Singo: The John Singleton Story

Here are some highlights from this 2010 book about the legendary Australian ad man:

* work is for working and grog is for getting pissed.

* Singleton enforcing a booze ban might seem like Dracula handing out bandaids but he has proved himself deadly serious through the years about maintaining a Spartan office routine.

* The tyranny of conformity that existed up to that point [late 1960s Australia] is almost impossible to convey to those who now reside in one of the world’s most permissive societies, where legalised brothels flourish and a Gay Mardi Gras beckons as an international tourist attraction. Back in the sixties, however, Aussies were still weighed down by regulations restricting every aspect of human conduct from sex to shopping. The nation’s censorship laws were the most prudish outside Roman Catholic Ireland. The long-ruling Federal Coalition—‘mooed’ into action by the dairy lobby—introduced legislation to prevent housewives switching from butter to margarine. In NSW the Labor Government, at the command of the trade unions, jailed corner-store owners for daring to serve customers on a Saturday afternoon.

* The Returned & Services League, for example, was forced to issue a statement hosing down an inflammatory declaration from its NSW president, Sir William Yeo. No, he did not necessarily speak for members in general when he referred to the British Commonwealth as ‘a polyglot lot of wogs, bogs, logs and dogs’.

* There was also, in that week, a key court ruling upholding a ban against the importation of Chance magazine, Justice Helsham agreeing with censors that ‘a general tone of dirtiness pervaded the whole publication’. In particular, he ruled that a photograph of a semi-naked woman posed lying on her back was ‘simply lustful’. Nor did he take kindly to a smutty subheading: ‘Perving is looking up down under’.

* Australians soon found themselves in the throes of a major identity crisis. Their own sacred institutions—Parliament, the courts, the RSL, and the churches—were trying to make them behave in ways they could no longer accept. The impact of television, backed up by the flood of US troops pouring into Sydney on rest and recreation leave from Vietnam, helped swing the cultural balance from traditional British values values to more free-wheeling American attitudes. It would be misleading, however, to label the end results as ‘Americanisation’, since what really emerged was a lifestyle not quite like any other. In Sydney, at least, the younger generations would actually prove themselves far more uninhibited than their Yank counterparts. Many of the visiting soldiers and sailors were from devout ‘God-fearing’ families, the pinched-face kind with pitch forks at the ready. They were left agog at the sight of scantily clad Aussie women sunbaking on public beaches.

Australians, then, were beginning to recognise themselves as a people apart—maybe not the most sophisticated or stimulating human beings in the world, but happy enough to get on with life and glad to be different. No longer did they talk nostalgically about England as ‘home’, as earlier generations had. Neither were they tempted to see the United States as a star-spangled paradise, paradise, after witnessing the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and the big-city race riots. A new decade would bring growing awareness of a distinctively Australian personality—a sense of self that infused its way through almost every facet of life.

* It was the industry’s continuing reluctance to use everyday Australian accents that proved how out of touch it really was. Upper-crust English remained much in favour, personified by celebrity presenters like Stuart Wagstaff, speaking with the precise enunciation presumably meant to denote an old boy from one of the better private schools who spent holidays with chums in London. There were also pseudo-American voices which heralded the product as the ‘in’ choice of the jet set. Of course, some ads did feature characters whom people in the better suburbs might recognise as tradesmen, secretaries and housewives from inferior suburbs. But there was nobody spruiking in a cockatoo rasp, mashing vowels into a unrecognisable pulp, using the language as it was heard in pubs, or at racetracks and footy matches. That would become John Singleton’s most widely recognised contribution to the social transformation underway when he launched his new agency. He created ads specifically designed for Australian ears and eyes, using the blunt, irreverent language people were used to and evoking images familiar in everyday working life. A typical Singo commercial encouraged Aussies to feel more comfortable about being themselves, even to the point of being able to laugh at some of their more extreme eccentricities. In doing so they gained the confidence to be themselves.

* Singleton was determined to keep his agency free from the inefficient work practices he had seen elsewhere. His pet hate was the so-called business lunch. Account executives naturally tried to justify it as an attempt to build good relations with a client or brainstorm ideas in a more relaxed atmosphere with a few sips of a good red ‘to get the old brain ticking over’. To Singleton, those were merely poor excuses for slackening off on the job.

* ‘Advertising is neither moral or immoral,’ he argued. ‘If the product has been developed to satisfy an economic or emotional want then the consumer will buy it. If it achieves neither of these objects then the consumer will reject it.’

