DATE May 20, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Dr. Mel Levine of the University of North Carolina on
how children learn
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.
This is what lies at the core of Dr. Mel Levine's philosophy of education:
`No kid should ever feel stupid in school.' Levine is a professor of
pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School in Chapel Hill.
He studies how children learn. And he says that while every mind works
differently, our schools tend to use a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching.
As a result, a lot of kids fall through the cracks. Levine is the co-founder
and co-director of a non-profit institute, All Kinds of Minds, which trains
teachers and parents in identifying why a child is struggling in school and
what they can do to help.
In his new book, "One Mind At A Time," Levine breaks down learning down into
eight neurological processes, including memory, language, spatial ordering,
sequencing, motor skills, attention, social thinking and higher thinking. I
asked Mel Levine to give an example of a child having a problem with
Dr. MEL LEVINE (All Kinds of Minds Institute Founder; Author; Professor of
Pediatrics, University of North Carolina Medical School): The teacher says,
`OK, class, can you open up your books to page 14 and copy down those new
words? And then I'd like you to turn to the end of the chapter and answer the
two questions at the top of the page. Then close your books, put down your
pencils and sit up straight so I'll know you're finished.'
Michael heard something about a pencil, but he doesn't process sequences of
information. He's also confused about time, doesn't quite know the months of
the year and the days of the week, has troubling remembering to do things in
the right order when he solves a math problem, may have difficulty narrating
an experiencing he had and getting the results in the right order, and so
anything that involves preserving a particular order confuses this child.
BOGAEV: So he'd just hear that list of instructions and, like deer in a
Dr. LEVINE: Exactly. Home, his parents have noticed the same thing. `Hey,
Michael, why don't you go put out the trash? And then come back and pour
yourself a glass of milk and put your pajamas on and come on in and watch TV
with us.' Twenty minutes later, `Whatever happened to Michael?' He's walking
around half-naked in the kitchen. The dog is following him. Couldn't handle
BOGAEV: Now how about higher thinking. What do you mean by that?
Dr. LEVINE: Higher thinking in many ways is our most sophisticated level of
attainment. It includes things like the ability to really and truly
understand concepts, like the concept of liberalism, or the concept of
photosynthesis, or the concept of irony in a story. And by being able to
solidify concepts in your mind, education for you will have much less emphasis
on rote memory. You'll be able to compare and contrast things. You'll be
able to really enjoy and appreciate the flow of ideas in school, rather than
feeling you just have to kind of absorb and regurgitate them.
BOGAEV: So this is the real meat of knowledge.
Dr. LEVINE: This is the meat. This is the essence. And you'd be astounded
at how many students don't quite ever attain this and don't know they're not
attaining it and their teachers are unaware of it.
BOGAEV: Now how do the different parts of the mind, as you define them, these
parts, work together? Is it like an orchestra? Do you have a conductor?
Dr. LEVINE: Absolutely. And by the way, the conductor is called attention.
The attention controls and it's very much like an orchestra.
In fact, one of the things we're trying to teach teachers to do and also
clinicians to do is to look at different academic tasks and figure out the
composition of the orchestra. In other words, what functions are required to
solve a word problem in math? What functions are required to make friends and
be able to keep friends? What functions are needed to write a report in
fourth grade? What aspects of memory, what components of language, what kinds
of sequencing and other organizational functions are going to have to be
brought together to play that piece of music, so to speak?
And then if there's a child who can't do something--for example, she can't do
word problems--we can say, `Where's the breakdown occurring?' In other words,
Which member of the orchestra didn't show up?
BOGAEV: Now you break attention down into a number of different components,
too. And I guess my question is: What is a kid like who has weak attention
control? And are these the kids that we call ADD or often get labeled ADD?
Dr. LEVINE: The often get labeled ADD. I and my colleagues don't label
anyone anything. We don't use terms like LD or ADD, because we feel they
don't really capture the essence of the child, they oversimplify kids, and
also they result in misdiagnosis all the time. For example, if you have
trouble understanding language in the classroom, aren't you going to stop
paying attention? And everybody's going to say, `You have ADD' and miss the
point, that you really had difficulty keeping up with the tumultuous tide of
language all daylong in the classroom. And so we much prefer to be much more
And by the way, the other problems that occur with labeling is that labels
never take into consideration your strengths, and, of course, what really
counts when you grow up is how strong your strengths are.
