Remembering Herschell Gordon Lewis, Master of Marketing and Gore

We found out yesterday that Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away in his home in Florida. He was 90 according the The New York Times … 87 according to the BBC. It’s fitting that two such reputable news organizations on different sides of the world can’t agree on when he was born, because reputable people often saw entirely different sides of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

Herchell Gordon Lewis, president, Lewis Enterprises
Herschell Gordon Lewis

We found out yesterday that Herschell Gordon Lewis passed away in his home in Florida. He was 90 according the The New York Times … 87 according to the BBC.

It’s fitting that two such reputable news organizations on different sides of the world can’t agree on when he was born, because reputable people often saw entirely different sides of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

There was the “Godfather of Gore” Lewis eulogized in those articles above, who revolutionized film making by proving that the bloody spectacle could carry a film and bring out audiences for low overhead and high ROI.

That Lewis inspired the likes of Clive Barker, Wes Craven and Quentin Tarantino.

And there was the Lewis who was the “Godfather of Direct Marketing.”

The Lewis who wrote dozens of direct marketing books, gave lectures and seminars all over the world, and was recognized as one of the industry’s greats by just about every marketing/advertising/copywriting association in existence.

Lewis’s work in movies may be more widely known, but in terms of economic impact, I think the New York Times and BBC are burying the lead. Lewis’s real legacy is in the what he taught companies about how to talk potential customers; how to get their attention and convince as many of them  as possible to follow through on the purchase.

The Intersection of Marketing and Art

To me, Herschell Gordon Lewis — more than anyone else in the industry — embodied the nexus of marketing and pop culture.

Copywriting was the thread that tied his movie and marketing career together, of course. The same leap that allowed him to identify what audiences wanted in a cheap exploitation film also allowed him to identify the USP, benefits and essential offer of the products he wrote for. The same copywriting that got kids to the drive-in to watch the gory spectacle of Blood Feast could get any target market to buy just about anything he was selling.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, The Godfather of Gore
Herschell Gordon Lewis, The Godfather of Gore

About his films, Lewis used to say, “If you live long enough, you become legitimate.”

But in the world of marketing, Lewis didn’t need a lifetime to become legitimate. His work as a copywriter was so well crafted and targeted than anyone with their eyes on the bottom line could vouch for his legitimacy.

My start in magazines came from covering pop culture — mostly games, comics and anime. Moving from that world into business publications and marketing, I realized early that there’s a magic business people can do when they meld their passions into the elements of a seemingly bland career.

In that sorcery, Lewis was our Merlin.

A Curmudgeon’s Last Words

A few months ago, Lewis reached out to me about finding a new home for his Curmudgeon at Large copywriting and direct marketing column. I was honored, even a little worried that the blog space we had available for it wouldn’t be able to give him a satisfying vehicle for the piece. Herschell was, after all, a legend in our industry and obviously one of the best writers I’ve ever edited (an exclusive club that includes Bob Bly and the great Denny Hatch).

But we worked out the details, and I’ve been proud to have The Curmudgeon at Large blog running on our website and in our newsletter for a couple months.

As he described it:

“I’m sitting on a ready-to-go column that in my opinion — as unbiased as a self-generated opinion can be — is the most informative and most dynamic pile of logical motivational concepts I’ve ever excreted from the keyboard.”

I only wish it could go on longer.

We have one more post from The Curmudgeon scheduled to run on October 20. That will be our last goodbye to Herschel Gordon Lewis.

It’s weeks away, but still far too soon.

Author: Thorin McGee

Thorin McGee is editor-in-chief and content director of Target Marketing and oversees editorial direction and product development for the magazine, website and other channels.

7 thoughts on “Remembering Herschell Gordon Lewis, Master of Marketing and Gore”

  1. On the Art of Writing Copy, and Bly’s The Copywriter’s Handbook are the foundation of my 27+ year copywriting career. Over the years I enjoyed Lewis’ columns and articles in TM mag and other pubs as I sipped coffee in the morning, getting ready to write with a new outlook on the power of an individual word. It wasn’t until years later that I found out he was the Godfather of Gore. His insight will be missed. My condolences to his family.

  2. Herschell was my one true hero in our industry. He was brilliant, insightful and funny as hell. I am not a copywriter but I attended many of his sessions over the years, hung on his every word, own several of his books, and learned so very much from him. I will greatly miss that Curmudgeon who is now truly at large. Enjoy the Big Sleep, my dear friend and mentor.

  3. Farewell, Hersch! You taught me more about the fine points of force communication than anyone else. And, you were gracious enough to respond personally and promptly to my questions, never once ignoring me because you were “too busy.” To borrow from Shakespeare: “Taken for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” I did not know you as a purveyor of gore. Indeed, I was surprised to find out about that aspect of your career. If we all read your books and articles, we’d all be better at what we do. Enjoy hobnobbing with John Caples and Claude Hopkins!

  4. Yesterday I posted a comment about Herschell but it seems to have gotten lost.

    Herschell was a good friend and he will be sorely missed. Like the very greatest talents, he had no pretensions,. I remember him well in the speaker preparation room of the Montreux Symposium, helping young people get their slides sorted and ready for presentation and freely giving always thoughtful advice.

    My condolences to his family and friends. The industry has lost one of its great leaders.

  5. Herschell was a good friend, valued colleague, and my teacher. And he was just a sweet, wonderful guy, too. I will miss him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *