I often tell people that I've made a living doing something that I never thought you could make a living doing. As a baby boomer, I grew up on a
I often tell people that I’ve made a living doing something that I never thought you could make a living doing. As a baby boomer, I grew up on a steady diet of television commercials sprinkled throughout my favorite TV shows (The Monkees, Batman, The Brady Bunch, Mission: Impossible). When I wasn’t glued to the television set or running around outside, I usually had a bowl of Cap’n Crunch in front of me, a spoon gripped in one hand and the cereal box in the other, poring over practically every word of copy on it. It never occurred to me that someone “created” the ads that I was seeing and reading. Or that people were being paid real money (i.e., more than my $5 weekly allowance) to do so.
After majoring in English literature in college, I belatedly realized that my degree hadn’t equipped me to earn a living doing much of anything. It was then suggested to me by others who knew more about the real world than I did (which was practically everybody) that I might consider a career in “advertising.” The word drifted vaguely in and out of my head, as insubstantial as the nutritional content of the cereal I’d eaten as a kid. Even as an adult, I had a hard time believing that there was skill in advertising that was prized enough to merit a weekly paycheck.
Then, in 1984, I saw a small print ad that changed everything. It had been created for the newly formed Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority by Price/McNabb, which was based in Asheville, where I lived.
The ad was a model of simplicity: a still-life photograph depicting three empty rocking chairs on a sloping lawn with mountains suggested in the distance. A tennis racket leaned against one of the chairs. Coffee cups rested on the arms of the others. A newspaper sat in one of the wicker seats, its corner lifted by a light breeze. It was the kind of scene that anyone could see themselves being a part of — relaxing in those very chairs, savoring their morning coffee, contemplating a day of discovery or leisure. A simple, sublime headline accompanied the photograph: “Come Up for Air.” A couple of short paragraphs of copy nested below the headline, poetic in their grace and economy.
The scales fell from my eyes. “This is advertising,” I said to myself.
Through a series of fortunate coincidences, I was soon hired as a copywriter by Jay Fields, the creative director who had conceived the campaign. It was under his guidance that I learned how advertising, when practiced skillfully, could be something both useful and worthy of admiration. Better still — for me, anyway — one could make a living at it.
• • •
The Buncombe County ad campaign, known as “Asheville: It will lift your spirit,” was an enormous success. Lots of people were responsible for Asheville’s renaissance, which started in the 1980s, but to me, those little quarter-page ads were the spark. They certainly inspired visitors. But most of all, they presented Asheville in an authentic way that made its citizens proud. That pride swelled into confidence, and confidence turned into action. When I think about the power of advertising, this is the example that first comes to mind.
Those two years working with Jay Fields at Price/McNabb gave me a lifelong appreciation for what advertising could be. I moved on to an agency in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to work on some of the biggest brands in the world. But I eventually returned to work in Asheville, and I immediately felt more at home with the smart, relaxed, familiar advertising style for which North Carolina is best known.
Over my 35-year career, I came to realize that even everyday, run-of-the-mill ads have merit. Think of them as signposts on our journey through life. Like the sequential Burma Shave billboards staked alongside the roadways of yesteryear, ads are time capsules that reflect our culture, our fashions, our priorities, and our passions at any given moment. For North Carolinians in particular, those touchstones can be powerfully nostalgic.
Go ahead: Try not to smile when you see the old-fashioned script of an early Pepsi-Cola sign. No doubt you’ll be reminded of the fluted glass bottles and the bottle openers that were once required to unlock that seductively sweet and fizzy elixir.
Remember these? Listen to some of the catchy North Carolina advertising jingles that are still stuck in your head decades later.
How many of us can trace our first visit to the Outer Banks or Biltmore Estate or Grandfather Mountain to a come-hither magazine ad with a photograph that begged to be cut out and pinned to a bulletin board or a refrigerator door as a bucket-list reminder?
And who could ever forget the iconic North Carolina brands that were built by successful advertising campaigns? It just can’t be done.
As a result, we’re destined to relish the thought of a sandwich garnished with Mt. Olive pickles. To feel heat just thinking about game-day buffalo wings spiced up with Texas Pete. To melt at the sight of the glowing red sign in the window of a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. To rise and shine early enough to grab a chicken biscuit from Bojangles or Biscuitville.
• • •
Fortunately, the tar heel state is chock-full of places and flavors and experiences that are worth crowing about. From the waterfalls in the mountains to the Wright Brothers Memorial on the Outer Banks, North Carolina is a marketer’s dream. Many top advertising agencies were born here. And perhaps that explains the reverence with which they shine a light on the products and the places that do us proud.
An ad expert once said that advertisers want their brand to occupy the most valuable real estate in the world — a corner of the consumer’s psyche. If that’s the case, there are millions of people with Carolina on their minds.print it