BOGAEV: So where does that leave Ritalin in this conversation?
Dr. LEVINE: Well, in a sense, we can still use medication appropriately if we
really understand the child and understand where his breakdowns are occurring
and we would say medication wouldn't be used to sort of cure ADD. It would be
used to strengthen the attention controls.
BOGAEV: Why don't you tell us what the different forms of attention are?
Dr. LEVINE: There are 14 different controls of attention. It's like a great
control panel up in your mind. And they play a role, at least some of them
do, in absolutely everything you do as a kid and also as an adult in a career
and in everyday life. We divide the attention controls into three areas. One
is mental-energy control, and mental-energy control just gives you the fuel
you need to get things done, to do things you don't feel like doing, to
concentrate, to exert mental effort. And mental-energy control also involves
your ability to turn off the flow of mental energy so you can fall asleep at
night, and to turn it up high during the day so you can be tuned in and
effortful and effective throughout your day at school or at work, so the
balance between sleep and wakefulness is also part of the control of the flow
of mental energy.
And by the way, we see some children who have a lot of trouble sleeping at
night and a lot of trouble functioning during the day. There are some adults
like that as well.
BOGAEV: So that's one of the ways in which you might diagnose this deficiency
in this one part of attention.
Dr. LEVINE: Yes. And I can't emphasize enough that different children who
have attentional problems have different combinations of weaknesses in the
controls. It's not as if if you've seen one, you've seen them all. There's
The second area of attention I like to call intake or processing control.
It's your mind's ability to deal with information that's sort of right at your
doorstep ready to come into consciousness, and it's sort of cleaning up the
data so you can use it, so you can remember it, so you can really understand
it effectively. For example, one part of intake control is selection or what
we call saliency determination. Of all the information sort of competing for
your consciousness, what's really important here? What's really salient?
What should I tune in to, and what should I filter out? So when you're
sitting in the classroom, you can listen to the teacher instead of looking out
And by the way, issues relating to what's important and what isn't important
become some of the most common learning disorders of high-school
students--knowing what to study for an exam, knowing how to take notes. And I
can tell you so many teen-agers whom I've seen with learning problems tell
you, `When I get to the end of a chapter, I have no idea what I've just read,'
meaning they couldn't tease out relative degrees of saliency or importance.
Everything was sort of a straight line, a blur for them and that puts them
tremendously at risk for failure.
BOGAEV: Is this directly related to prioritizing also?
Dr. LEVINE: Yes. Absolutely.
Oh, I have to tell you one other interesting thing. I gave a workshop
recently for a group of college professors, which I don't ordinarily do, and
this was at a major university, and the dean of the law school was there. And
when he heard me talk about saliency determination, about your ability to
filter out what's unimportant and focus on what's important, he said, `The
difficult with that is probably the most common cause of dropout from law
school.' All students really look at a case and can't figure out what's
relevant and what's irrelevant and, boy, do they dissipate in law school.
Another one of the processing controls is once information sort of gets in
through the gateway of consciousness, how deeply are you going to process it?
How well will it take root in your mind? You know, we have an old expression
in English, `It went in one ear and out the other.' That's called superficial
processing, as opposed to deep enough processing so it really takes hold. And
there are some children who can't follow directions 'cause they never really
let anything get in far enough, so you have to keep repeating things to them.
And interestingly enough, many individuals whose processing is superficial,
where information doesn't get in very far, turn out to be phenomenal at seeing
the big picture, at going through life with a wide-angle lens on, but they
BOGAEV: Mm-hmm. So when you're confronted with a kid who is having some kind
of trouble in school and...
Dr. LEVINE: Right.
BOGAEV: ...ends up in your office, how do you tease out these very specific
weaknesses in them? How do you evaluate them for them?
