“Who’s Gonna Read All This?” The Original Lands’ End Ad Campaign

The early 1980’s were exciting times for Lands’ End. We’d moved out of sailboat hardware, into clothing and soft luggage, and customers all across America were getting to know us.

Lucky for us, we were riding the “preppy wave” too. Lisa Birnbaum’s tongue-in-cheek classic “The Preppy Handbook” had come out in 1980, celebrating chinos, Oxfords and such – exactly the kind of clothing we offered.

But therein lay a problem: everybody started offering chinos and Oxfords. We were in grave danger of getting lost in the shuffle. So Gary Comer (thinking like the former ad agency copywriter that he was) had an idea…

An ad campaign unlike anything any catalog company had ever done. It would be an ad campaign whose main objective was not to solicit catalog requests – the way other catalog companies measured the success of their ads – but to tell a gripping story of Land’s End quality.

Gary called on two buddies from his Young and Rubicam days, art director Sam Fink and writer Karl Vollmer. The original odd couple.

Sam was a passionate workaholic, an eternal optimist, a man who could barely get one idea down on paper before a dozen more burst into his head. He would vociferously advocate for his ideas, occasionally with a wagging finger under your nose. He paced around our offices like a caged tiger.

Karl moved in a slow shuffle, with a bemused smile on his face. He could dash off a brilliant ad or even a short story in an afternoon, allowing time for a leisurely dinner or better, a visit to a gambling establishment. His acerbic sense of humor kept us in stitches, but at times clashed with Sam’s sunnier disposition.

Yet they were a dream team, when it came to the work. They created a campaign that was right up Gary’s alley – treating each Lands’ End product as a hero, stressing how much effort we put into our products, how we made them genuinely better than our competitors. Before either of them put pencil to paper, they subjected each particular Lands’ End merchant to an affable but rigorous “interrogation,” ferreting out unsung details of the products, like the split back yoke of an Oxford shirt or the deeper-than-ordinary pockets on a pair of flannel trousers, talking about those details in a way that reflected an unusual dedication to quality.

Even in the 1980’s, these magazine ads had an old-fashioned, even fuddy duddy look. No photos, just simple illustrations done by Chicago artist Mark McMahon. And copy, lots of it. “Who’s gonna read all this?” groused one skeptical member of the management team. But the ads stood apart, and got noticed.

Karl’s headlines were irresistible:

Why this New York ad man leaves his $300 attache case in the closet and carries our $39.50 Square Rigger.

Why this New York ad man leaves

Why this New York ad man leaves

 

 

After a slight detour to the University of Chicago, it’s here: the near-perfect Lands’ End Rugby Shirt.

the near-perfect Lands’ End Rugby Shirt

The near-perfect Lands’ End Rugby

 

 

Quality in the apparel business, we learned early in our life, is an ephemeral thing.

Quality in the apparel business

Quality in the apparel business

With those messages and Sam’s simple visuals, the ads had an honest, forthright feel that made a powerful impression on readers, created what we might now call “a buzz,” and began to build a nationwide reputation for Lands’ End. It was a reputation we reinforced with every order we shipped out of Dodgeville.

In recent years, our Lands’ End advertising has become more colorful and contemporary. But we hope the message of quality is still as powerful as ever. We think about Sam and Karl, every time we dream up a new ad.

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