The Art of Selling

A real-life Peggy Olson honed the poetic craft of copywriting.
August 8, 2016

What separates a poem from a jingle? Is a tagline just poetry that persuades us to buy something? Is poetic speech simply an advertisement for something that cannot be purchased? These were the questions that we asked each afternoon in a seminar I taught through the English department here at Duke, “Mad Men/Avant Poets.”

The course, and the questions above, asked us to think about social conventions that cordon off one form of concise, rhythmic language from another. Rather than assume that a poem is what appears on a library shelf, and an ad is what occupies the ever-expanding marketplace, we explored instances in which the fields of poetry and professional promotion overlapped.

One of the best examples came in the form of Margaret Fishback, a successful copywriter and poet whose papers are housed at Duke’s Rubenstein Library in the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History. Born in 1900, Fishback found her way to Madison Avenue by age twenty-six, finding her first advertising job with R.H. Macy’s company, where she would eventually rise to the rank of copy chief before departing Macy’s in 1958.

A 1938 brochure advertising luggage illustrates the young copywriter’s zeal for the well-fashioned phrase. With a cartoon pelican on the cover, the pamphlet—titled The Vanishing American—begins, “Some people still go around, pelican-fashion, stuffing over-night toothbrushes into breast pockets, and distending the middle-aged hips of world-weary brief cases with pajamas, papers, and odd bits of string.” The narrative, brimming with literary devices and conspicuously wrought formulations, proceeds by drawing a comparison between the idyllic Mr. and Mrs. Sleek and Mr. and Mrs. Frump.

Just as she embellished her ad copy with literary flourishes, she brought to her poetry the pithy and knowing tone of a copywriter. Between 1932 and 1940, Fishback published five volumes of poetry, mostly light verse, with jocular titles like I Feel Better Now (1932) and I Take It Back (1935). Her skill at light verse—a form that addresses trivial subject matter with outlandish word play, simplistic rhyme schemes, and heavy alliteration—is flexed in a different way in some of her print ad campaigns. One can see this at work in one of her taglines for Macy’s:

“A local Socrates remarked

As on his Macy bed he parked,

‘I need no sleep-inducing pills,

For I shop where they POST NO BILLS’”

And, in fact, the elements of light verse remain a go-to style today. Just a few years ago the famous skin-care company Oxy made a splash with its ad campaign “from zitty to pretty.”

When it’s good, her poetry highlights new perspectives on old questions, like whether ad copy can ever be elevated to art.  Consider, for instance, the poem “The Fashion Copywriter Turns Nature Lover”:

Gunmetal swallows

Flying here and there

Honey-beige trees

And sunglow air,

Bronze-nude grass

And silversheen rain—

Beckon me down

A fragrant grege lane.

Where the title is the setup, the poem provides the punchline, making the brunt of the joke the copywriting lexophile. Determined to prove the artfulness of her craft, the copywriter employs the most poetic-sounding diction. But the effort to sound poetic is decidedly not the path to poetry. Instead, poetry is a matter of seeing the world simply—using the old terms to new ends, rather than accumulating a horde of disposable adjectives. It’s hard to beat the vernacular eloquence of a phrase like “got milk?”

Through her poems, Fishback is telling us something fundamental about advertising: It most resembles art or poetry when it relinquishes the desire to seem poetic and merely expresses a creative idea in simple, common terms. The well-crafted advertisement participates in the general spirit of poetic longing, as it strives to revive our rapport with the world at hand. 

Moore Ph.D. ’16 is a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Honors College at Purdue University. He edits the online arts journal Lute & Drum and is the author of two poetry collections, Southern Colortype (Three Count Pour, 2012) and Zippers and Jeans (forthcoming).