Dr. LEVINE: Well, there are many different ways. First and foremost, someone
trying to evaluate a child has to have some knowledge of what the possibilities
are. You know, I'm a pediatrician, and in medicine we have something called
differential diagnosis. If a child has a fever and a rash and she's nine
months old, what are the things I need to be thinking about? And we do the
same thing when it comes to these learning issues. If a kid is 13 and still
doesn't know his multiplication facts and is having a lot of difficulty in
algebra, what are the things I have to be thinking about that might be causing
that breakdown? And we look at samples of the child's work. We interview the
child. You wouldn't believe, Barbara, how often a kid can tell you if you ask
the right questions exactly where his breakdown is occurring.
`Tommy, do you have trouble understanding math or remembering it?' He can
say, `Oh, yeah, I always understand it. When the teacher explains it, I could
teach it to everybody else, and then I can't remember how to do it on the
BOGAEV: Dr. Mel Levine is a developmental pediatrician. He's the director of
the University of North Carolina's Clinical Center for the Study of
Development and Learning. His new book is "A Mind At A Time."
We have a short break now, Mel, and then we'll talk some more.
Dr. LEVINE: Great.
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Mel Levine. He's the
director of the Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning at
the University of North Carolina. His new book is "A Mind At A Time."
Let's talk about memory for a moment...
Dr. LEVINE: Sure.
BOGAEV: ...because you write in the book that often kids who get labeled
`learning disabled' or just plain called `stupid' by everyone...
Dr. LEVINE: Exactly.
BOGAEV: ...have very distinct memory deficiencies. Is that something easy to
diagnose? Or does it get overlooked in this labeling of LD, learning
disabled, or ADD?
Dr. LEVINE: It's easy to diagnose and it almost always gets overlooked. It's
just extraordinary how many kids with memory difficulties are just not having
their memory problems identified. Now that we know how to do these things,
why aren't we recognizing them?
And by the way, retaining a child in a grade does nothing to improve his
BOGAEV: So are there easy ways or very direct ways to compensate for a memory
problem, strategies to improve memory once you pinpoint a deficiency? And is
that something that teachers should teach kids in school?
Dr. LEVINE: Absolutely. It's unbelievable how much memory is required in
school and how we never bother to teach kids how memory works. In fact, I
have a strong bias, and all of our programs do, that children ought to be
learning about learning while they're learning, that part of learning ought to
be learning how to work your mind. Otherwise, it's like driving a car without
drivers ed. And we know so much about how learning works, but we're not
telling the teachers and we're not telling the students.
BOGAEV: Well, give us an idea of some of the tricks, the basic tricks, that
teachers could lay out for kids. And I was interested in one thing that you
wrote, that the best way to remember something, say for a test, is to
transform it. In other words, if something you're trying to remember is
verbal, make it visual; make a diagram for yourself. Is that what you mean?
Dr. LEVINE: Absolutely. That's one method is keep recoding information. If
it comes in visually, like a diagram, put it into words, describe it. If it
comes in verbally, try to make a diagram of it, try to make a chart, try to
picture it, try to think of examples of it in your own life. The more you
extend information, the more you elaborate it, the more you modify it in one
way or another, the more effectively it gets filed in memory.
It's also important to teach kids that they need to put information in
categories, that you don't put things in memory without attaching them to
something. Let me give you an example that shows this. Long about age nine
children develop a filing system in their minds. They actually develop
folders that they can put information in. If you ask a seven-year-old to name
as many animals as he can in 30 seconds, he'll say, `Robin, shark, cow, dog,
spider.' If you ask a 13-year-old with a well-organized memory to name as
many animals as he can in 30 seconds, he'll say, `Cow, chicken, turkey, pig,
lion, tiger, giraffe, elephant, rhino, spider, ant, bee.' You see what he's
BOGAEV: They put them in phylum, in classes. ...(Unintelligible)
Dr. LEVINE: Yes. He's going from one folder to another. He can name 10
times as many animals as that seven-year-old. And if you see a 13-year-old
and you ask him to name as many animals as he can in 30 seconds and he sounds
like a seven-year-old, you know, he's failing tests in school. He has no
folders. He's got to be taught how to do that.
And so often what comes intuitively and naturally to certain kinds of minds
has to be taught formally to other kinds of minds. Every single one of us has
things that we can do so well intuitively and things that we're going to have
to be led through formally.
