Remembering Tony Schwartz

I just learned from Dick Morris that political and social media pioneer Tony Schwartz died this weekend. While he is perhaps best known for a TV commercial that ran only once but changed the course of an election (the Daisy ad) and his media work for other political candidates, he is also owed a debt of gratitude for his influence on social marketing as well.

Among the more than 20,000 spots Tony recorded in his lifetime were the first anti-smoking commercials. A 1961 ad featuring children dressing up in their parents’ clothing in front of a mirror (“Children learn by imitating their parents. Do you smoke cigarettes?”) was credited by the American Cancer Society with driving the tobacco industry’s ads off television and radio. He was an active anti-tobacco advocate and addressed many social issues as well.

I was lucky to have met Tony several times as a student at the Harvard School of Public Health. He co-taught a course on developing media communications that I took, and for which I later became the teaching assistant. Because he was agoraphobic, Tony did not often leave his home in New York City. He taught the class via teleconference, and we actually flew up to New York to meet with him a couple of times in his 56th Street apartment/studio (yes, it’s nice to go to a school with resources like that!).

In his cramped studio surrounded by massive shelves of tapes and videos, we had the opportunity to learn from the master. At the end of the quarter we had our own PSA radio spots recorded by a professional announcer there.

From Tony, I learned the importance of tapping into emotions, using sound and images to strike a “responsive chord” with what people already knew and believed. And long before the Truth campaign came along, he was wielding the delicate scalpel (and sometimes blunt club) of shame to get people to do the right thing about everything from picking up after their dog to city budgetary issues.

His guerrilla media approach often utilized the tactic of “narrowcasting” to the extreme; he sometimes even had a target audience of one – for example, the chairman of Philip Morris or McDonalds, or the city councilman responsible for a particular crime-ridden neighborhood. In some cases, just the threat of Tony’s well-known brand of shaming via media was enough to persuade an abrupt turnaround without the ad ever running.

Though I haven’t thought about Tony Schwartz for quite a while, as I write this I am realizing how much I apply the things I learned from him in my everyday work. Thank you, Tony.


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