The Culture Crush
1969 Gap Ocean Ave Store Iconic Image.jpg

Fall Into The Gap

 

 

 

 

 

Fall Into The Gap

by debra scherer

Every time I hear someone talk about how retail taps into culture, or asks why are we suddenly devouring podcasts, listening to the radio, and enamored with the 1970's again, I think of Art Twain. Right around the time in the late '60's early ‘70's, when advertising was changing and creatives took the lead from the account executives, things started to get looser. With little guidance, retailers, brands, and marketers were tasked with understanding and responding to that massive cultural shift.

Enter Art Twain. He is the marketing mastermind behind the original brand development of a little shop called Pants and Discs. He also was the account lead for that brand of “pants” which, at the time, hardly sold east of The Mississippi. That shop would become The Gap and and those pants were Levi’s. The fact that The Gap was born selling Levi’s and LP records, and the retail genius of founder Donald Fisher, is an origin story that has mostly been lost to memory. Twain perfectly captured and communicated the DNA of many of the most iconic American brands just when America itself was soul searching. The, “I can’t get this song out of my head” jingles, television commercials, and groovy graphic design of the era perfectly positioned Twain’s natural talent for music, storytelling, and humor.

I recently sat down with the mastermind of Art Twain Creative Services at his home in Oakland, California, and his energy and enthusiasm were contagious.

Debra Scherer: All right, let’s begin at the beginning.

Art Twain: My career probably began when I was a kid because everything struck me as funny, and I had to be the center of attention growing up. That was a great background for me because I refined the art form of humor. I grew up in an era without television, so I listened to the radio. And when I listened to something like the serial called Inner Sanctum, a guy would open the squeaky door, walk in the room, and you’d hear the footsteps. I knew exactly what he looked like, I knew what the room looked like, I was scared out of my wits when I’d hear the creepy voice and all the sound effects. So my imagination was developed to see pictures when I heard sound.

Then, when television came along, it spelled it all out for you.  I went to UC Berkeley, majoring in Communications, which was considered the backdoor to the creative side of advertising. I got very lucky after I graduated and got a job as a copywriter in advertising.

DS: That was here in San Francisco?

AT: Yes, in San Francisco, the company was what is now called Lowe Campbell Ewald. They had some of the best writers in town–great people I could learn from and nurture my own skills–and the experience ultimately gave me confidence to do my own thing. Then I did the agency thing, where you get hired away by somebody who doubles your salary because they know your reputation. I eventually went to Honig-Cooper & Harrington, the agency that had Levi’s, and they hired me to be the head writer on the Levi’s account.

DS: Which year was that?

AT: This would be around 1966. I brought Levi’s into the radio era. In fact, the first year I wrote and arranged all the music for the jingles we won a lot of awards. We tested as the 3rd best liked commercials among teenagers, with Coke and Pepsi being first. Our budget, they could put into their change pocket and have lots of room for a loaf of bread. It was all about drawing outside the lines and having a good time.

DS: So, how did you start working with Donald Fisher?

AT: That was in 1969. The agency said to me, “There’s a guy here that’s going to open his first retail store, he’s a real estate guy, and he wants us to be his agency, and he’s way too small. Do you want to handle him freelance?.” I said, “Sure.” They introduced me to Don Fisher, and he told me what he wanted to accomplish. He said, “The store’s going to be named Pants and Discs.” He was going to have the name as the two things that 16 year olds wanted most, records and Levi’s. It was on Ocean Avenue, and it was near San Francisco State University, not far from City College, not far from high schools, junior high schools, and so on. It was a prime location for that.

DS: Why of all things did he pick those two particular things? They both are so tied to culture, was that intentional?

AT: Well, he had had a bad shopping experience, haven’t we all? The difference is he did something about it, and we don’t. We complain and moan, and he went out and decided to build a retail store that solved all the problems that he didn’t like.

DS: Which were?

AT: Well let me start with his experience. In one of his properties, Fisher had a Levi’s showroom as a tenant. So he bought a few pair of pants, got home, and the length wasn’t right. So, he went to a few of the department stores, and he found they mostly carried four of Levi’s 32 different models, and they were mostly one color; there were only even sizes, they didn’t even have odd sizes. You got something close to your size, you hoped. 

Don was thinking, “What if I had a store that carried all the models and all the sizes? How cool would that be?” Because everybody loves Levi’s, grew up with Levi’s here. But he wasn’t sure if that was enough to bring people into the store. So, he was going to use some sort of bait or loss leader. He thought, “I’ll have records, and then the kids will come in for the records and incidentally buy a pair of Levi’s.” And so that’s what he did.