BOGAEV: There was a little trick that you wrote about in the book that I
never thought of, that long-term memory filing works best right before you go
Dr. LEVINE: Absolutely.
BOGAEV: How would you apply that?
Dr. LEVINE: Well, kids have to know you study for exams right before you go
to sleep. And by all means do not study and then take a shower and then go to
sleep, 'cause then all you remember in the morning is the shampoo. You have
to take the shower first and then study and then go to sleep. And what you
study right before you go to sleep gets replayed about five times after you
fall asleep. It has instant replay built into it. This is one of the many,
many sort of memory tricks of the trade that I think students ought to know
And in addition to that, you know, maybe everybody's memory works a little
differently. So once you get a child or an adolescent started with the
general advice, you can then charge him with the responsibility, `I want you
to try to figure out how your memory works best, what things you need to do to
prime your memory best.'
BOGAEV: Now looking at how long-term memory works, is there a neurological
argument against the typical organization of the school day, that you go for
45 minutes of math to 45 minutes of English to 45 minutes of social studies?
Does that chopped-up day promote consolidation of learning? Or does it just
break up the flow?
Dr. LEVINE: There's no doubt about it that once information enters your mind,
it needs some time to consolidate. I believe that after a 40-minute class
session in school the kids ought to get together in small groups to discuss
what just went on, elaborate on it, change it in the ways I just described and
give it time to consolidate. If that doesn't happen, then social studies
erases algebra and Spanish erases social studies; each class kind of deletes
much of--went on during the class before.
BOGAEV: So is there a neurological argument then for block scheduling?
Dr. LEVINE: Block scheduling is another option, that you would have a
particular two-month period, let's say, where you do mainly biology and
another two-month period mainly for English and so on. And by the way, I
don't think that has to be extreme. You could say that it would be mainly
biology, but you'll also be having some quick reviews of English and some
small segments of other things just to boost your doses. So one wouldn't have
to totally let go of everything else, but one could have a strong central
emphasis during each block.
BOGAEV: So what systems of mind does our school system play to? Is it out of
balance with our biology, our minds working?
Dr. LEVINE: I believe so. And I think in the most concrete way I think
school overutilizes memory. You know, at no point in life and almost no
career that you can name do you need as much memory as you do in school,
especially nowadays when your hard drive tends to be on your desk, so it
doesn't all need to be intercranial.
And I think schools have to realize, in the way they design tests, in the way
they prepare students, that we don't want kids to come to think that learning
is remembering, learning is regurgitation. And I think there's an imbalance
now between understanding and remembering, and many students feel if they
remember something they understand it. And I believe even some of the
standardized high-stakes testing that's occurring across the country right now
is perhaps placing too much emphasis on rote memory and not enough on insight
and understanding. I don't think that's an incurable condition, but I think
there's a tendency toward that right now.
BOGAEV: Well, schools need tests; kids need tests.
Dr. LEVINE: Mm-hmm.
BOGAEV: How could they be better devised then to recognize the different ways
that kids' brains work? Should kids be able to bring notes to tests, or many
tests should include you're allowed to bring notes?
Dr. LEVINE: How's this, Barbara? Why don't we say, `You're going to have an
hour test today, the first 20 minutes are without your notes. And for the
last 40 minutes, I'd like you take out your notes.' So that we're really
explaining to kids there's a certain amount of knowledge that you have to
display, know and store away, but then there's also something called
understanding and judgment and brainstorming and critical thinking that we'd
like you to move into.
BOGAEV: You write a lot about the role of language in learning, that a lot of
kids with language problems get misdiagnosed as having attention problems.
How do you tell them apart?
Dr. LEVINE: I think there a lot of ways we can tell attentional difficulties
from language difficulties. For example, you may see that a child is having
trouble concentrating, is really having trouble filtering out distractions and
pacing himself and being able to stay tuned into the important details, but
you may notice that only happens in highly verbal settings. He doesn't have
that problem when he's playing his computer games. He doesn't have that
difficulty when he's doing hands-on activities that involve a lot of visual
input. But when it's pure language, you lose this child. Then you might be
more apt to suspect a language problem than an attentional problem.
