When You're a Virgin And Your Job Is To Sell Sex
I was not the only Mormon who worked at TBWA/Chiat/Day in the year 2011. Just the only one who hadn’t heard the f-word in real life.
I suppose I’ve given myself away by calling it “the f-word,” but see I am still Mormon, which means I don’t really know how to use it correctly. And as a writer, I’m supposed to write what I know.
As a Mormon, I’m not supposed to call myself “Mormon” anymore. I have been asked by the head of the church to not use the word because it detracts from the fact that we are a Christian religion. I agree with his thinking, and yet if you had asked my co-workers in 2011 what a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was, they likely would have given you a blank stare.
If you asked them today they might still give a blank stare, but I bring up 2011 because it was the first time I needed the word to explain what I was.
TBWA/Chiat/Day is a jumble of letters that translates to hip advertising agency in Los Angeles. They made the Energizer Bunny a household name and turned Macintosh Computers into Apple. They pioneered wearing jeans to work and made the cubicle illegal. They hire millennials who have tattoos and vape at work, and in 2011 they hired me.
I laugh thinking back to my first briefing, where I sat squirming beneath my halo. I was one of sixteen creatives on the Pepsi team, there to sell a youth culture I knew nothing about.
“We are not here to sell Pepsi,” I remember my creative director saying. “We are here” (he paused for effect) “to sell excitement.”
The problem was, Coke had already claimed “happiness” as its territory and was doing a bang-up job selling it. We were the underdogs, the number twos, determined to stick it to ‘em with an ethos of our own.
The Pepsi team had gathered in The Boardroom, named for its conference table made of four welded surfboards. We sported Moleskines and iPhones, eager to discuss the difference between happiness and excitement.
“Happiness is saccharine,” a fellow copywriter offered. “There’s no edge to it.”
“Interesting,” said Mike, our creative director, scribbling notes on the whiteboard. “So happiness is sweet, but excitement has energy. Excitement should be sexy, it should...” he paused, struggling to find the right word.
“Get you hard?”
The suggestion came from a 30-something art director in a backward Stussy hat. Mike paused as a few people snickered. It took a moment for me to register the commenter was referring to an erection, at which point my face flushed crimson.
“All right, not what I was going for,” Mike laughed, “but I’ll take it. If Coke is flaccid, Pepsi gets you hard. That enough to get you guys started?”
After more snickering and a general nodding of heads, Mike dismissed the meeting before my face had a chance to un-flush.
My face had been flushed pretty much since I’d set foot in the building.
It had started on my first day when the team popped a bottle of champagne in my honor and I had to tell them I didn’t drink. “I’m Mormon,” I’d added, after their confused looks begged more explanation. The word answered their first question, but in their eyes I saw more spring up in its place.
My face had flushed when my art director partner Alex used Quentin Tarantino as a reference and I had to admit to her that I’d never seen his movies (a past prophet had counseled us not to watch anything rated R).
It threatened to flush every time someone used the f-word, which was often and very differently from how I’d heard it used in movies. Here, the word was not only an expletive, but a verb, noun, adjective, and root word used to make other, more creative versions.
I was perpetually and thoroughly embarrassed, but my religion was only part of the reason why.
More incriminating was the fact that I came from Provo, Utah—a pristine city nestled in the Rocky Mountains whose census at the time of my birth marked it 88% Mormon. My high school may likely be the only place on earth where the phrase “everyone’s doing it” referred to the super fun church dance where the lights never fully turned off.
Of course there was trouble in Provo if you went looking — rebellious kids who drank or the occasional teen pregnancy. But I was cocooned from all of that by my family.
I grew up within an hour of 43 first cousins, all fully committed to living the Gospel. My relatives provided a force field of faith, bolstered further by the fact that we were direct descendants of the people who founded and died for our church (with only a slight jog on the family tree to get to the right wife).
I grew up in a bubble within a bubble within a bubble, and then I moved to Los Angeles to work in advertising. At age 23 I had no practice interacting with people who were recreationally sinning. And so, I went red in the face.
Mike had given us five days to come up with ten Big Ideas. This sounds simple unless you understand how thoroughly a Big Idea differs from a Regular Old One.
Our Big Ideas were expected to be grand, overarching themes that would usher in a new era for Pepsi, changing the way people the world over perceived the brand, all without changing a thing about the product.
Alex and I spent Monday hunkered down at our desk analyzing every Pepsi commercial since the ‘80s. There was Cindy Crawford in her white tank and cutoffs sipping from a sweating can as two young boys ogled from across the street. There was Britney busting out of her jumpsuit, Pink and Beyoncé glistening in Gladiator outfits, Sofía Vergara causing mischief in a string bikini. As I watched, the phrase sex sells bubbled into my mind, an echo from youth Sunday School. My teachers had meant the phrase as a warning, a tsk tsk to “the world,” who would use any means necessary to lure us away from the straight and narrow path.
