NEW YORK (AP) — George Lois, the big-selling, charismatic ad executive and designer who created some of the 1960s’ most outrageous magazine images, popularizing catchphrases and brand names like “I Want My MTV” and “Lean Cuisine.” ” He was 91.
Lois’ son, photographer Luke Lois, said he died “peacefully” at his Manhattan home on Friday.
Nicknamed the “Golden Greek” and later (to his displeasure) the “Original Mad Man,” George Lois was among a wave of advertisers who started the “creative revolution” that swept Madison Avenue in the late 1950s and 1960s and the whole world shook. He was boastful and provocative, willing and able to offend, and he was a master at finding just the right image or words to capture a moment or evoke a demand.
His Esquire magazine covers, from Muhammad Ali posing as the martyr Saint Sebastian to Andy Warhol drowning in a sea of Campbell’s tomato soup, defined the hypermind of the ’60s, as did Norman Rockwell’s idealized drawings for the Saturday Evening Post conjured up an earlier era. As an advertising executive, he pioneered strategies for Xerox and Stouffer’s and helped a burgeoning music video channel in the 1980s by proposing ads featuring Mick Jagger and other rock stars mock-irritably chanting “I Want My MTV!”
Lois boiled it down to what he called the “big idea” by “crystallizing a product’s unique virtues and cementing it in people’s minds.” He has been inducted into numerous halls of fame in advertising and fine arts, and in 2008 his Esquire work was added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. Martin Scorsese, Tina Brown and Graydon Carter were among his admirers.
His legacy was vast, although the actual dimensions are disputed. His claims of developing the 1960s breakfast ad “I Want My Maypo” and inspiring the founding of New Yorker magazine have been widely contradicted. Some former Esquire colleagues would claim he overdid his role at the expense of other contributors such as Carl Fischer, who photographed many of the magazine’s famous covers. But his overwhelming energy and confidence were well documented.
In her memoir Basic Black, former USA Today editor Cathie Black recalled consulting Lois in the early 1980s to propose a new approach to advertising for a publication that was initially struggling to identify. Lois’ idea was to promote USA Today’s dual appeal as a newspaper and magazine by proposing the slogan: “A lot of people say USA Today is neither fish nor meat. You’re right!” Ahead of a gathering of the publications, which included founder Al Neuharth, Lois gave an Oscar-worthy performance, with Black writing, “Jumping in like a 6ft 3 teenager who jumped on Red Bull.”
“He threw his jacket on the floor, ripped off his tie, then flashed prototype commercial after prototype commercial, pranced around the room and engaged in a running monologue peppered with jokes and profanity. It was epic, almost scary. I was excited. When he was done, there was absolute silence in the room.” All eyes turned to Neuharth, who “sat absolutely still, his face hidden behind his dark aviator glasses”. Neuharth paused, took off his glasses and smiled. “We have it,” he said.
Lois’ longtime wife Rosemary Lewandowski Lois died in September. One son, Harry Joseph Lois, died in 1978.
Born in New York City in 1931, the son of Greek immigrants, Lois has credited the racism of his Irish neighborhood for his urge to “wake up, disrupt, protest”. He was fond of saying that a successful advertiser would absorb as many influences as possible, and he prided himself on his knowledge of everything from sports to ballet. He was a compulsive draftsman and attended the Metropolitan Museum of Art weekly for most of his life.
He enrolled at Pratt Institute and soon met and eloped with his future wife before either of them graduated. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he joined CBS’s advertising and promotions department and helped found the advertising agency Papert Koenig Lois in 1960. Two years later he was recruited by Esquire editor Harold Hayes and stayed until 1972, the same year Hayes left.
Esquire was a prime venue for the so-called new journalism of the 1960s, non-fiction with a literary twist, and the magazine published such famous pieces as Gay Talese’s portrait of Frank Sinatra and Tom Wolfe’s The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” But to read the words, you had to buy the magazine, and Lois’ cover sparked countless conversations.
For a cover story for The New American Woman, he featured a nude model folded into a trash can. An infamous 1970 cover showed a grinning Lieutenant William Calley, the soldier later found guilty of the murder of unarmed civilians in the My Lai massacre, with his arms around two Vietnamese children, two more children behind him.
In the mid-1970s, Lois was among the public figures who led efforts to free boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter from prison. Carter’s murder conviction was later overturned and he was released in 1985. Lois has also written several books and appeared in the 2014 Esquire documentary, Smiling Through the Apocalypse.
Interest in Lois was renewed by the popularity of the AMC series Mad Men, but he was unflattered, writing in his book Damn Good Advice that the show was “nothing more than a soap opera set in a glamorous setting.” Office plays where it’s classy Fools shag their appreciative, coiffed secretaries, suck on martinis and smoke themselves to death while they produce silly, lifeless commercials.”
“Besides,” he added, “I was better looking than Don Draper in my thirties.”