From Political Ad Man to Nightclub Comic
Tony Schwartz talks about his life in advertising - as captured in his act, `The Humorous Side of Political Commercials'
NEW YORK — IT is still probably the most controversial political ad ever in America. A little girl is plucking petals from a daisy. The voiceover segues into an ominous countdown. Then a nuclear explosion, followed by apocalyptic oratory from then-President Lyndon Johnson. ``We must love each other, or we must die.''
Commentators said it was the start of video nastiness in American campaigns. (Four years later, of course, Johnson's words would have an ironic twist.) But earlier this month in New York, Tony Schwartz offered a somewhat surprising rejoinder. Schwartz is the media wizard who made the ``Daisy'' spot, and he said that originally, he did it for the United Nations. That is why the ad never mentions Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, explicitly or by implication.
When LBJ's ad agency called, Schwartz just ``pulled it off a shelf,'' he says, tacking the Johnson lines onto the end. He claims he didn't even know of Goldwater's rash statements regarding nuclear weapons that many assumed the spot was aimed at. The viewers supplied that Goldwater connection themselves.
No doubt, Johnson's strategists figured as much. Still, Schwartz offers the episode as proof of his operating premise regarding media: that it works much like music, not imparting information, but rather evoking what the audience already feels or knows. The Daisy spot, he says, was ``just what people brought to it from what was stored in their minds.''
Schwartz [pictured in sequence at right] was speaking at a rather unlikely forum: Chez Beauvais, a nightclub next to his home on West 56th Street here in New York, where he is appearing on Tuesday nights through September.
Politics being show business, Schwartz has turned political advertising into a nightclub act. Amidst a desultory mayoral race - ``Is Anybody Still Awake?'' Newsday asked, after a televised debate - Schwartz's is probably the best political act in town.
It's also a lot more. If Schwartz sees media as a form of music, its because he himself is really a musician. He doesn't sell candidates and products; he conveys the inner experience of things, with an emotional nuance rare in media generally - let alone advertising. In Schwartz's hands, a long-distance telephone call becomes a moving personal experience (``Reach out and touch.'')
Billed simply as ``The Humorous Side of Political Commercials,'' the nightclub show is really a first take at an audio biography of one of the nation's most original and inventive media artists. It could be called, ``My Life in Sound.''
That life began over 40 years ago, when Schwartz was a young commercial artist out of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. His hobby was lugging a 16-pound Swiss tape recorder all over Manhattan.
He was recording the sounds of the city - cab drivers and harbor ships and children at play. Schwartz made records for Folkways and Columbia that Nat Hentoff, the music critic, called ``a startling reminder of the uniqueness of the familiar.''
Schwartz had his own radio show on WNYC. He didn't have to look for work. It came to him - first major corporations, then political candidates. Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams heard his tapes at a party, and enlisted him as a Saturday fixture at a nightclub they partly owned, called the Baq Room.
In the wrong hands, Schwartz's talents would be dangerous. But he works only on products he considers benign. In recent years, he's devoted much time to his one-man media campaigns against smoking and other public health problems. He's also written two books.
Schwartz's show at Chez Beauvais is a sprightly summation of this work. It also reinforces another of his pet theories: that television touches us primarily through the ear. Audio tapes of Schwartz's TV ads work just as well as the video versions, if not better.
``Try taking a picture of television,'' he tells the audience. ``Its just not there.''
Schwartz talks to an audience the way he talks to visitors in his studio - with familiarity and warmth. His ads are the same way. They bypass the conventions of advertising and media and speak directly to the human experience.
Schwartz's first ads were the first on television to use real children's voices; previously, adult women had read the children's parts. His Johnson's Baby Powder spot, which ran for 16 years, is as fresh and affecting today as it was in the '50s: ``Too bad you had to get a bald headed one,'' Vernon exclaims, as a new mother powders her infant's head.
Schwartz played tapes of city cab-drivers talking in Ed Norton accents about picking up Jayne Mansfield, the '50s movie siren, and getting lost in the Bronx. (``That Bronx is like China.'') The seven years at the Baq Room were the bridge between his work as urban folklorist and media crusader. ``I learned how people reacted to hearing other people and to sound,'' he said, ``and to what qualities moved them.''
His political ads are a stitch. For the challenger in a Michigan House race, Schwartz's ad began, ``Charles Chamberlain has been in Congress for 12 years. Let me read a list of the things he's accomplished.''
Long silence. ``Did I leave anything out?''
In a mayoral race in Nashville, he scripted an abject apology to the opponant. With the listener hooked, the ad continued, ``We claimed your voting record in Congress was in the bottom 5 percent. That is not true. Your voting record in Congress is in the bottom 1 percent.''
Then there was the time the New York Legislature was about to ban Sunday shopping. In Albany, the state capital, commuters heard a woman on the radio one morning pronouncing, with velvety sarcasm, that ``Stanley says we can't buy a sofa on Sunday.''
Stanley is Stanley Stiengut, then-Speaker of the New York Assembly. The woman gave Stanley's number and suggested that listeners give him a call.
``Stanley not only changed his mind,'' Schwartz says. ``He also changed his telephone number.''
Most commercial advertising is as ponderous and wasteful as the corporate bureaucracies that produce it, Schwartz says. A major company will take months to develop an ad campaign, which will run for a year or more, in hopes of generating perhaps a 5-10 percent increase in sales.
Political ads, by contrast, are a form of guerrilla warfare. They have to hit hard and fast. The store (i.e. voting booth) is only open one day, and the customer is only there for one or two minutes. Political advertising, Schwartz says, is ``light years ahead of [commercial] advertising in its ability to affect people.''
Accordingly, Schwartz has become the leading advocate of what he calls ``guerrilla media.'' That means making a large impact for relatively little money by (a) using radio instead of television; and (b) ``narrowcasting'' to a particular time and place, even a particular person.
When New York was about to rotate police from precinct to precinct - supposedly to deter police corruption - Schwartz produced an ad proposing that Mayor Koch be rotated to Syracuse to deter political corruption. He called Koch and played the ad over the phone.
``I never had to [run] the commercial,'' Schwartz says. ``And they never rotated police.''
On another occasion, he prodded the Mayor to support an indoor smoking curb. ``If we can get 5 percent of the people who smoke to stop,'' he says, ``we can prevent more cancer than medicine has ever been able to cure.''
Schwartz doesn't fit the model of a guerrilla warrior. He is a kindly and deliberate man, who seems constantly attentive to the doings of his mind. After several decades and thousands of spots, he still giggles in delight when his media shots hit their mark.
Once, he set out to make a kind of occupational guide for teenagers, in which people in different fields would talk about their work. One was Grace Babakhian, then a personnel manager.
``He had that look of a person totally absorbed by what he was doing,'' recalls Ms. Babakhian, who was at Chez Beauvais on opening night. ``The lucky few.''