How to rise above a life of back office obscurity
By Elena Bonsignori
I don’t get to sign my work or discuss it with Oprah. Every single fat chick in the nation will be wearing a size two before you ever see “This ad created by Winkie Weinstein” in a newspaper or magazine. Obviously, those promised fifteen minutes of fame are as far from my reality as Oz.
I’m a copywriter. Talk about your thankless jobs.
Let me introduce myself, since nobody else will. I’m the aforementioned Winkie Weinstein. It’s Winifred on my birth cert. I used to be called Winnie but when I developed this twitchy eye . . . anyway, I accepted the new moniker graciously. “Winkie” will be more memorable when the sky caves in and I get my moment in the sun.
If you’re thinking, “Stop whining, already. They pay you the big bucks for toiling in anonymity,” please delete it from your mind. No amount of money can compensate for living in obscurity. The unknowns who came up with “Where’s the Beef?” or “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” surely want public praise. I mean, your inspiration is plastered on millions of T-shirts and nobody knows that you wrote those immortal words? It’s enough to make a person nuts.
Speaking of nuts, the boss here at the brainwashing palace is Moe Hubbell, a gormless hack who started in advertising as a bad copywriter until they wised up and kicked him into account service. He’s now the CEO but still likes to interfere in the creative process, regularly panning any headline that doesn’t say “Buy One, Get One Free.”
Like just yesterday, my art partner and I presented the graphics and positioning statement for a chain of shopping mall orthodontists: “Ortho-Quik. Get Wired At The Mall.”
As usual, Moe whipped out that stupid surgical mask he keeps in his desk drawer, tied it on, faked throw-up noises and gagged, “Pee-U! Bring me some fresh ideas, will ya?”
Ear-splitting applause from the Clio audience for the award I wouldn’t be winning, because he’d nixed another possibility, competed with the click-clack of tap shoes as my muse did high kicks against my forehead.
I favored him with a gargoylian smile, reminding myself that very soon Moe Hubbell would be heading to that hot ad agency below, where for all eternity he’ll write GRAND OPENING! ads with FREE GIFT! starbursts and no one will ever show up.
I suppose it’s time to mention that I’ve killed twice before. Nobody has figured out that I’m the perp. To be more specific, no one is even aware that murder has been done. Once again, I’m invisible. This being a plus—who in their right mind aspires to a prison cell?—doesn’t stop me from secretly craving credit.
Of course, the first death was an accident so it really doesn’t count. But since it put the perfect weapon into my hands, it wasn’t a total loss.
What happened was, last month Ed Moody (my ex-art partner) and I were sweating it out on the weekend, desperate to come up with a campaign for a new, not-yet-on-the-market, pine-scented bug spray. The client presentation was set for the following week and we had bupkes. They were still noodling with the product, hadn’t even named it yet—we were planning to suggest “Pine-Away”—but the advertising had to be firmed, tested and fine-tuned months ahead of time.
So there we were at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon when Ed reached for his Big Mac sitting on the corner of my desk. As he slid the opened wrapper onto his lap, I saw something black dart under the burger and screamed, “Roach!”
Ed, who’d been leaning back with his legs resting on the waste basket, jumped, his chair tipped over and he fell on the floor. I grabbed the unlabeled can of sample product and spritzed. I was aiming at the cockroach. Unfortunately, Ed’s face got in the way.
The next thing I knew, the EMTs were shaking their heads and packing up their equipment. Their chatter during the attempted resuscitation hinted at a heart attack which was later confirmed.
Was it the “Pine-Away” or Ed’s greasy spoon diet that did him in? Getting an answer required further research. But next time, I’d have to do something about the faint piney odor that lingered in the room. Although most of the smell dissipated quickly and the paramedics were too busy to notice, why take chances?
Meanwhile, the job was put on hold, all meetings postponed. It seemed there were “a few bugs in the spray,” ha ha, and the lab boys were working on making it a bit more “folks friendly.”
Nobody remembered my sample can, now wedged neatly into a Dutch-shoe planter on the top shelf of my bookcase. (Too shallow, it had been kicked upstairs because everything I tried to grow in it died. Nice touch, huh?) It seemed obvious to me, considering the client’s withdrawal, that I probably had an undetectable toxin at my disposal. But “probably” wasn’t good enough. I needed definite proof, and knew exactly who’d next be sniffing the pine scent that might literally waft your spirit into the great outdoors.
Hubbell had sicced a junior copywriter on me for training. Nanci’s previous ten minutes in the ad biz was spent working in the so-called marketing department at a car dealership owned by Zellie “Don’t Turn Nobody Down” Popkin, a crony of Moe’s. The ficus tree in my office was replaced by a small desk which Nanci occupied in between touch-ups to her black roots and browsing at Victoria’s Secret.
