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Salman Rushdie’s years as an ad man

LiveMint logoLiveMint 24-09-2017 Anvar Alikhan

There is a parallel universe out there, where Midnight’s Children was published, criticized for being unreadable and disappeared into literary oblivion (as many people feared it might). In that parallel universe, Salman Rushdie went back to spend the rest of his career as an unknown, moderately successful advertising copywriter. Thus The Satanic Verses and the fatwa never happened, and nor, of course, did his new book The Golden House.

Rushdie began life, straight out of Cambridge, as a struggling actor in London’s fringe theatre. But a friend who had just gotten himself a well-paid, glamorous job in advertising suggested that he should try to get a job as a copywriter, telling him, “It’s really easy, Salman.”

Rushdie went to J Walter Thompson to do a copy test, which included assignments like explaining to a Martian, in just 100 words, how to make toast, and writing a radio spot for seat belts. Rushdie seems to have done a pretty good job of the test, because his seat-belt radio spot, for example, was an imaginative take-off on Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll hit, No Particular Place to Go. But, for whatever reason, he didn’t get the job. A few months later, however, he joined the little ad agency of Sharp MacManus, where his first assignment was a thoroughly forgettable Christmas promo ad for Players cigars.


Rushdie later went on to work for Ogilvy & Mather, where colleagues remember him as a somewhat morose character, whom they nicknamed “Salmon Fishcake”. Ogilvy, at that time, was a fuddy-duddy agency, dubbed “the ministry of advertising”, in an era when other British agencies like Collett Dickenson Pearce & Partners, Boase Massimi Pollitt, and Saatchi & Saatchi were creating some of the world’s most exciting advertising and redefining the state of the advertising art.

Salman Rushdie during his copywriter days.

The campaign Rushdie is best remembered for at Ogilvy was for Aero chocolate, whose USP was that it was filled with hundreds of tiny air bubbles. The way that campaign happened is a classic example of the role that accidents play in creativity. A colleague of Rushdie’s, who was working on the brand, was in deep trouble because a client presentation was scheduled for that afternoon, and by lunchtime he still hadn’t come up with any ideas to present. In a complete panic, he called Rushdie into his cabin to help him out. As the two of them sat together, trying desperately to think up ideas, the colleague said, in a panic-stricken stammer, “It’s f-----g impossib-ib-ib-ible”.

Rushdie remembers that a light bulb suddenly went off in his head, and he started scribbling down all the words he could think of that ended with “ible” or “able”, and twisting them into “bubble”. Hence, a series of clever one-liners for Aero chocolate, like “Adorabubble”, “Delectabubble”, “Incredibubble” and “Irresistibubble”. Indeed, the idea proved so flexible that the campaign was extended into media like bus panels that said “Transportabubble”, shop signs that said “Availabubble here” and even trade ads that said “Profitabubble”.

“It was my one genuine light-bulb moment,” says Rushdie. “I invented it only because the guy I was working with had a stammer.” That campaign went on to become one of the best remembered campaigns for Aero (now a Nestlé brand).

Ten years in advertising

The other big campaign Rushdie is remembered for was for the UK Milk Board’s fresh cream cakes, for which he wrote the line, “Naughty. But nice.” When he presented the campaign to the client, they rejected it, saying that it would put people off by suggesting that the cakes were unhealthy for you. Rushdie argued that people already knew that, but the point was to stress on the “But nice” part, but it was no use. A year later, however, after he had moved on to his next agency, Rushdie suddenly saw his “Naughty. But nice.” campaign splashed in the media all over the UK. As so often happens in advertising, it had evidently been through a messy, roundabout process, in which the Milk Board and the agency had discussed various different approaches, and finally come right back to the original idea. But where did that idea come from? Rushdie says the inspiration came from a slapstick TV sitcom line of the time, “Ooh, you’re awful—but I like you.” But others think a more likely source was an obscene song, ironically titled The Hymn, with the refrain “It’s naughty, but it’s nice”, which Rushdie must have heard while at school at Rugby, or at Cambridge.

