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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Henningsen: Have It Your Way

Mad Men does a wonderful job of capturing the heyday of commercial advertising – the banner years of liquor and cigarette ads, of tags like Clairol’s “Does she or doesn’t she?” which led the number of American women coloring their hair to grow from seven to forty percent in fifteen years. That, in turn, led to memorable TV campaigns for fast food, telecommunications, cars.

How many of us of a certain age instantly recall the music and lyrics to jingles that began “You deserve a break today” or “Reach out, reach out and touch someone” or “See the USA in a Chevrolet?” Yikes! If there’s a single culprit behind the much lamented homogenization of American culture, it would have to be Madison Avenue.

Perhaps because I was surrounded by that stuff growing up, I’ve since developed an affection for an approach to advertising represented by a long-ago road sign in St. Johnsbury reading “This is not Route 2.” It’s no-nonsense, take-it-or-leave-it marketing, where it’s clear the proprietor might appreciate your business, but isn’t going to bend over backwards to get it.

Although it’s disappearing, there’s still enough of this to make life interesting. A good local example may be found just down the road from me at Dan and Whit’s General Store in Norwich, whose motto is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

Then there’s the garbage hauling firm on the Maine coast whose trucks bear the reassuring slogan: “Satisfaction guaranteed or double your trash back.”

Or the Alaska saloon which hung over the bar the cheerful notice, “We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you.”

And the prominent display in a Minnesota barber shop, warning customers that they’ll get “Something between what you had and what you wanted.”

We’re all used to “No shirt, no shoes, no service”, but I have fond memories of the days before ATMs when our local delicatessen sported a large sign over the cash register reading, “Banks don’t make sandwiches. We don’t cash checks.”

Then there’s the old-style version of the hard sell. I think this is apocryphal, but my grandfather, who was a salmon fisherman in Alaska before World War I, swore it was true. Folks accustomed to pink salmon wouldn’t buy white salmon, until someone slapped on the label “guaranteed not to turn pink in the can.” The pink-salmon producers responded with “Guaranteed! No bleach used in processing.”

“Have it your way” went the old Burger King jingle. Of course, the whole point of advertising is quite the opposite – persuading you that their way is better and should be yours. So here’s to those home-grown sloganeers who throughout history have resisted mass marketing to pitch it their way.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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