Even the bible tells us that there's a big difference between looking and seeing; between listening and hearing. I've been reminded of that countless times, as I've tried to proofread pieces I've written, and let things slip through. They're some of the most maddening mad man moments.
But I'm not the only one who slips up, of course. Back when I was working on Air France, this ad I wrote, promoting meetings and incentives, appeared in Time magazine with a big, obvious error no one caught. The mistake is revealed below, giving you time to see if you can find it on your own. (Hint: the bigger the mistake, the harder it is to see.)
Another ad of mine, selling a deal on hotels in Nice and Cannes, had a misspelling in the headline that was noticed just in time. So, today, a look at how typographical errors make us feel small, and how one proofreader gave it all up and made it big.
In the eighties, the world of print production was virtually unlike anything known today. Art departments had “bullpens,” where “mechanicals” were put together by people with drawing boards, cutting boards, rubber cement, T-squares, paints, brushes and lots of other equipment that made me glad I was a copywriter and not an art director.
Copywriters are usually people who want to work on a project, then forget about it and get on to the next task, or at least to a long lunch. Most art directors are the control freaks of the ad world, who relish overseeing an ad from inception all the way through to publication.
Before computers, this attention to detail included dealing with photographers, illustrators, type houses and the agency bullpen. The headline and copy would be typeset outside the agency, delivered, pasted down and then the art director would want to change it – lengthen the paragraph, shrink the headline, justify the copy blocks, whatever. The copywriter would be asked to rewrite to fit a certain space, which meant getting the account executive involved in order to get the client's approval to change the pre-approved copy.
The copywriter would often resist, vehemently, which led to the joke, “How many copywriters does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “None. Copywriters won't change anything.”
But we did, and eventually, the ad would be turned into a “proof,” which is what is checked for misspellings and pictorial errors and signed off on by everyone involved, hence the verb, to proofread.
Yes, deadlines were much farther in the future in the past, if you know what I mean. And sometimes, errors slipped through. One of my Air France newspaper ads got pulled back at the last minute when Warren, our production manager, saw that the typesetter had set the headline this way:
That should have been “RIVIERA,” of course, but the word “RIVER” in the misspelling threw almost everybody off. And the ad at the top of today's blog entry shows a beautiful aerial photograph of Paris, supplied to us by the client, and printed correctly, according to the way transparencies were prepared for press in those days. Trouble is, the city is flopped – the Left Bank is on the right, and the Right is on the left. No one, including the client, caught it before it ran in a major magazine. And after? One single, solitary reader responded. Which can lead to one of three disheartening conclusions: that no one else saw the ad, no one else knew, or no one else cared.
I shudder to think of all the mistakes that happen these days, without all the time we had back then.
Talent Will Out
He was an ordinary looking guy, one of those people who sort of fade into the background because they want to. He was a proofreader at the New York ad agency of Kenyon & Eckhardt. It wasn't that I was nice to him, it was that I wasn't oblivious of him that he came to me with something he had written.
It was a funny, silly piece that he wanted some advice about. Was it worth publishing, and if so, where to send it. I really didn't know about that kind of writing, so I suggested that I ask a cartoonist friend of mine if he would be interested in illustrating it. I thought that a more well-known name attached to the piece would improve its chances of at least being looked at by an editor.
My cartoonist friend was busy on other projects and couldn't take this one on. So, I suggested to the proofreader that he send his humorous article to the National Lampoon, which was still being published back then. He did, and they bought it. They asked for more pieces. He wrote them, they published them.
Then, a few months later, he called me on the interoffice phone system and said he'd been offered a job at the Lampoon! He went, and soon became an editor. He started a column of what things used to be called and what they are now, such as Levi's to Dungarees to Blue Jeans and back to Levi's again.
He and I would have lunch about once a month, and I contributed a few ideas to his column, and they were accepted. Soon, it became a book idea, and the company that I had been trying to get to publish some of my ideas was the publisher - Price Stern Sloan. The only problem was the title. We just couldn't come up with a great one. At the last minute, I did -- and everyone involved liked it: Blithering Idioms. We split the advance and waited for word of the publication date. It wasn't to be.
That season, PSS cut their book list in half, and ours was in the half that was cut. (I'm saving that title, though.) As you may know, by the mid-eighties, the National Lampoon had seen better days. Eventually, it trickled out of existence as a magazine, although their “Vacation” movie franchise is still fairly hot.
The former proofreader/former editor wasn't without work, though. He was helping to punch up movie scripts, and was offered a job at one of two cable comedy networks that were starting up. I told him that both of them couldn't last, that one would eventually buy the other, and I was right.
His was the one that was bought out, but he stayed on at Comedy Central. He has since written for late night comedy shows. He's not famous, you don't know his name, but I'm proud that I encouraged him when he was reading my writings. Thousands of us have been enjoying his.
Next time: Getting published