Howard Gossage – The ad man who wasn’t a mad man

Let me tell you about Howard Luck Gossage (yes, Luck really was his middle name).

Gossage was an ad-man back in the 60s. He created quirky, imaginative ads targeted at people like himself. He understood how to appeal to his own demographic perfectly – and firms would pay him to create ads to sell to people like him.

He was also a big proponent of direct response advertising – asking people to send coupons, often for some quirky and fun purpose, as a way of directly measuring the impact of each ad.

But he wasn’t JUST an ad-man…


He was a very distinctive ad-man

Ads for Fina petrol by Howard Gossage – published between 1961 – 1963

Browse through his various ads for Fina and look out for the obvious signs of Gossage:

  • A quirky idea – consistently applied
  • A witty and conversational tone – Gossage was usually writing for an audience he really understood – people like him
  • A request for a response via a coupon

Wonderful.

“Is advertising worth saving? Yes, if we can learn to look at advertising not as a means for filling so much space and time but as a technique for solving problems.”

Howard Gossage

He was a student of human nature and a generalist

Gossage was a curious man, who didn’t just want to write ads. He wanted to understand people, and understand the effect of his work upon them. This echoes the current discipline of behavioural economics.

Steve Harrison, who has written a book on Gossage, called Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man explains:

Steve Harrison: Howard Luck Gossage as Behavioral Economist
“With his unique advertising style and his consultancy Generalists, Inc., Howard Luck Gossage was a Behavioral Economist before the term was coined. His biographer Steve Harrison explains why.”

He setup in San Francisco rather than New York, and hung about with smart people

Rather than set up on Madison Avenue with the other big advertising agencies, Gossage setup his offbeat agency in an old San Francisco firehouse. He saw it not just as an ad agency, but a place for ideas to be shared and turned into something.

The ‘Salon’ saw visitors such as John Steinbeck, Buckminster Fuller, Tom Wolfe and Marshall McLuhan.

He helped popularise the work of Marshall McLuhan

GGossage is credited with introducing the media theorist Marshall McLuhan to media and corporate leaders, thereby providing McLuhan his entry into the mainstream.

From Steve Harrison’s book:

According to his wife, Sally, Gossage was actually lying in bed late one night in February 1965 when his intellectual isolation came abruptly to an end. “I remember I was reading some sort of wonderful novel and Howard was reading Marshall McLuhan’s book [Understanding Media, published in 1964] and he said ‘I get it, I understand!’ and I said ‘What? and he said ‘McLuhan is assuming that the reader already knows the background stuff that McLuhan knows so he’s writing in shorthand. It needs to be filled in. I’m going to fix it.’ And the next thing I know he’s on the ‘phone and he’s got Marshall McLuhan on the ‘phone in Canada and he says ‘McLuhan, do you want to be famous?’

Howard Gossage squatting next to Marshall McLuhan, Tom Wolfe, and friends.

He helped start the environmental movement – and saved the Grand Canyon

In 1966, David Brower was running the Sierra Club in San Francisco. They had a problem – the Federal government was looking to flood the Grand Canyon with something called the Glen Canyon Dam.

Luckily, Brower was working with Gossage’s agency – and they created an ad:

The ad included seven coupons – to be sent to the Secretary of the Interior, the President, your Congressman, both your State Senators, and even the head of the Congressional Committee that was considering flooding the Grand Canyon.

The response was huge, and drew enormous publicity for the Sierra Club. However, they didn’t like all the sudden visibility, but Davide Brower did. So, instead, they parted ways, and Brower moved into the same office building as Gossage where he started a new organisation – which he decided to call Friends of the Earth.


While there are periodic attempts to drum up new interest in Howard Gossage’s work, he certainly doesn’t have the profile of someone like David Ogilvy. But he was asking interesting questions about advertising, and marketing, and how to engage people long before anyone else.

If you want to know more about Gossage, Steve Harrison’s book is excellent.

My signed copy of Harrison’s book – the title is a cracker

Or there’s also the wonderful Book of Gossage – which is no longer in print, so can be tricky to find.

But I think everyone in marketing could do with some Gossage in their lives.

Find out more

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