Literary Superstars Prefer Ballantine

The New York Times is running an interesting essay by author Tony Perrottet, about the need for self-promotion in today’s literary realms.

In this era when most writers are expected to do everything but run the printing presses, self-promotion is so accepted that we hardly give it a second thought. And yet, whenever I have a new book about to come out, I have to shake the unpleasant sensation that there is something unseemly about my own clamor for attention. Peddling my work like a Viagra salesman still feels at odds with the high calling of literature.

In such moments of doubt, I look to history for reassurance. It’s always comforting to be reminded that literary whoring — I mean, self-marketing — has been practiced by the greats.

One of the greats revealed in Perrottet’s piece is Ernest Hemingway. “Hemingway set the modern gold standard for inventive self-branding, burnishing his image with photo ops from safaris, fishing trips and war zones.” Hem endorsed Pan Am, Parker pens and Ballantine Ale. He appeared in a double-page spread for Ballantine in Life magazine in 1951, and from the looks of it, he also wrote some of the copy.

“You have to work hard to deserve to drink it. But I would rather have a bottle of Ballantine Ale than any other drink after fighting a really big fish. When something has been taken out of you by strenuous exercise Ballantine puts it back in.”

The last sentence above and other product attribute-laden copy in the ad makes me think Hemingway did not write this copy, and something about that upsets me.

John Steinbeck is also featured in Ballantine Ale advertising. Here’s some of his copy: “Smooth hops and malt pull together against heat and dust and weariness. That’s the biggest thirst I know, and the best antidote.”

Really? The author of The Grapes of Wrath sees Ballantine Ale as the best antidote to the dustbowl? I know these ads are 60 years old and the writers are long gone, but I’m slightly freaked out by this. Lending one’s endorsement is one thing, but pretending to write the copy is another. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Hemingway and Steinbeck did write the copy in their signature ads. They may have, but it’s obvious that the final edit was made by the brand’s heavy hand.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.