The average age was supposed to be 16 years old, but it turned out the average age was mid-30s. What also happened was that customers bought Levi’s, and they stole the records! The store refused to lower the price of the records lower than Tower Records, which was a wholesale record retailer. I kept saying, “If you’re going to use the records as a loss leader, they need to be a loss leader, they need to be cheap to bring them in.” But it was quickly evident that people came in for the Levi’s, so they took the records out, and they brought in more Levi’s stuff.

DS: So how did the name change come about?

AT:  The first thing I told Don was, “You need to change the name, or some radio disc jockey’s going to break his tongue saying Pants and Discs.” So he went on vacation to La Jolla with his family and we had a phone conversation one evening because the sign painters were coming in the next morning, and by God, a name was going to be painted on that store! So I had my list of names, and he had his list of names. When he was coming out of a party to take the phone call, his wife Doris turned to him and said, “The Gap.” He said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “The Gap.” That should be the name of the store.” I thought that was a great name!

DS: So, going back to that time when it was culturally so different, phrases like “the generation gap,” or “the gender gap,” had so much meaning, perfectly expressing the counterculture of that time. It was almost like with that simplified “The Gap,” you could project your own idea of self-expression onto it.

AT: We could make The Gap mean whatever we wanted. One thing I liked about The Gap was it was both space and solid at the same time. It existed as a store, yet a gap is an emptiness. I thought I could get a lot from that. I also decided to use radio as the main medium, which was also against the grain because I was told by fashion people, “No, no, you have to show it. It’s fashion, you have to show it.” I said, “More than show it, I want people to feel it. This is the way you feel when you’re wearing a pair of these pants. You feel like a rule breaker, you’re coloring outside the lines, you feel loose and free. Maybe you stand up straighter, or you slouch more, because you get to do whatever you want to do in these. You have all of this choice.”

We knew that we had a very loyal audience for Levi’s that had been boo-hooing for years that they couldn’t buy Levi’s anymore. They couldn’t find the right sizes, enough models, and so on. So Don said, “I’m going to have tons of Levi’s for them.”

DS: It’s so amazing that someone from outside of the retail industry could be so innovative based purely on gut. Everyone is so focused on expertise. That’s why I love this story so much, it’s as if it just bubbled up in such an organic way. So Berkeley in the 1960s.

AT: Don never studied any retail at all, and so he broke a lot of rules. At the time, he used the walls for a display, which no one had ever done before. They used racks and rounders in the middle of the room. He worked out a honeycomb system of shelves, and the pants were displayed not by model, but were sorted by size. So if you knew what your size was, you could take 5, 6, 7, pairs of pants into a dressing room, which by the way was enclosed.

Through a stroke of innovation, his dressing rooms were enclosed. Before, non-enclosed fitting rooms were used to discourage shoplifting. Women had to go through the indignity of being shown from here up, and from here down, which they hated. They felt it was a violation. So Don said, “Oh, I’ll have enclosed dressing rooms, and I’ll have a return policy ‘no questions asked’.” People would come in with a pair of Levi’s that they’d worn for a year, and obviously been washed a zillion times, and were wearing thin at the knees and said, “I got these last week, and they don’t fit,” and the answer was, “Okay, pick another pair.” He said, “For those who would take advantage of it, you’re benefitting a huge amount of the population just afraid to make exchanges, just feeling uncomfortable about the shopping experience. I’ll give them the good shopping experience.”

DS: What were the next steps in terms of the marketing and your involvement in it?

AT:  We did print, and I wanted to do things that were still outside the box. So instead of people wearing Levi’s, I had line drawings of things wearing Levi’s. I would have a coke bottle, a beer mug, a martini glass, all wearing Levi’s together. It was tagged: “Levi’s for good tastes.”  I had a baseball bat, a tennis racket, a boxing glove, all wearing Levi’s, and that was tagged: “Levi’s for good sports.” We we ran campaign styles where you could anticipate the next thing they’re going to do.

I did one ad that absolutely filled the store with people. We ran it until somebody called up and said it was obscene and it had to be pulled. It was a line drawing of a pair of pants from the thighs up, with the fly open, and in the middle of the fly in small letters it said, “The Gap is open.” People loved it. They loved that we were iconoclastic. They loved that we were free and loose, and they liked being associated with that whole feeling.

DS: Right, so can’t you say that that’s part of Berkeley culture, or Bay Area culture? I mean I’m from New York, there’s got to be a connection. You guys were out there in what was the center of all things loose and free!

