Saturday, January 23, 2010

Burgess the Copywriter

According to his autobiography, Burgess's first account was the Miles Standish Spring Water Company. This was, at the time, a world famous brand of spring water. It was associated with the Myles Standish Hotel in Duxbury, a popular resort. Embedded below are ads (not Burgess's) for the hotel and a brand of ginger ale bottled with the spring water. (Taken from an 1898 Cape Cod/South Shore guidebook.)





Burgess's assignment: write a booklet that paraphrases Longfellow's poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, and "incidentally introduce the discovery of a spring, the spring, by Miles Standish."(p. 52)

Burgess provides some sample verses of this advertising epic in his autobiography. Here's an excerpt:
Kneeling there beside the water
Long he quaffs the laughing rill;
Feels with each refreshing swallow
Strange new life within him thrill.

'Til, all weariness forgotten
Home he quickly wends his way,
Thinking of the maid Priscilla
And the message sent that day. (p. 54)
Burgess would later celebrate the "power of the story" in his conservation work, but it is important to understand that he first employed this power in the service of advertising. While the Miles Standish connection with the spring water was not completely arbitrary--Standish did live in that area of Duxbury and must have drunk from that spring--the Miles Standish worth associating with, the one that provides the brand value, is the fictional one, from Longfellow's tale. Of course, Burgess clearly saw this as a parody, while it is not clear that the client did.

Burgess also mentions booklet work ("A Tale of Dog") for an unnamed dog food company. This was Austin's Dog Bread, manufactured in Chelsea. The parent company was Austin & Graves (later Austin & Young), cracker makers. Below is an 1894 ad, which would put it during Burgess's advertising era. The focus on naturalists in the ad is in keeping with his interests; the use of a word like "farinaceous" doesn't seem like his style...


The final specific example from the autobiography is a bit of work for Shredded Wheat (then based in Worcester). The way Burgess tells it, he took what he felt to be an inferior flier for the cereal, made some improvements, and then tried to sell the company on his version. They chose some parts they liked, paid him five dollars, and then proceeded to insert his version in every box of Shredded Wheat for years. This is particularly remarkable because Shredded Wheat was a notoriously heavy advertiser and must have been employing many more experienced copywriters. Embedded below is a profile in Printers' Ink which details its advertising methods.

In Burgess's 1960 profile in Life, he provides the opening lines of his version.
Origin of Shredded Wheat
Some years before this present age
Great Jove one day in towering rage
Induced by indigestion..."
Clever work, once again employing a close parody of a certain kind of literary discourse. Burgess, as we'll see later in his magazine work, was a skilled parodist in addition to being a good rhymer. I would argue that Burgess's sometimes criticized storybook style was not evidence of his limits as a writer but rather a strategic decision geared at adjusting to the needs of his audience.

After he lost his job at Phelps, Burgess returned to advertising for a short time as a copywriter at a Boston agency (unnamed) and then went to work in the advertising department of J.H. McFarland Co. in Harrisburg, PA. (The autobiography says "McFraland"--this is a typo). J.H. McFarland was a publisher of horticultural material (and curiously enough, a vocal critic of billboard advertising). Burgess spent a few months there doing "catalogues, magazine, and mail order copy." (p. 112) He was also sent to Florida for a month to do research in preparation for ad copy. By now, of course, he was an experienced communications professional (looking for an escape from corporate life).

This would be the end of his career in advertising. He would soon commit to his daily newspaper story. While his writing style can probably be linked to his decade of work in the magazine world, his approach to his own career and his various causes was thoroughly informed by an advertising perspective (this will be considered at greater length in future posts). Of particular interest, the aggressive licensing of his Bedtime Story characters.

Tomorrow: The Ancient and Supreme Order of Quaddies.

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