And I hasten to add that it's possible to have both, to have trouble with
attention plus language, but we try to sort those out as well as we can.
BOGAEV: Dr. Mel Levine is the director of the University of North Carolina's
Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning. His new book is "A
Mind At A Time." We'll continue our conversation in the second half of the
I'm Barbara Bogaev. And this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Coming up: `I can't believe I ate the whole thing.' We talk to Mary
Wells Lawrence about creating some of the most memorable advertising campaigns
of the '60s and '70s. Her new memoir is "A Big Life in Advertising."
And we continue our conversation with Dr. Mel Levine about how children learn.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Let's continue our interview with Dr. Mel Levine. He teaches pediatrics at
the University of North Carolina Medical School and is the co-founder and
co-director of All Kinds of Minds, a non-profit institute which develops
programs to address learning differences in children. His new book is "A Mind
at a Time."
When we left off, we were discussing how language problems often go undetected
in kids at school and can really trip them up. I asked Mel Levine what
parents and teachers can do to help.
Dr. LEVINE: There are a lot of different things. I think that, whether we
like it or not, schools are designed for linguists. In many ways, it's a
shame, because there are some wonderful kinds of minds that get destroyed by
school because they think non-verbally; they visualize rather than verbalize
all the time. And the adult world has endless numbers of jobs for people who
are better at thinking without language: all the different technological
fields. I can't tell you how many former patients of mine are now designing
Web sites and engaging in other activities that involve really previsualizing
things more than verbalizing.
But we still have to worry about getting these kids through school and having
them survive in that highly verbal universe called education. And so there's
a lot of things that parents can do. For example, we know that during
elementary school, the most important part of language is at the sentence
level. That's when the brain really becomes increasingly efficient and
precise in dealing with sentences, with the relationship between word order
and meaning, with clauses inside of sentences, and therefore understanding
directions, understanding explanations. There's just this highly accelerated
development of sentence comprehension and sentence construction during
What does that mean? That means that every parent ought to be saying, `In our
home, we'll only talk in full sentences. We don't say "stuff." We don't say
"thing." We don't use little phrases. We gotta build those sentence muscles,
because you're nine years old and that's crucial.' And every classroom
teacher ought to be saying the same thing.
BOGAEV: Boy, there'd be a lot of changes in my house.
Dr. LEVINE: Go for it. But you know, if you think about it, sentences not
only build language, they build logical thinking. Words like `although,'
`unless,' `until,' `instead of'--aren't those the cornerstones of thinking
logically and reasoning? And so every time you're building a sentence, you're
also fortifying your rational thinking equipment.
BOGAEV: So when you, say, demystify for the child what is holding him or her
back in school, is the point of that that so much of the agony of school is
that you feel dumb, and if...
Dr. LEVINE: Absolutely.
BOGAEV: ...even if you're not good--you're only pretty great at three out of
four subjects, but you're really bad at one, you feel like a loser.
Dr. LEVINE: Absolutely. And there's so much misunderstanding, and so often
children write themselves off. They think that what's wrong with them is so
much worse than what's wrong with them that they decide they were born to
lose, that they may as well give up, that they may as well find other kids in
town who feel the same way and band together and go to the mall on Saturday
and ultimately get into drugs and get into trouble because they've written
themselves off. The most horrible complication of learning difficulty in my
mind is called pessimism.
BOGAEV: What place, then, does this label `learning-disabled' have in the
Dr. LEVINE: In my opinion, it's served its purpose, and it's time to move
beyond the label of learning-disabled because, to most people,
learning-disabled means that a kid fits a particular formula that says that
he's eligible for services, that he has a difference between his IQ and his
achievement testing. And now that we know the broad array of learning
problems that kids have, that makes no sense whatsoever.
It's hard to know where to draw the line, what to include as a learning
disability and what not to include. If a kid has trouble managing time, is
that a learning disability? If a child does well academically but has trouble
expressing himself when he talks, is that a learning disability? Are the
attentional controls learning issues and weak attention controls therefore
learning disabilities, or are they not? It's just silly. We really want to
look at profiles of strengths and weaknesses. And we don't want kids to grow
up feeling they're defective, that they have a label.
