Richard Frisbie
Author, advertising and
publishing consultant, former
editor of
Chicago and other
magazines, former creative
director of Campbell-Ewald and
other advertising agencies. For
more information, click here. Or
Who's Who in America or,

Margery Frisbie
Consulting editor, historian, poet
and author of several books. For
more information,  click here or

The Uncommentator
BLOGS and GLOBS:  I have
been writing a blog since 1966,
only I didn't know  it. In those
days, it came out in the form of a
newsletter on paper. Remember
paper? It never got lost in
cyberspace, although if it got wet
enough blog turned into glob. I
called it
The Uncommentator,
and tried to make it amusing.  To
read some of my favorites, see

Recent Books by the Frisbies.

No. 123

Teachers of writing always tell students to deal with subjects close to home, subjects they know a lot about.

They recall that Joseph Conrad, a former sea captain, wrote stories of the sea and his books are still in demand. So are the works of Jane Austen, who wrote about the genteel and sometimes silly world of her social peers. Mark Twain was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi before he wrote about Huck Finn drifting down that river on a raft.

Within limits, the same principle applies to advertising writing. By becoming immersed in product facts, a copywriter may be inspired to find a dramatic way to call consumers' attention to some real benefit.

But much as I encouraged research when I was an agency creative director I always tried to spare my writers from touring the clients' plants.

The reason was that I remembered visiting a college roommate whose family grew tomatoes in the Sacramento Valley. The tomatoes really were fresh, ripe and full-flavored. I picked and ate a couple of them myself on the spot.

As soon as the professionals finished picking a field, the tomatoes were trucked directly to the nearby cannery where all the farmers in the area sent their tomatoes.

My friend took me to see the tomato soup plant. The trucks dumped their loads onto a conveyor. Along with the tomatoes went everything else that happened to be in or around the trucks. The drivers had to be agile. Otherwise, (this is where the familiar expression came from) they'd be in the soup.

Inside, I was shown how the tomatoes were washed in a sluice and separated from the various non-tomato substances that arrived with them rocks, gravel, dirt, dead birds, grasshoppers, old shoes, tire tools. A machine similar to a mine detector picked out any bits of metal fencing that otherwise might have slipped through. Workers sometimes panned a little gold and enjoyed a great weekend.

I thought at the time how a writer could poeticize the ultimate bowl of soup, red and steaming on the consumer's table with the rich aroma of plump, juicy tomatoes that ripened on the vine under the warm California sun. All true. Just don't let the writer see the plant.

It wasn't easy to protect my writers from assaults on their delicate artistic sensibilities. When we'd get a new account, the client would always want to bring all the agency people out to the plant and show it off. The company people usually felt proud of having solved various production problems and taken certain steps that really did improve quality. Their feelings would have been hurt if I told them their plant would make my staff want to skip lunch.

My writers didn't see the plant with the eyes of a production engineer or a plant manager accustomed to the realities of volume production. They reacted with the shock you'd expect of a normal person who's not used to watching the corpses of chickens boiled and dismembered a thousand at a time.

I never liked to ask the troops to do something I wouldn't do myself, so I sometimes personally led the expedition to a factory.

Faced with a candy plant tour, I didn't update my will but I did eat one last candy bar. I knew that once I'd seen candy bars stacked up and stretching to the horizon I wouldn't want another for a long time.

While I gasped in the chocolate-laden air, taking in calories with every breath, and tried to avert my eyes from the unappetizing trays of starch where the candy bars were molded, a production executive boasted:

"We have two sets of exterminators. One of them works for us. The others are outside consultants who check up on our men. If we let up for a minute, the bugs would carry the building away." Right then I felt the building tremble a little. Whether it was a heavy truck delivering ingredients or the bugs shifting their grip I couldn't say. I just gave the order to retreat.

When I went to a distillery I saw wheelbarrow loads of grain dumped through a hole in the floor into a vat below. Then a worker swept around the hole with a broom and dumped the sweepings into the vat too.

At a vending machine plant the products seemed well made, but from time to time the workers would accidentally drop one over the edge of the loading dock. It wasn't clear what ultimately became of these machines.

I wondered whether after such a traumatic infancy they went out into the world with a grudge and became the machines that won't give your quarters back.

And these were good plants, acknowledged to turn out superior products. I've never had anything to do with the kinds of packing plants the newspapers sometimes expose, where too many people have a hand in the product. Or maybe part of a finger.

I wouldn't want to write about a brand from a plant where the product sometimes contains unexpected features, such as the tip of someone's nose.

1988 Richard Frisbie

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