around a pool in Beverly Hills.
Advertising created a multi-million dollar GE TV Hour with Ronald Reagan bringing good things to life. It helped get JFK elected. The most powerful woman in advertising created a major advertising agency that brought IBM to America and entertained her clients at her home in the South of France.
Another glass of Domain Ott anyone?
Today selling in advertising is a kind of sin; sort of like paying for your dinner with a hundred dollar bill or drinking scotch or whole milk. It’s too earnest. It’s too direct. It’s one way, not interactive. The funny thing is in advertising the interaction was the sale not another click. The dollar was the interaction. Selling in advertising is good precisely because it’s direct. Like the Calvin Klein billboard “Nothing comes between me and my Calvin’s.” Nothing ever came between the Ad and the sale. Advertising was in there, brash, flashy, funny and emotional. It showed an optimistic and a tragic America. It introduced pain killers and whiter teeth. It made Coke ‘the real thing’ and Perrier ‘Earth’s first soft drink’ It made you think different with an Apple computer and drink lighter with Miller light.
Madison Avenue was truly a blast: not the dark glimpse of it seen on TV now. You know the one that feels written from the outside looking in. A Mad story written by people who think Eden Roc is a Disney park and Fishers Island is where people catch Cod. Advertising was a business of insiders: they new things before everyone else. They were storytellers telling the capitalist story as a heroic tale.
Today the clients are bigger. The stakes are higher. The products are sexier, even sex is sexier. The ideas are no longer built on Madison Avenue. Now they are a buzz in neighborhoods like SoHo, Tribeca, and Union Square. In little cubicles with megapixels.
Some of us believe that the noisy in-your-face thing they used to call advertising will return in 3D or something even newer and cooler. Why? Because those advertising guys told us how great it was gonna be.
And they were always right.


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