I tried to ignore them but the facts were there: Cindy, Britney, Beyoncé, and Sofía were the sex symbols of their generations, and now I was trying to come up with who would be next to excite the public. Was selling sex my job description?
I panicked, wondering how I hadn’t realized it before: Pepsi was the doctrinal opposite of Mormonism.
Pepsi said live in the moment. Mormonism said we should put off the natural man.
Pepsi said eat, drink, and be merry. Mormonism said to abstain from drugs, alcohol, coffee, and even green tea.
Pepsi said give in to impulse. We were told to wait until marriage.
I had been trained to live with an eternal perspective but Pepsi’s famous tagline was: for those who think young.
Life Is Now. Drink In The Moment. Now Is All We Have.
Alex and I spent the next two days spinning taglines, trying to beat those from Pepsi’s past by the time our Friday deadline hit. I tamped down my conscience by telling myself Pepsi didn’t have to mean sex — seizing the day could also be about friendship, or even fun! The Newsies had seized the day!
We worked long, hard hours interspersed with shenanigans, which were the norm inside Chiat.
The agency’s iconic three-tiered yellow open offices flanked a main thoroughfare known as "Main Street," with creative teams perched all throughout them. No one batted an eye when a frisbee went whizzing across Main Street, time spent walking dogs or playing Super Smash Brothers was not seen as unproductive, and when you needed a more physical distraction you’d wander down to the full-sized basketball court for a game of H-O-R-S-E.
Every morning I watched as one of Chiat’s star art directors made her way up to her third floor office from our first floor digs. Her outfits oozed sex: tight white tanks (no bra) or a denim jumpsuit whose shorts hit her ex-model legs halfway down her butt cheeks. I couldn’t help staring. Nor could I help hearing modest is hottest in my head, the phrase I had been taught so as to keep my own butt cheeks covered and not attract "the wrong kind of guy."
Every night the sixteen of us milled in and out of the Pepsi tent for take-out dinners our account team had brought in; lukewarm manna offered up by gaping styrofoam altars. Some of our group swigged beers, some risked contraband Cokes from a six-pack stashed under one of the couches. We interacted socially all day but kept our ideas close. This was a career-making brief and all sixteen of us knew it; we were teammates out for blood.
For my part, I was learning to do a lot of head nodding and blind laughing at jokes I did not understand, escaping to the bathroom often to look up dirty words in the Urban Dictionary. Alone in the stall, I would pray for forgiveness, trusting that God understood this was a matter of survival.
Finally, Friday arrived: pitch day. Each of the Pepsi teams were to be invited to the war room by level of seniority, which put Alex and I dead last.
We passed the day pushing commas around and rehearsing our pitch. Five o’clock arrived with no indication of our turn nearing. Six, seven, and eight passed with more of the same. We began studying the pin boards gathering outside the Pepsi war room: layers of killed moodboards, taglines, and commercial scripts marked up in red pen.
Everything is Now. Be Here Now. Now Will Never Come Again.
At 9 PM we got word it was our turn to pitch. We frantically straightened pins and checked taglines before carrying our massive boards into the war room. The team ahead of us was still pitching, but Mike indicated for us to stay until they finished.
I sat and tried to take it all in. I had dreamed of making it into this building,—this kind of pitch—for all of ad school, and it still felt surreal to be there.
The walls were covered in a hodgepodge of band posters and pages torn from magazines. A massive poster that said I WORK BECAUSE I LOVE THIS SHIT was adjacent to one of a topless woman in Levi’s, arching her back and gazing suggestively into camera. I averted my eyes, thinking back to a church skit from my youth. The theme had been chastity and the year 1997, so naturally we’d re-written Celine Dion’s theme song from Titanic to be, “My Clothes Will Stay On.”
The other team finished and Alex gave me the signal.
“Okay awesome!” I began as I stood. “So our first idea is called Now Only Happens Once. The idea is that time is fleeting, and when the Pepsi can pops open it’s a chance to stop and live in the moment before it ends!”
“Sorry, can I stop you?” Mike said tiredly. “It’s feeling too familiar.”
“Okay," I said, "but, I think when we get to our scripts you’ll see how fresh it could be!” Alex shot me a warning look but I was determined to push on. I had seen the idea boards – every single pitch was a variation on this theme. But at the end of my spiel Mike repeated dryly, “Yeah sorry it’s not working. Next?”
We pitched our remaining ideas to a similarly lame reaction. Mike offered a patronizing, "Good try, guys. Thanks for all your work,” and we returned to our desks, dejected.