When Moe graduated from ass-feelies to three hour lunches at the Dixie Motel, the bimbette started prancing around like Queen Tut. After catching her trying on my ergonomic chair for size, I knew it was only a matter of time before she had my job.
Here’s how I cut her career short.
On Thursdays, when Mrs. Hubbell went to an evening pottery class, Nanci spent an hour in the afternoon primping for her dinner date with Moe. Earlier in the day, I sent her to the Xerox room to copy an inch-thick file of rejected tourism pitches. As soon as her sour look and “humphs” were out the door, I retrieved her lavender plastic makeup tote (it was actually a toolbox, with a top tier of compartments and a fathomless well beneath) from the window sill behind her desk and set it down on the floor. I opened all the compacts and jars, leaned back slightly, stretched my arm and misted everything—pressed powders, cream foundations and gels, puffs and sponges, eye shadows and even lipsticks—with my spray of potentially instant death. I then closed the lid and returned the tote to its perch.
The next and last step was to hang one of those tree-shaped car deodorants that usually dangle from a rear-view mirror on the coat hook behind my office door. Now any suggestion of pine scent was easily explained.
Four o’clock finally came. Nanci ordered one last item from Amazon, shut off her computer and hefted the box onto her desk. I pretended to be engrossed in a phone conversation, making an occasional note on my yellow pad: The time is now 4:03 . . . 4:04 . . . 4:07 . . .
She velcroed a short plastic cape over her blouse, picked up one of the sponges and began dabbing concealer under her eyes. Seconds passed with no signs of oncoming death.
The coordinated thumping of my heart and pounding in my head boomed loudly enough to entertain a rap enthusiast. What if the skin didn’t absorb the stuff and you had to breathe it in? Did Ed really have a genuine, unprovoked-by-me heart attack? No! The fates couldn’t be that cruel. Or could they? The thought that maybe I’d be sending out resumes tonight instead of swigging celebratory schnapps added a cacophonous buzzing in both ears to the rest of my symptoms.
Nanci was still functioning. She used a different sponge to spread foundation, then a brush for blusher. The poison—if, in fact, it was poison—didn’t seem to be seeping into her body. Despite my pride in always trying not to repeat myself creatively, I contemplated blasting her with a spritz right in the face.
Thankfully, this wasn’t necessary. The lipstick dropped from her hand as she clutched her left boob, doubled over and clunked her head on the desk. Little Nanci wouldn’t be slicking on her pout ever again.
This time, a Detective Markman spent an hour or so at the agency nosing around. He seemed to find heart attacks in two people under thirty in the same month an odd coinky-dinky. Markman may have had his suspicions but once again, the official word was natural causes. The clueless lug had no choice but to lumber back to Cop Land with nobody in cuffs.
Even with this green light, I know I should wait a while before offing Moe. But how can I? My scheme for him is a masterpiece, worthy of an AdWeek write-up. Even better, it could be a feature film and on Oscar night, I’d be the woman writer skipping onto the stage in my Armani to claim the gold. Images of Hubbell keeling over are like a neon sign blinking day and night behind my eyes. It was only after finding myself alone in the back of a subway car at rush hour while the horde of other riders crammed themselves into the other end that I’ve been able to control my giggling.
It’s been three weeks since Nanci confirmed my hopes for “Pine-Away.” If I have to postpone the Moe Hubbell project much longer, I’ll be the one sporting a toe tag. Just kidding. Why kill myself when I can so easily eradicate Moe? Incidentally, the putz has come up with new, unendurable rules for the creative department but I won’t go into detail because the idiocy will just quietly die along with him.
Hubbell called a brainstorming session for some new clients at nine-thirty tomorrow morning. It’s the perfect time to do the job since there’s never been a creative meeting when he didn’t slap on the surgical mask. That’s right. You guessed! Can you think of a more perfect method of disposal than impregnating his mask with the oh so pernicious bug spray? Thank you! Thank you! Don’t all throw flowers at once.
Tonight I’ll hang around the agency until ten when the place is empty except for the cleaning crew, tip-toe into his lair, spray until my index finger cramps and replace the sodden mask in the top drawer. In roughly ten hours, Moe Hubbell will be history.
The creative teams sprawl in Moe’s guest chairs and on the sofa. I’m stationed at the white board with a black marker, ready to record each concept. Remaining focused is a Herculean effort because a troop of drunken Cossacks have been dancing a kazatsky inside my skull since 5:00 a.m.
