Discover more from Bully Pulpit
Back to the Future
An intimate retrospective of a total stranger.
There’s this guy, Sal DeVito. I’m pretty sure I’ve never met him, or spoken to him, or corresponded. But I certainly know who he is — namely, half of DeVito/Verdi, the boutique New York ad agency. The shop has been around, with various leadership configurations, for about 35 years, specializing in work for retail clients. Today I’d like you to hear about this stranger.
How am I acquainted with an advertising agency? Aha. For a very long time, lining up almost exactly with the beginning of my parallel (and utterly dissimilar) career in public radio, I was the ad critic for Advertising Age, a weekly trade newspaper. Never mind how I got that weird gig; it was simply the case, and it had the effect of giving me considerable clout, or at least notoriety, in the marketing industry around the world. Many stories to tell about that, but not here, and not today.
Just know that I evaluated ads — predominantly TV spots — on the basis of strategy, production values, copywriting, direction, acting, editing, memorability and a whole mess of other factors. But mainly these three criteria:
1) the likelihood of selling goods and services to people with the interest and money to buy them; 2) the ingenuity of the communications solution; and 3) accomplishing 1 and 2 without lying or otherwise violating ethical, moral and common-consideration norms.
Yes, deconstructing TV ads. And rating them. For 25 years. Not only did I get paid for that, my opinion became a sort of currency, influencing not just individual ads, which not infrequently were altered or discontinued after a lambasting, but also the flow of accounts from agency to agency and even careers. That was just awful. A negative review (about 40% of my columns) left marks, and the fact that I didn’t name names didn’t much help. Grim Reapering sucks. (Please hold that thought.)
Back to Sal DeVito. He’s recently retired after a distinguished career. And he’s being nominated for the One Club Creative Hall of Fame, the highest tribute conferred by one of the world’s leading ad-industry organizations. This possibility I learned when one of Sal’s colleagues asked if I had anything to say in support of his candidacy.
If I had any bias in the process of evaluating advertising it was for elegant solutions to a complex competitive or communications challenge. If perhaps your interest in advertising is limited to the annual roster of Super Bowl commercials, you may be surprised that they seldom much interested me. In general, they were extremely extravagant productions undertaken at obscene expense with the primary goal of entertainment, spectacle, borrowed interest from high-price celebrities and generally just grabbing attention from the enormous audience of football viewers, most of whom were in no way prospects for the advertised brand. Although over the decades many a brilliant ad aired on the Super Bowl, the vast majority of these spots were forgettable or worse.
Elegant? I dunno. Is a homicidal Budweiser ferret elegant?
What distinguishes the work of Sal DeVito is his ability to contrive a single idea, and to harness simple images, to convey the advertisers’s proposition to the audience. While big agencies representing big brands would often spend many millions of dollars in production, DeVito/Verdi often did the job with loose change. If the Super Bowl was a parade of spectacle, Sal’s reel (hey, Sal, may I call you Sal?) is haiku. Even the Devito/Verdi commercial that I rated — on a scale of 4 stars maximum — with zero stars. As we shall shortly see, if was as brilliant as it was disgraceful.
Hold that thought, too. First I want to talk about a spot that begins with a handsome Italian model dressed in expensive designer clothes. Over an operatic aria, we hear an Italian-accented voiceover: “The sweater is Robert. The tie is Armici. The sweater is Gemini.” Fake designer names, I assume, but never mind. The camera pans down and you see the guy’s pockets pulled out of his pants. “And the pockets … are empty.” Then a title card: “Designer clothing, 40-75% off. Every day.” Next card: “Daffy. Clothes that will make you, not break you.”
Daffy’s was a long-time client of DeVito/Verdi. Like a number of others, it succumbed to the reordering of the retail-clothing marketplace, first by big-box discounters and outlet malls, then Amazon and other e-retailers. The reason the spot works is the whole set-up has you waiting for the payoff, which isn’t exactly The Crying Game, but certainly unexpected. Yes, it’s entertainment, but all toward the selling point. I shall repeat that. Toward the selling point. So much advertising is 30-seconds of comedy untethered to any commercial raison d’etre.
Another classically DeVito campaign is for Meijer, the Midwestern grocery/home goods superstore chain. The structure is approximately the same as the Daffy’s ad: set the viewer up with an apparent narrative non-sequitur, then use on-screen type to make the connection. One shows a product researcher with a clipboard feeding name-brand frozen spinach to a 6-year-old girl. She tastes it, makes a disgusted face and says “ugh.” The guy says, “Good. Now take a bite of the Meijer brand spinach.” She tastes it, makes the same face and again says “ugh.” Then the title card says: “Meijer brand. The only difference you’ll notice is the price.” Hahahaha. Sooooo clever.