A young Salman Rushdie.

Another brand that Rushdie worked on was for the tabloid, Daily Mirror, for which he wrote the line, “Look into the Mirror. You’ll like what you see.” He had the daunting task of having to churn out three TV commercials a week for the tabloid, during the long political crisis that led up to Margaret Thatcher’s emergence on the British political scene—a gruelling crash course in film-making that helped shape Rushdie’s craft (and whose influences show clearly in the cinematic format in which The Golden House is written). But, Nobel Prize contender that he is today, he presumably wants to forget that he once promoted the embarrassingly lowbrow Daily Mirror.

Rushdie worked in advertising for 10 years, from 1970 to 1980, working on brands like Clairol shampoos, American Express cards, Scotch Tape, Coty cosmetics, Spillers pet foods (now a part of Nestlé) and US Tourism. In the process he got the opportunity to work with celebrities like photographer Elliott Erwitt, film director Nicolas Roeg (director of the classic thriller, Don’t Look Now) and comic genius John Cleese. With Cleese, for example, he worked on a TV commercial to demonstrate a new invisible variant of Scotch Tape, for which he wrote a characteristically zany, Cleese-y script, which began, “As you can see, you can’t see this invisible new Scotch tape—unlike ordinary tape which, as you can see, you can see….”

Just a stopgap career

But during all those years, Rushdie was very clear in his mind that being a copywriter, well paid as the job was, was just a stopgap career; what he really wanted was to be a novelist. In fact, during those years in advertising, he wrote four novels, only one of which—Grimus—actually saw the light of day. In 1975, with the £800 he had earned from Grimus, Rushdie quit his job at Ogilvy & Mather, and set out with his wife to backpack through India, to collect material for a hugely ambitious new novel that was incubating in his imagination.

On his return to London, Rushdie became a freelance copywriter, working three days a week at Ogilvy & Mather, so that he could concentrate on his bizarre, sprawling new Indian novel, which began with the idea of transposing Indira Gandhi into Bollywood and, over the next five years, slowly, painfully evolved into Midnight’s Children. It was, of course, a humongous risk that Rushdie was taking, investing all this time in writing a book that was so radically conceived and styled that its chances of acceptance were small. Indeed, when he finally completed the book and submitted it to a publisher, the first response was, “The author should concentrate on short stories until he has mastered the novel form.”

In his Midnight’s Children years, Rushdie says, he used to write much faster and more easily, but the writing needed more revision. Now, with age, he writes more slowly, but more surely, and doesn’t need to revise so much. Photo: AFP

When Midnight’s Children was finally accepted for publication by Jonathan Cape, Rushdie went to his creative director to resign. The creative director misunderstood. “OK”, he said, “so you want a raise?” When Rushdie said no, he was quitting to become a full-time novelist, the creative director nodded knowingly, “OK”, he said, “so you want a big raise.”

So how does Rushdie look back now on his years in advertising?

Surprisingly, despite all his literary achievements, he still seems to be rather proud of his “Incredibubble” and “Naughty. But nice.” campaigns. But more than that, he says advertising taught him how to be disciplined about his writing. He says he writes like it’s a job. He sits down at his desk in the morning and just does it, everyday. And he doesn’t get up until he’s written what he considers to be an honest day’s work.

In his Midnight’s Children years, he says, he used to write much faster and more easily, but the writing needed more revision. Now, with age, he writes more slowly, but more surely, and doesn’t need to revise so much. But, still, he needs to write those few hundred words every day. Otherwise, presumably, the danger is that one might end up like Rushdie’s stammering colleague, who had a client meeting in the afternoon, but by lunchtime, still didn’t have an idea.

Anvar Alikhan is senior vice-president and strategy consultant at J Walter Thompson. He has memories of Salman Rushdie as a swaggering senior at Cathedral School, Mumbai.

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