Hubbell sends text messages while everyone shouts out ideas until—at last!—he pretends to burp, grabs and flaunts the surgical mask, ties it on with meticulous bows and goes into his “Pee-U” routine.
I know I can’t erase the clown-worthy grin from my mouth so don’t even try. Also, the twitchy eye is going berserk but I can’t do anything about that either. Soon, I tell myself, very soon . . . My mind sees his demise as a fifteen second spot: OPEN: Moe pulls down the mask and gasps for air, his hand smacks his chest, his features distort, he crumples into his recliner. SUPER: Some bosses are dying to make their employees happy. FADE TO BLACK.
Only nothing happens. Nothing! What a fiasco! Mediocrity still lives. I suppose that overnight the stuff loses its punch.
Clearly, a new approach is needed but my muse won’t cooperate. Here’s why. Remember those new rules I mentioned earlier, never dreaming the bozo would have the chance to implement them?
Well, read this and weep. Moe’s directive states that: “Recent market research has shown that 97.8 % of consumers do not read the body copy in an ad. In other words, the headline has to do all the selling. Therefore, every headline must include the product’s (or service’s) name and a benefit. Examples: 1) Buy a new Chevy from Zellie Popkin and get hooked on speed. 2) Trust Zellie Popkin to take you for a ride. 3) Zellie Popkin’s used cars give you more bangs for your buck.”
It’s intolerable! If Hubble hadn’t backed up his claims with copies of the study, I’d never have believed such drivel. I still don’t. I can’t. If consumers don’t absorb every word of the sales pitch, how do you explain Old Navy? There has to be a way to repudiate these findings. This is why I can’t concentrate on the new plan for Moe’s downfall. I have to devote all my energies to what now amounts to validating my entire life.
My office door is closed with the occupado sign on the doorknob so nobody will disturb me. And sure enough, having temporarily dismissed the Hubbell issue from my mind, my pen flies over the page. When I come up for air, I realize that I’ve devised a brilliant strategy that will annihilate the market research hogwash. The following ad is right on target:
HEADLINE: Murder, I gloat.
SUBHEAD: Ms. X, a two-time killer, tells all!
COPY: Two of my co-workers are kaput, thanks to me. Wouldn’t you like to know EVERY DETAIL of how I committed the crimes and avoided arrest? If you’ve ever wondered how to get away with murder, here’s your answer. Don’t wait! Fill in the coupon and send $1 (one dollar) for postage and handling TODAY.
COUPON: Name ______________________________________________
Mail to: X. Posay / P.O. Box 0369 / Brooklyn, NY 30111
Have you caught on? If I’m right, there’ll be a flood of returned coupons, tangible and irrefutable proof that people do read all the copy. I envision more mail sacks crowding my office than were dragged into court in Miracle on 34th Street when the U. S. Postal Service was used to prove the existence of Santa Claus.
I lay out a 3 X 4 column-inch ad on my computer. Even without the expertise of an art director, it looks okay. I also dash off the promised account of my exploits but decide to wait for the responses—and the money—before running to Kinko’s for copies.
I manage to scrounge up enough cash to pay for newspaper space by cleaning out my bank account and selling Vanna White’s phone number on ebay (she was the talent in one of my old TV spots). Everyone knows that repetition is vital to getting the message across but, other than robbing a convenience store to finance further exposure, I’m forced to go for broke with the one insertion.
I’m slouched at my desk staring at the can of “Pine-Away,” thinking how painful a heart attack will be and wondering where I can score some Seconal. Nobody read the ad. Probably, no one has ever read any of my ads. All these years, I’ve been giving sales talks in an empty amphitheater. Now I know. Now, when it’s too late to become a barista or legal secretary.
There’s been only one piddling request for the details from some woman in New Jersey. I assume you’re shaking your head in disbelief. Imagine how I feel.
My door opens a smidge and Detective Markman peers in.
“May I?” he asks, entering without waiting for an answer. He strides to my desk and plops the single confession I sent out in front of me. It’s encased in a plastic sleeve.
“That lady in Passaic?”
“But my name isn’t on it.”
“Your fingerprints are.”
“How did you find out it was me?”
“Staked out the post office box.” He jiggles handcuffs. “It’s time. ‘You have the right to remain silent . . .’”
During the Miranda spiel, a uniformed policeman pokes his head into the room. Behind him, I recognize a TV reporter from the news show I watch.
“Is EyewitnessEight out there?” I ask, fluffing my bangs.
“They’re all waiting for you,” Detective Markman says, sweeping open the door to reveal the lights, cameras and microphones of the five network affiliates plus CNN, all the local newspapers and every radio station in town.