Another spot in the same research center has the clipboard guy offering a jar of pickles to a consumer, who struggles to twist the lid off. “Great,” says the researcher. “Now let’s test the Meijer brand pickle.” Same outcome. The testee can’t get the lid off. And then the same title card.
Standing ovation over here. You’re completely sucked in wondering where these vignettes are going, and when you get to the payoff it’s unforgettable. Not just the gag, which is obviously funny, but the value and quality claim.
As I say, I don’t know Sal DeVito from Adam. I do know he is a zen master of comparative advertising. He did a wonderful campaign for national thoroughbred racing juxtaposing the excitement of the racetrack with the experience of more common evening entertainment options. The thing is, he did the comparison within the text of the track announcer’s call of a race. (Try to imagine the cadence of a racetrack call).
And they’re off. Out of the gate is Dinner Date. Dinner Date starts strong but here comes No Reservation followed by Hours of Waiting. Now Idle Chitchat is making a move, but Idle Chitchat is no match for Awkward Silence. It’s Idle Chitchat. It’s Awkward Silence. And here comes Table by the Kitchen and Snooty Waiter followed by Undercooked Chicken. I don’t believe it. Out of nowhere comes Declined Credit Card and Utter Humiliation. As they come down the stretch, First Base is nowhere in sight. And finally it’s Peck on the Cheek and Let’s Just be Friends.
Then a voiceover: “For a better time, go to the track. National Thoroughbred Racing. We bet you love it.”
Are you beginning to see how this guy’s mind works?
Maybe the quintessential Sal solution was for a small, Washington, DC-based chain of upscale sportswear called Britches Great Outdoors. The style was grainy, gray-toned documentary-like footage. It depicted six grim pall bearers leaving a church carrying a casket. With somber deliberation, they shouldered their burden toward the waiting hearse. Then they slid the coffin inside and closed the tailgate.
Then comes the voiceover: “You’re going to be wearing a suit for a long time. Dress comfortably … while you can.”
OK, that is, as I said back in 1994, wickedly funny. Hilarious actually. Dark and brilliant. Surprising and memorable. And as eloquent an argument for pricey sportswear as you can imagine.
Oh, and it should never, ever, ever have been produced. Thirty years ago, there was no real ad targeting to speak of. Commercials just showed up on TV based on crude assumptions about the nature of the audience of any given program. But as I struggled in vain to explain to advertising people for decades, in those days advertising was not a rifle; it was a shotgun. The audience for the Britches ad was essentially everybody. And in the universe of everybody, at any given time, 10% have recently buried a friend or loved one. How many thousands or tens of thousands saw this commercial and were traumatized even before the punchline ever came? And among them, was the joke likely to amuse them? Not likely. Which is why one of the five most clever and pointed of the many thousands of ads I’ve reviewed in my career got 0 stars. (See paragraph 4, item 3 above). So, no, I don’t know Sal DeVito, but he sure as hell knows me. This article did not get posted on their office bulletin board.
But don’t we all make mistakes? If you look at this ad not as an unwelcome trigger for the bereaved but as the very elegant solution I claim is the guy’s hallmark, you can certainly see that he’s in a class nearly by itself. The formula, once again:
This is an arresting set up, but where is it going?
LOL. I never expected that payoff!
Which is an extremely compelling selling proposition.
*OK, not the only difference. Regarding the one about the Kenyan runner (per my previous mention of the heavy responsibility of Grim Reaperdom) — following my Ad Age review that included such terms as “racist” and “post-colonialist” and “lost their minds” — the advertiser actually sued its ad agency. Shortly thereafter, Just for Feet went out of business. That had nothing to do with outlet malls.
Bully Pulpit Needs You
Thanks for your attention. Please consider supporting our work with a new PAID subscription. As a thank you, we’ll send you an author-signed edition of The Big Truth: Dissecting and Debunking the 9 Most Destructive Lies of the Political Right.
Gift subscriptions? Yes! Do that, too. And after you subscribe, please send an email with your postal address to firstname.lastname@example.org. Then we’ll have a place to send both the book and the signed bookplate. And do please, please alert your world to our stubborn, irate existence. Facebook. Insta. Twitter. Mastodon. Threads. Office bulletin board. It matters. Thanks again.