Former 'Mad Man' discusses career in advertising

Allen Rosenshine with Sasha, his Jack Russell Terrier-Basenji mix.
Allen Rosenshine with Sasha, his Jack Russell Terrier-Basenji mix. Rita Christopher

You know their names: Tony the Tiger, The Maytag Repairman, Charlie the Tuna, Betty Crocker, The Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean. They are more than advertising images; they are cultural icons, the creative output of advertising, the industry that Americans love to hate.

And that public disdain, maintains Allen Rosenshine, the now-retired CEO of advertising agency BBDO, is both unwarranted and incorrect.

Rosenshine, whom Advertising Age has recognized as one of the most important industry figures of the 20th century, will talk about what advertising is and what it isn't on Thursday, May 22, at Essex Town Hall as part of the Essex Library's celebration of its 125th birthday.

"The talk will be humorous and lighthearted, but it is also about debunking popular notions of advertising, " Rosenshine says.

Though his talk is entitled "My Son, the Mad Man," one notion Rosenshine would like to debunk is that advertising is anything like "Mad Men," the popular cable television show based on a fictional advertising agency in the 1960s. Rosenshine says he is asked about the program all the time.

"In the show they start drinking at 9 o'clock and they don't stop. That is nothing like what advertising was. We'd all have been dead if that were the case," he says, adding that the way the show treats women is equally offensive. "Nobody talked to women like that, though women were not a big part of advertising then. There isn't a character on that show that I would want to spend time with."

Though the television high jinx are unreal, that does not mean the world of advertising lacks for real-life adventure. On one occasion Rosenshine was summoned to California to discuss a contract for boxer Joe Louis to be a bank spokesman. A Mafia bigwig was handling the negotiations. The crime boss had overlooked one obvious problem that Rosenshine pointed out. Louis was bankrupt, a fact that had already received much publicity, and unable to pay his taxes. He was not the ideal representative of financial probity. The project went nowhere.

The filming of a 1983 Michael Jackson commercial for Pepsi-Cola had a much-publicized but unplanned moment: background fireworks set Jackson's hair aflame. Rosenshine, who was associated with the Pepsi account throughout his advertising career, said that unanticipated misfortune turned into unexpected gain for both the entertainer and Pepsi-Cola: sales of Jackson's albums skyrocketed after the accident, and Pepsi got far more publicity for the commercial than it had ever expected.

Advertising, Rosenshine maintains, does not make people buy things they don't want. He points to the vast majority of new products that fail, how ever good their advertising. Nor does advertising produce societal change.

"Advertising is a follower, not a leader. It doesn't create social values; it reflects them," he says.

Advertising fails, he adds, for two reasons. It creates an image it never intended to, or it does create the desired image, but people don't like it. Rosenshine recalls a print campaign for a cigarette from BBDO with consequences the agency had not foreseen. The photographs of human figures in the advertisement appeared shadowy. Shadows, he points out, suggest ghosts, which in turn suggest death, the last thing a tobacco advertisement wanted to do.

"We pulled that ad after about two weeks," he says, "and I don't think we had that client very long."

Rosenshine, a New Yorker born in Queens, thought he was going to major in chemical engineering when he entered Columbia University. Instead, he graduated with a degree in English and no idea what he wanted to do. He took a job with a small agency that advertised industrial products to other businesses. Rosenshine thought his combination of science and English would be an advantage.

"I found the work interesting, then I went to BBDO and I grew there. I never considered anything else," he says.

Rosenshine was instrumental in the merger that created Omnicom, the advertising conglomerate of which BBDO is now a part. He served as Omnicom's first chief executive before returning to BBDO, once again as CEO. He retired in 2006, at a time when advertising was responding to the new challenges created by the social media revolution.

"The business was changing rapidly, and I asked myself whether I wanted to learn all this new stuff; I don't mind admitting the business passed me by. It just wasn't what I knew," he explains.

Among the affiliations Rosenshine has retained in retirement is his membership on the board of The Partnership at Drugfree.org, formerly the Partnership For A Drug-Free America. Advertising executives, Rosenshine among then, founded the organization with the idea that advertising, usually used to encourage people to do things, could just as easily be used to discourage drug use.

In the early 1990s Rosenshine's wife, Missy, gave him a small boat. At the time, the couple had a weekend place in Massachusetts, but to be closer to the water, they moved first to Essex and now to Lyme. Today, they divide their time between Lyme, New York City and Utah.

Since his retirement, Rosenshine has started his own blog, "My Two Cents (and Worth Every Penny)," which covers a wide range of his interests, many political. The attack advertising that is an increasingly common feature of political campaigns is something about which he is unhesitatingly critical.

"It's an area of advertising I am ashamed of," he says.

BBDO, he notes, has done no political advertising since the Eisenhower era. There are many reasons to avoid it, according to Rosenshine.

"You end up making half the people angry no matter what you do," he says, adding another practical consideration: "Campaigns don't pay their bills."

IF YOU GO

What: Allen Rosenshine presents "My Son, the Mad Man: A Look Back at Advertising's Wild and Golden Age"

When: Thursday, May 22 at 7 p.m.

Where: Essex Town Hall, 29 West Ave.

Info: www.youressexlibrary.org

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