* “A good ocker commercial can sell the bejesus out of anything.” Bryce Courtenay

* ‘If you look at the people that are really close to him, you’ll find most of them fit into the category of “knockabouts”. That’s a euphemism for people who tend to go a bit outside the boundaries, like a good time, swear, drink, womanise. Singo gets on with all types, from Kerry Packer, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke to those that may have a few skeletons in their closet, done a bit of time. Some of my best friends now are people I met through Singo.’

* “I know the Aborigines are drunk most of the time when they’re in town but as close as I can make out it’s just like if you or me win the lottery. We take the day off work and go off and get plastered don’t we? Well, it’s the same with the Aborigines except they win the welfare lottery every day, so they celebrate every day. And take the day off work every day. It is logical. And unlike you or me, they don’t want or need a flash house or car or colour TV. They just want to sit down in the sun, have the one and enjoy themselves. But the do-gooders insist the Aborigines live exactly like us whites. It is obviously ludicrous. And those do-gooders who believe that the best thing they can do for the Aborigines is to have them emulate our own white European lives are guilty of gross arrogance. In fact, every time I look at one of those bearded university-trained southern do-gooders, I wonder if they ever realise that they can never solve the Aboriginal problem because they are the problem.”

* Australian pub humour dictates that if someone has a particular area of sensitivity, that’s what you immediately go for, like a fly on an open sore. However, even the most aggressive of Singleton’s mates recognised the subject of drugs was off limits. The agony caused by the fallout over Hayward left no room for a laugh, or even a sardonic smile. ‘He was down at a pub in Woollahra and ran into this very well-known reporter, whose name I won’t mention,’ recalls John Tesoriero. ‘We started talking and he asked Singo, “How’s the drug trade?” Singo just decked the bloke. He had to have brain scans and everything else but he never complained because he realised it was such a stupid thing for him to have said.’

* ‘I was pregnant with Sal and I got pneumonia during the pregnancy. We were building a house and renovating the farm and all that. I was pushing too hard and John doesn’t have a lot of time in his life for people who are sick. You are either on the fun wagon or you’re not. I guess I didn’t have a lot of time to be on the fun wagon—and he just got bored.’

* Bob Hawke rode to power on a television beam, bypassing Parliament to appeal directly to the people in the style more of a president than a prime minister. No Australian politician before or after has shown such mastery of the electronic medium, an instinctive ability to make millions of viewers feel he was speaking to each and every one of them. ‘Hawkie’, as his supporters affectionately called him, was at his stirring best on the night of 23 June 1987 when he formally launched his campaign to win an unprecedented third successive successive term for his Labor Government.

* Most people tend to think of advertising as an attempt to plant a thought in someone’s head. To a professional like Singleton, however, a truly effective ad is more like the plucking of a banjo string—it activates a feeling that’s already there somewhere in the back of our mind. That’s why a sound often moves us in a way that words never can. It triggers a rush of emotions that can be traced to when we first heard it or to when it began to mean something in our lives. If the edge of annoyance or anger in a mother’s voice was a powerful motivator to a small child, it was no less potent in making a grown voter sit up and take notice, alerting him or her to the fact that something seems very wrong.

* By the time John Singleton took his fourth bride, his modus operandi as a serial heart-breaker should have been known to every female newspaper reader in the land. He was a man prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to win a woman’s love but having won it, was capable of whatever it took to drive her away.

* During his SPASM years he even invented his own parable about the world’s first ad agency, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John or MML&J as it would be referred to these days. It’s first client was Jesus and to help sell his message the agency hit upon the brilliant slogan ‘Eternal Life’—perfect because no one could ever prove it didn’t work.

* “You don’t live in the real world. You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t go to the football, you don’t go to the races. You’re not a real, fair-dinkum Aussie.” John Singleton to Phillip Adams

* Through the 1990s he would find himself increasingly embroiled in such clashes as Australia’s self-image transformed itself almost month by month under pressure from succeeding waves of migration and growing demands for social reform.

* When he was coming of age in Enfield, mates not only stuck together but managed to settle their differences without recourse to courts or tribunals. A fist fight was a lively discussion carried on by other means and ‘victim’ was a word so foreign to the Aussie ear it almost required translation.

* Compared to Singleton, Packer admits to being more pessimistic about the changes occurring in the Australian way of life. He believes people are less and less inclined to look after one another; and again he credits Singleton with having a sense of moral responsibility that is becoming all too rare.

* One of the best examples of his cutting wit I had heard of previously was when he appeared as guest of honour at a sedate luncheon gathering of civic leaders in Cairns. The host for the occasion, a local radio presenter, cheerfully asked him how he got his start. ‘Jack and Mavis had a fuck,’ he replied without blinking.

* No society could afford to have too many Singos; but there’s a lot to learn by looking closely at the life of one.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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