Howard Luck Gossage, Ad Legend

by | May 25, 2020

Howard Luck Gossage is a cult figure. He is considered by some of today’s practitioners, myself included, as one of the greatest creatives of all time.

He converted an old firehouse in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco and began to “hold court” therein. Gossage was friends with Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Tom Wolfe, among others, and he liked to entertain his heady friends at the agency.

Given the company he was keeping, it’s no surprise that he famously said, “People don’t read advertising, they read what interests them and sometimes it’s an ad.”

Illustration by Jason Walton

Gossage understood that you can’t bore people into liking you or buying from you. He shared this understanding with Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy. Here’s where he diverged—Gossage believed you need to entertain. You need to be a showman. You need to invent things that were not there before. In this he is more like Leo Burnett.

Kim B. Rotzoll was an author and dean of the College of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He wrote the Gossage chapter in the excellent book, The Ad Men and Women: A Biographical Dictionary of Advertising by Edd C. Applegate. Professor Rotzoll notes that Gossage graduated from the University of Kansas City, he served as a fighter pilot during WWII and worked as the promotions manager for KLX in San Francisco before he got into the agency game.

“All of the jobs I have had since the navy (and three before) have either resulted in firing or in leaving the dungeon, save two, I think…I am not a very good boss, but a damn sight better than any other, for me,” Gossage said.

Fill Up on Pink Air

This is “Pink Air” for Fina by Gossage’s firm, which never grew beyond 13 staff members. Note the press clipping inside the ad. Gossage understood PR better than most and he used it to get wider distribution for his clients’ messages, and in the case below to lend added credibility to the message.

There’s no such thing as pink air, is there? But Gossage makes it sound believable, even though he wasn’t after believability. He wanted to capture the interest of motorists, and his ads for Fina did that.

The call to action in this ad is also a thing to behold: “…so the next time you see a Fina station you’ll recognize it. And if it’s on your side so you don’t have to make a U-turn and there aren’t six cars waiting and you need gas or something, please stop in.”

It’s hard to say if Gossage is poking fun at the hard sell or the soft sell here. Maybe it’s both. What’s not in question is that he’s created a lane for himself and Fina with Pink Air.

Gossage Helped the Sierra Club Save the Grand Canyon from Flooding

“If they can turn the Grand Canyon into a ‘cash register,’ is any national park safe? You know the answer.” Gossage liked to champion good causes, and when the Bureau of Reclamation wanted to flood the Grand Canyon in the 1960s, Gossage went to work making sure the pencil pushers in D.C. did not win, and thankfully, they did not win. Gossage, common sense and the American people won.

This campaign for the Sierra Club helped to save the Grand Canyon from being flooded. This is advertising at its highest use. At the same time, this is both direct response and interactive advertising. For Gossage, the ad was not an end in itself. The ad was a vehicle for change.

His Legacy and His Work Continue To Fascinate

As the Fina ad illustrates, Gossage saw the benefit of integrating PR into his communications plans. The ads he wrote were usually just the starting point for a campaign message that would then be amplified by the press, television and radio, and any number of different media.

Gossage called it his ‘ad platform technique’. We might call it “amplified advertainment” but whatever we call it, let’s remember to entertain our client’s customers.

In 2012, Dan Goldgeier interviewed Gossage biographer, Steve Harrison, for The following video interview from Dominik Imseng goes even deeper into Gossage lore and Harrison is the man to ask. He mentions in the video that Gossage was a promoter more so than an ad maker, and that’s a keen insight.

Gossage also made ads for Qantas Airlines, Rainer Ale, Paul Mason, Blitz Brewing, Land Rover, and others, all of which we continue to study today. Jeff Goodby has called Gossage’s work the best advertising ever made.

Professor Rotzoll asserts that Gossage believed that marketers fundamentally misunderstood advertising.

They regard the audience incorrectly—as individuals gathered by the media to read or watch something else, the non-advertising content. Thus advertisers never think of the assembled as their audience and, hence, feel no particular obligation to them—as, for example, does the actor. Given this erroneous premise, Gossage asserted, all sorts of sins are permissible—mind-dulling repetition, vapid messages, every conceivable abuse of taste. (p. 160)

Do you and your team need more knowledge of and insights from the legendary figures who shaped the modern ad industry? I started providing a half-day live workshop on this material last December.