Book Review: From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor

By Michael Larsen

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From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor by Jerry Della Femina
Canongate $30

From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor book cover. Photo / Supplied
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor book cover. Photo / Supplied

There are some genuinely entertaining moments in this homage to advertising's "golden age", no question. The odd bit of craziness, too, though nothing particularly lewd, salacious or revealing. Nothing, in fact, that you probably didn't already know about the industry. Assuming the industry interests you. But that's the big assumption that drives this outpouring from the industry insider.

"I could give you all the disclaimers in the world, but people are still going to look enviously at the advertising business." Really, Jerry? Maybe they did, in 1968-69 when this was penned but we've all kind of moved on a bit, you know? Spielberg, P. Diddy, Banksy - hell, even old Gates, these are America's cultural icons now. While Femina could be forgiven for thinking his industry turned folk the colour of the Jolly Green (Vegetable) Giant he spends a chapter recalling, his updated introduction makes it clear he thinks we still think this way. Do we though?

A quick word on provenance. This, irritatingly described as "an international best-seller" and "a cult classic", was re-released to coincide with/piggyback on the huge success of the television series Mad Men. Subtitled "Front-Line Dispatches From the Advertising War", apparently this book inspired the show and Femina was an adviser on the first series.

And in case you're a bit stupid, the cover is done in true Mad Men livery. But it's not the book of the show, and the show is not a direct cut of the book, thankfully. I am an avid fan of the show, but the brilliant dialogue, the genuine slow-burning intrigues and deeply psychotic personalities, well, wherever the show's writer got them from, they didn't come from this book.

The chapter, "Give Me Your Drunks, Your Weirdoes" would be where you'd be expecting the real crazy "cats" to come out but the stories are lame, not just by today's standard, but by any standard.

Obsolescence unfortunately takes the wind out of Femina's sails. A huge number of the products he refers to simply don't exist any more, and a lot of his reference points, which may indeed have been hugely influential at the time mean nothing, or very little now.

And all that is so annoying because when he talks about the work, the craft, the processes, he nails it. How he and his art director came up with an entire campaign about half an hour before the client arrived at their offices. How many headlines a copywriter was expected to submit for a proposal, how they worked in with the art guys, how much division there was between the creatives and the suits - that stuff is priceless.

But the overbearing ego, the disingenuous link to Mad Men and, unforgivably, a number of typographical errors make this a disappointment.

Michael Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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