So I think we can help kids without labeling them, without testing them to see
if we can help them. Can you imagine a person falling off a ship and
beginning to drown, and we say, `I'm sorry, we can't save you until you've had
a swimming test,' or, `We can't save you because we know you can't swim, but
it's part of an overall gross motor problem; it's not a specific disability,
so we can't save you'? And that's what's going on, that kind of thinking, in
schools all the time. You have to be eligible according to some very narrow
criteria for us to be able to even acknowledge that you're struggling with
BOGAEV: Well, someone might say, just to play devil's advocate...
Dr. LEVINE: Sure.
BOGAEV: ...that if every mind works so differently, how can we expect schools
to address these myriad of varieties of learning deficits, that you have to
draw the line somewhere and you have to have a test that separates, you know,
a certain level of difficulty in struggling with school from another?
Dr. LEVINE: Well, let me address that in several different ways with you.
First of all, we're really not saying that every single kid in a classroom has
to be taught differently. That's not the case. There's a basic way, a basic
sort of core way that we're addressing all of them. But we can individualize
within that context as needed.
For example, many children with sequencing problems hate to use cursive
writing because it's such a complicated sequence, and they go up and tell you,
`I'd much rather print than do cursive. I hate cursive writing, and I do it
too slow and it's too hard for me.' It doesn't really cost any money out of a
school budget or drain any resources to say to that child, `That's fine. Why
don't you just print for the rest of your life?'
If you know that a child has trouble with retrieval memory and, Barbara, when
you're called on in class, you have three seconds to respond to a question, it
really doesn't cost anything to say to the child, `I'm going to call on you
tomorrow to ask you about the causes of World War II. Can you be ready for
So these are little accommodations, little aspects of flexibility, that don't
really mean you're teaching every single child differently, but it does mean
you're willing to be somewhat flexible with every child.
BOGAEV: But is it fair to the other kids, the kids who have to write cursive
and who aren't given a fair warning of when they'll be called on in class?
Dr. LEVINE: I met a teacher recently who told me that she gets up in front of
the class on the first day of class and looks out there and says, `Look here,
kids, I want you to know one thing. I'm not treating any two of you alike
this year. There's some of you who are going to write long papers and some of
you shorter papers. Some of you are going to read longer stories and some of
you shorter stories.' She said, `I don't intend to treat any two of you the
same, and you shouldn't want to be treated the same.' And she set that up as
the sort of ethos, as the way of thinking in her classroom, sort of
celebrating diversity. And she said she does that every year and there's
never any problems; she never hears another word out of any kid, because
that's the way her class works.
BOGAEV: Mel Levine, thanks a lot for talking today on FRESH AIR.
Dr. LEVINE: I appreciate the opportunity.
BOGAEV: Dr. Mel Levine. His new book is "A Mind at a Time." He's the
co-director of the All Kinds of Minds Institute, based in Chapel Hill, North
Coming up, a life in advertising. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Mary Wells Lawrence discusses the advertising campaigns
she created in the 1960s, '70s and '80s and her new book
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Remember this classic commercial?
(Soundbite of commercial)
Unidentified Man #1: Well, you really did it to yourself this time.
(Soundbite of Alka-Seltzer)
Unidentified Man #1: At least you remembered the Alka-Seltzer.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh, what a relief it
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Plop, plop, fizz, fizz. Oh, what a relief
Unidentified Man #2 and Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in unison) Plop,
plop, fizz, fizz...
BOGAEV: Alka-Seltzer is just one of the unforgettable campaigns that Mary
Wells Lawrence describes in her book "A Big Life (in advertising)" about
her three decades in the business. Her company, Wells, Rich, Greene, was the
first firm on the New York Stock Exchange run by a woman. Clients included
Braniff Airlines, TWA, Benson & Hedges, Philip Morris and Procter & Gamble.
Before she started her own company, Lawrence worked on the Alka-Seltzer
campaign at another agency, where a chemist on staff who was reading about the
newly touted wonders of aspirin realized that two Alka-Seltzer might work
better than one. This doubled Alka-Seltzer sales at the time and eventually
led to the `plop, plop' idea.
