Curmudgeon-at-Large: Did Ozzie Nelson Have It Right?

Posted on by Herschell Gordon Lewis

Before most readers of this distinguished publication were born — that would be the twentieth century — a popular bandleader was a genial saxophone player named Ozzie Nelson.

Ozzie Nelson achieved enough fame to become a national figure, and eventually he and his wife Harriet starred in a harmless radio and television series, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”

So what does that have to do with my ongoing curmudgeonly instincts?

The one recollection I have of Ozzie Nelson, and the only one until the memory was jarred open a couple of weeks ago, was the lyric of a peculiar song he warbled on his radio show. I don’t ever remember hearing a song with such absolute specifics:

“I’m looking for a guy
Who plays alto and baritone,
And doubles on the clarinet,
And wears a size 37 suit.”

So help me, that was the song. I can still plink out the melody on a piano, but immediately I was eliminated on two levels – I didn’t play either alto or baritone, and even at a tender age I couldn’t squeeze into a size 37 suit. (If you want to send me a present for Chinese New Year, I wear a 41 long.)

I wasn’t even at a formative stage at that time, so I don’t know if it was that song, the only singing “help wanted” ad I’ve ever heard on network radio, that ruined my life and drove me to direct marketing. I do remember wondering whether the absolute specifics of the ad made the job impossible to fill.

What brought the absolutes of that strange little ditty to mind was an e-mail, from a sender I didn’t recognize, that popped up on the screen. It posed a question as peculiar as it was specific: “Do you write condo copy?”

Suppressing the nasty urge to answer, “Only for penthouses and only on Tuesdays,” I sent a generic answer: “I write copy.”

Some years back, when I was writing copy only for collector’s plates, the realization hit me that copywriters, paralleling doctors and teachers, can get so immersed in a single subject that they lose sight of the total marketplace. And that results in copy-inbreeding. The talent for recruiting customers from the outside becomes dormant in exact ratio to oversaturation with what it, whatever we’re representing, is … as opposed to structuring an appeal that matches the message-recipient’s position – what it will do for him/her.

The Condo Copy Kid phoned: “What we’re looking for is somebody who specializes in copy selling condominiums.”

I didn’t take the pedantic point of view, that the actual plural is “condominia.” Instead, I asked, more mildly than my personality warrants, “Why don’t you want a copywriter who has a history of selling a wide variety of consumer and business offers?”

“Because what we’re selling is condos. We’re in the middle of a promotion.”

I asked who had been writing copy for them. The answer: “An agency that specializes in real estate.” And why are they interested in changing sources in the middle of a promotion? “Because they ain’t hackin’ it.”

The prosecution rests. His agency specializes in what he says he wants. His agency isn’t attracting prospects. Could a generalist fare any worse?

I passed up this golden opportunity, plus the opportunity to recommend a writer I don’t like. Ah, statesmanship in action! Philosophically I’ll retrench to my disagreement with Samuel Clemens who, when asked, “Can you teach people to write?” answered, “I can teach writers to write.” Sam, Baby, that’s a Tom Sawyer and the Fence type of copout.

A savage, indelicate, iconoclastic, and probably unpopular opinion: Writing isn’t an art form; it’s an exquisite but uncomplicated combination of primitive psychology and descriptive perception. Writers who think in terms of adjectives instead of verbs start with an automatic disadvantage.

See how simple it is to write effective copy? Smooth, convincing stringing of words will outpull the grunts and heaves of a contender whose principal self-recommendation is immersion in a single product or service bath.

And that even goes for condos. Except, maybe, for penthouses. And Tuesdays.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the author of 31 books, including the recently published “Creative Rules for the 21st Century.” Among his other books are “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” the curmudgeonly-titled “Asinine Advertising,” the third edition of “On the Art of Writing Copy,” “Open Me Now,” “Marketing Mayhem” and “Effective E-Mail Marketing.”


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