George Lois, the charismatic publicist and designer and hard-working salesman who shaped some of the boldest magazine images of the 1960s and popularized slogans and brand names such as ‘I Want My MTV’ and ‘Lean Cuisine’, has died . He was 91 years old.
Lois’ son, photographer Luke Lois, said he died “peacefully” Friday at his Manhattan home.
Dubbed the “Golden Greek” and later (much to his chagrin) an “Original Mad Man”, George Lois was part of a wave of advertisers who started the “creative revolution” that rocked Madison Avenue and the world at home. beyond in the late 1950s and 1960s. He was boastful and provocative, willing and able to offend, and a master at finding the right image or words to capture a moment or create demand.
His Esquire magazine covers, from Muhammad Ali impersonating the martyr Saint Sebastian to Andy Warhol sinking in a sea of Campbell’s tomato soup, defined the hyper-spirit of the 60s as much as Norman Rockwell’s idealized drawings for the Saturday Evening Post summoned an earlier era. . As an advertiser, he devised groundbreaking strategies for Xerox and Stouffer’s and aided an emerging music video channel in the 1980s by suggesting ads featuring Mick Jagger and other rock stars demanding, with mock petulance, ” I Want My MTV!”
Lois boiled it down to what he called the “Big Idea”, crystallizing “the unique virtues of a product and imprinting it on people’s minds”. He has been inducted into numerous advertising and visual arts halls of fame, and in 2008 his work Esquire 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 to develop the “I Want My Maypo” breakfast advertisements of the 1960s and to inspire the creation of the New York magazine have been largely contradicted. Some former Esquire colleagues allege he exaggerated his role at the expense of other contributors, such as Carl Fischer, who photographed many of the magazine’s famous covers. But his irresistible energy and confidence were well registered.
In her memoir “Basic Black,” former USA Today editor Cathie Black recalled calling on Lois in the early 1980s to come up with a new approach to advertising for a publication that was initially struggling to identify. Lois’ idea was to defend USA Today’s dual appeal as a newspaper and magazine, coming up with the tagline, “Many people say USA Today isn’t fish or fowl. They are right ! Before a rally for the publication, whose founder Al Neuharth, Lois gave an Oscar-worthy performance, Black wrote, “bounding like a 6ft 3in teenager hopped on Red Bull.”
“He threw his jacket to the floor, tore his tie, then played one prototype ad after another, strutting around the room and continuing an ongoing monologue peppered with jokes and profanity. It was epic, almost scary. I was delighted. When he finished, the room was absolutely silent. All eyes turned to Neuharth, who sat “absolutely still, his expression hidden behind his dark aviator goggles.” Neuharth paused, took off his glasses, and smiled. “We have it,” he said.
Lois’ longtime wife, Rosemary Lewandowski Lois, died in September. A son, Harry Joseph Lois, died in 1978.
Lois, the son of Greek immigrants, was born in New York in 1931 and would cite the racism of his Irish neighborhood for his willingness to “wake up, upset, protest”. He liked to say that a successful announcer absorbed as many influences as possible, and he prided himself on his knowledge of everything from sports to ballet. He was a compulsive draughtsman and for much of his life made weekly visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He enrolled in the Pratt Institute, soon met his future wife, and ran away with her before either had graduated. After serving in the army during the Korean War, he joined the publicity and promotion department of CBS and, in 1960, helped found the advertising agency Papert Koenig Lois. Two years later, he was recruited by Esquire editor Harold Hayes and stayed on until 1972, the same year Hayes left.
Esquire was a favorite place for the so-called new journalism of the 1960s, non-fiction stories with a literary approach, and the magazine would publish such famous articles as Gay Talese’s portrayal of Frank Sinatra and “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson” by Tom Wolfe. Yes!” But to read the words, you had to buy the magazine, and Lois’ covers sparked countless conversations.
For a cover story on “The New American Woman,” he featured a nude model folded into a trash can. A notorious cover from 1970 showed a smiling Lt. William Calley, the serviceman later convicted of killing unarmed civilians in the My Lai massacre, with his arms around a pair of Vietnamese children, two other 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 was featured in the 2014 Esquire documentary, “Smiling Through the Apocalypse.”
Interest in Lois was renewed thanks to 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 office where elegant imbeciles work their grateful, hair-dressed secretaries, slurp martinis and smoke themselves to death churning out stupid, lifeless publicity.
“Besides,” he added, “when I was in my thirties, I was better looking than Don Draper.”