We’d spent sixty hours of work on a five-minute flop. My face flushed again, this time with the shame brought on by inexperience and disillusion. Our pitch hadn’t gone horribly, it had done something that felt almost worse: provoke no reaction whatsoever. It was the ultimate anticlimax.
As I straightened up my desk, I tried to make sense of it. I’d always had a good creative mind, had been called a strong writer. I’d become confident during school in my ability to bring fresh ideas, but in the real world it seemed they fell flat. No matter how similar my ideas about “living in the now” may have looked to my teammates’, they couldn’t help sounding hollow coming out of my mouth; I had no life experiences to back them up.
“Hey, wanna grab a drink at Prince O’Whales?” Alex asked, interrupting my thoughts. “Everyone’s there already – Gatorade team’s going too,” she added with a wink. For the last few weeks an account guy from the Gatorade team had been stopping by our desk to chat and she knew I had a crush.
I considered her offer. The thought of hanging out with friends at the end of a long week was tempting. The thought of flirting with a cute guy, even more so. But as I tried to imagine it, I felt myself freeze. What would I order at a bar? And what had I been thinking would happen with this guy? What could possibly progress once he found out I was a virgin?
“That’s okay,” I told her. “I’m super tired.”
“Okay, I figured you might not want to,” she said apologetically. “Have a good weekend!”
“You too!” I tried to say it brightly, to communicate how much I appreciated her invitation, how confused I felt at turning it down. I was half-tempted to shout, “I’m Mormon!” again, but even that word could not express all I needed it to.
As I drove home to my 600 square foot Santa Monica apartment, I felt the weight of the word Mormon. I felt the divide it placed between me and the world I was trying to find my place in.
Of course I was making my differences bigger than they needed to be. Of course there were others at Chiat who believed in God, or who may have also been virgins. But my insecurity made me myopic, turning them into a single worldly whole, from which I was separate.
I thought wistfully about the Gatorade guy as the words to a youth church camp cheer popped into my head:
Be 16 before you date
Date in groups, don’t stay out late!
Earn respect, obey the rules.
A Mormon girl is really cool!
I resented the peppy cheer and its obviously untrue message. I’d never felt less cool in my life.
I began to feel resentment toward all the little taglines Mormonism had ingrained in my brain, all its ad campaigns for chastity and wholesomeness. They’d been intended to protect me, and as I looked back at the last week, I suppose they had – they’d popped up in moments when I had been presented with “wrong” as a reminder to choose the right. But hadn’t they also made it harder to do my job?
I didn’t speak Pepsi’s language, because I was Coke – the sweet, saccharine one with no edge. My goal was the pursuit of everlasting happiness, not fleeting excitement. I didn’t know how to belong among my teammates, had been so mired in insecurity my brain could only half-function.
And it all seemed to come back to the fact that I had zero carnal knowledge: I was a virgin trying to sell sex.
I lost the job within a year, a devastation that took more years to untangle. For a long time, I blamed it on Mormonism, but the truth is without Mormonism I would never have gotten there in the first place.
Mormonism is where I first learned about salesmanship. It was where I first saw how complicated Big Ideas about morality could be distilled into messages as simple as Choose The Right. It put taglines like Every Member A Missionary on par in my brain with Just Do It.
Even outside church, the space left by the vices I eschewed from adolescence through college made room for creativity. In the absence of experimental drinking, my friends and I spent weekends baking cookies. In the absence of sex we had planned elaborate group dates, scavenger hunts and ATV trips up the canyon, twenty couples deep. There is a popular stereotype that creatives work best when drunk or high, but what gave my brain the space to imagine was the blank, sometimes bored, slate of clean living.
Maybe more young people lived lives like mine than I realized. But even my perception of that is warped, having been shaped by the teen movies I wasn’t supposed to watch as a teen, the same movies Pepsi was trying to imitate.
In the years since 2011 I’ve created messaging for many different products, from fast food chains, to furniture stores, to designer jeans. I’ve made myself a temporary expert in those areas so I could write to the level of what I knew. None have given me the trouble Pepsi did.
But when I go to write outside of work, I feel the restraints of my religion cropping up again. I don’t know how to write f-words into my dialogue, can’t bring myself to write characters having casual sex. Certainly these are not necessary elements for a story to work but at some point there is a shared language borne of human experience that I simply do not speak. I think it’s why there are several successful fantasy writers who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but so few, if any, in literary fiction.
Sometimes it’s still tempting to use my perceived outsider status as an excuse for not having “made it” as a writer, even though I know by now that point is moot. Because I made the portfolio that got me hired at TBWA/Chiat/Day. And I wrote the lyrics to “My Clothes Will Stay On.”
As a Mormon, I speak a specific language. And as a writer I can only write what I know.
(Design: Joshua Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)