AT: You can either try appealing to the lowest hanging fruit, or you can take your chance and go to the worst skeptics who you probably can’t ever convert. I went for the skeptics because it’s easy to sell to the Love Generation in Haight Ashbury, but that’s a limited market. I want my market to be everybody. Everybody wants a good laugh, everybody wants to be coaxed out of their dark corner. We all want a good laugh, we all want a smile, we all like to feel more confident, and if I can help that, that’s what I’ll do. So the idea was for people all over the country that want to feel loose. So if I go to the Midwest, there might be 5 out of 100 people who want to be that loose, as opposed to Haight Ashbury, where 99 out of 100 people want to be that loose.

DS: Or maybe, at the time in The Haight, 100 out of 100!

AT: I mean, if they’re already that loose, how much looser am I making them anyway? There were a lot of people who were going to the workplace everyday with very stiff, straight collar, you know, straight-laced. They wanted to feel a bit outside of that. We saw more casual dressing in the business arena than we’ve ever seen starting in the early ‘70s. That changed dramatically. We’d go to a meeting at Levi’s, wearing Levi’s, because that was their product, nobody complained.

DS: So, you did The Gap freelance, and then you started your own thing? How did that work? Was Levi’s your client, or just The Gap? Did you work with Levi’s because of The Gap?

AT: I was at the advertising agency and we started The Gap in ’69. Then Don Fisher said, “Stay here, I’ll support you, you’ll do fine here. Just go freelance.” I had always gotten my paycheck from the corporate womb. I didn’t know you could make money outside of that. My first year on my own, I doubled my income, to my surprise. So I stayed here and did all my work from the Bay Area, which I always felt was really fun, when an award show would come up and it would say, “Art Twain, Oakland.” … That grimy little industrial city across the bay from San Francisco!

DS: Tell me about some of your favorite campaigns. I mean, obviously “Fall into The Gap.”

AT: Well, if you had to have a feather in your cap that people noticed, it would be The Gap.  I took The Gap from 1 store to 500 stores with my advertising and marketing. Of course they had advertising and marketing people come in, but my work all helped that along the way. At one point, they wanted me to become an agency, and I said, “I’m not organized enough to do that, that’s not something I can do.” I just don’t want to be an agency, too much minutia.

I tell people, “I’m not afraid of the sharks in life, I’m afraid of the piranhas, the minutia, it nibbles you to death.” The sharks take a big bite, you wrestle it to the ground, you win, you get bit, and you don’t do that anymore, and you go do something else. But you don’t get nibbled to death, have the death of 1000 cuts, by all the minutia.

DS: Can you tell me about the process and some of your favorite commercials that you did with the jingles and things like that — what the process was and how you attacked that, because I don’t think a lot of people know anything about that.

AT: People have tried to make science out of the process. They’ve written books on it, they tell you the process, and I think the creative people who are intuitively and instinctively creative probably laugh at it because it’s like having a manual on how to tie your shoes. There’s a point which you can really just tie your shoes.

Does it come to you? It just does.  My creative process is just making order out of disorder. Part of it is trusting your instincts, your subconscious self. The conscious self is a bookshelf full of books. The unconscious is a 3-story library. The secret is how do you access it. Once you learn to access that library, the answers are all there. I started to trust that process early. I noticed how I thought about things, and I trusted ideas that were so flimsy, most people, they would have blown away in the wind. But when the idea came up, I recognized it was an idea, and I knew to grab that elusive butterfly and do something with it.

DS: Yeah, people ask me the same thing, “Where do you come up with these ideas?” And I say, “I don’t know, you just feel something, and you’re like this is something, and it’s going to mean something.” Tell me some of your favorites, where you knew, I got it.

AT: In 1973 Don Fisher was off on a trip, and I was off as well, doing some commercials or him. I decided that since The Gap sounds almost doo-wop, why don’t we do an old ‘50s rock’n’roll. I was very full of myself. I produced the song, I loved the song, I loved the feel of it, I thought it was a lot of fun.  That’s when, “Fall into The Gap”, which was only a tagline, became a musical line. I wanted to make “Fall into The Gap” alive now, I wanted it to live, I wanted to put it on the end of every single commercial we did, so that literally the music falls into The Gap. It’s a descending musical line.

Don came back, we showed him the commercials, he loved the commercials, now this is 1973. We did a survey in 1978. By this time, we had put “fall into The Gap” at the end of all of our commercials, every single one, and at this point they were running 4 times a year, 10 days each time, saturation radio by the best 2, 3, 4 stations in town. Had the commercials coming up constantly, then off the air for 3 months. They had been off the air for 3 months when they did this survey. All 2,200 people said they just heard a Gap commercial the week before. So the marketing company that ran this thing for us said that, “You guys don’t really need to advertise. You’re in everybody’s head already. You can take a year off.”

DS: It’s 2015, and that jingle is still in my head!

AT: Our longest term memory for anything is music. When I lectured for the radio industry, I would say to people, “Can any of you remember a headline from two days ago in the newspaper?” and they would rack their brains. I said to them, “Do any of you remember this song?” Then I would sing the itsy-bitsy spider. That’s the power of radio. That’s the power of music and sound – that it stays with you.

And you can build an equity. Today I think it’s almost laughable how few companies build a good equity through that vehicle. So I build lots of equities. People knew my stuff. I would build the equity by keeping the jingle sound in its native form, its first form that they hear, for a long enough period of time, to really set into their mind. I would start to play with it, give it other musical styles, have children sing it, women sing it, that sort of thing.

DS: What about with Levi’s?

AT: Levi’s was so much fun to do. Your audience was out there panting for Levi’s. You weren’t trying to bring out a product that they hadn’t heard of and educate them from the ground up. All they wanted was Levi’s that fit them and that were good. Getting to do radio, I wrote and produced all the radio the first year. Then I found great music guys. Music writers, composers, and arrangers. For example, Artie Butler, his list of songs, you’d be blown away, from “What a Wonderful World,” with Louis Armstrong to “Feelin’ Alright,”  with Joe Cocker, the list goes on and on and on with the biggest hits. I got these guys, and I’d work with a group of these guys, like Jimmy Haskell, he used to do Gary Puckett & the Union Gap. So these were just super big guys, he did Simon and Garfunkel as well, and a couple of sort of unknown guys who were making their way through the business.

Every 6 months, I did a series of commercials for Levi’s, and we got tremendous notoriety. They wanted to buy the song “Mule Skinner Blues,” and do the song “Good Morning Captain,” but the guys wanted a stupid amount of money for it, even though it was worth nothing. I said, “We’ll do an inside out version, it doesn’t matter, we know the idea for it.” So we did, [sings] “Good morning world, good morning, good morning to you- you-oooo—ooo wearin’ my Levi’s. Le-eeee-vi’s.” By the time we got done doing the session by the way, the guy who sang its stomach was so sore, [sings] “Le-he-he-he-hevi’s.” Try and do that for 2 hours, and your stomach will be sore.

DS: I grew up with all of those things that you just described that were so part of American culture. Now Levi’s and The Gap have lost their way and a lot of their meaning. They keep trying to connect to the culture through chasing rather than being. They try to do collaborations with artists that make no sense or recapture a small part of what they once were. Look at what Levi’s has become. They owned the denim market, now they have to compete in a much larger global denim market.

AT: You have to understand the reasons why it’s happening, why things have moved in the direction where they don’t feel as big as they were then. One of them is from the Levi’s standpoint, everybody went into the jeans business. So, they’re competing with everybody else’s jeans. How far can you go outside your type and become what you’ve never been and take that chance and either strike it rich or suddenly have a whole season to try to keep from drowning because you made a mistake by trying to go too far in that direction and it didn’t work. So you’ve got Levi’s, who’s not a retailer, they’re a manufacturer; you’ve got Gap, who is a manufacturer all the way through retail.

DS: I know – it’s a tough game. Now all the technology businesses want to get into the fashion business. I wish them luck with that.

AT:  It’s very hard to continually reinvent yourself. The larger you are, the more and more you’re like a jumbo jet. Now you can’t make a turn in a mile, it takes 5 miles to make a turn. When you’re as huge as The Gap or as Levi’s is, a mistake resonates enormously.

This Millennial generation loves the idea of random. You don’t know the next thing out of somebody’s mouth. The next thing that you do is something you could have never guessed because it’s random. A big compliment is somebody that’s random. My generation is linear. It wants to go from A to Z, so that we understand the whole path of logic. Random is the poison pill in the glass for that group. I’m not defending old age by saying this, what I am defending is the idea that this is not an area in which only the very youngest people are going to excel. Anybody can excel who just has a view of what works.

DS: So, final thoughts to leave of with?

AT: Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines. At the same time, I’ve done stuff that’s very straight-laced and very stiff because that’s what it needs to be for that particular audience. I try to think of who that audience is, who’s the audience I want to reach. My job is to be able to come up with a compelling and entertaining argument for why someone should at least think about this product, why should it stay in their head?