Lawrence started out in the '50s writing ad copy for department stores in Ohio
and went on to get a job at McCann-Erickson, a large New York firm, in the
'50s, where she was one of the only women account executives.
Ms. MARY WELLS LAWRENCE (Author, "A Big Life (in advertising)"): In those
days, women handled accounts for women; men handled accounts for the world.
Men handled automobiles, for example, and they had Chrysler and General Motors
at different times or whatever. But women handled things like Tampax,
silverware, Fiberglas, curtains, you know, materials, cosmetics. Women were
supposed to work on products for women because they understood those products,
because women were still not quite as accepted in business and certainly not
even in the agency business, as men.
BOGAEV: The campaign that really made your career early on was for the then
brand-new Braniff Airlines. And you made this unknown airline hot news. What
was the breakthrough idea in that campaign?
Ms. LAWRENCE: First of all, the airlines developed with--the people running
the airlines came out of the Army and the Navy. They came out of the air
corps. They were not marketing people, and they didn't think in that way.
And the airlines evolved in a kind of a gray world, very practical, technical,
gray world. And we went all over the United States studying the different
terminals, the stewardesses, the pilots, how they looked. The
stewardesses--and they were called stewardesses then before they were called
hostesses--and they were all dressed to look as if they could fly the planes.
They looked as if, if the pilot had a heart attack, they could just step in
and it would be OK. And they were all very reassuringly dressed, but
certainly not dressed to be attractive or appealing.
The airlines themselves were sort of--they were all gray, the insides were
gray or brown. And the idea of color came to me kind of in a shock. When I
was standing in one terminal after having seen many of them, I suddenly had
this kind of instant miraculous idea that, `What if there were color here?'
Because there was no color whatever. And I could just see flooding the
airline business with color, what a transformation that would make. And I
also realized after studying color as we experimented with it on the planes
that if you could get away, if you had the guts to paint the planes different
colors, first of all, they would stand out on any field. You'd see them
before you'd see any other plane. But you would also want to go see them, I
mean, and people did. They used to drive out weekends to look at them after
they'd been painted, and they were appearing.
BOGAEV: We have the Braniff TV commercial. Why don't we play that now?
(Soundbite of Braniff Airlines commercial)
Unidentified Man #3: Braniff International is creating the most beautiful
airline in the world. We hired Emilio Pucci to design our uniforms. Our
hostesses wear reversible coats of almond, green and apricot, space helmets to
keep out the rain, red space suits and sometimes something a little more
comfortable. And we hired Alexander Girard to do our planes. We have
blue planes, orange planes, yellow planes. You can fly with us seven times
and never fly the same color twice; inside seven different color schemes. And
since we fly to Mexico and South America, ...(unintelligible) from Peru,
Brazil and Argentina, cha, cha, cha. Braniff International announces the end
of the plain plane. We won't get you where you're going any faster, but it'll
seem that way.
BOGAEV: And now by the end of that spot, everyone, the stewardesses and the
crew, are all assembled on the wing of a Braniff airplane. This idea of color
and they're kooky colors and the stewardesses have these amazing space
suitlike helmets in this ad, it's really out there. Did you do anything like
market testing to get an idea or a reassurance that this idea would fly with
Ms. LAWRENCE: No, we never tested anything. We didn't have time. So we just
went with our instinct.
BOGAEV: You started your own company in the mid-'60s, Wells, Rich, Greene.
You had a different take on running an ad agency you write in your memoir.
You thought of it more like a motion picture company. What did that mean?
What did you do differently?
Ms. LAWRENCE: Advertising was--even on television, it looked very much like
print that moved. It was extremely presentational. And we wanted to open--I
wanted to open an agency where, first of all, the goals would be much higher,
they'd be much greater, that the creative people who were making the
advertising would be the people who would be in direct contact with the
clients and would be finding out the information and would be in a position to
create a miracle. What I mean by that is a solution for a client that made a
major difference at the end of the year in his financial structure, in terms
of his sales, in terms of his success as a company. So we structured the
agency completely different. We structured it around the creative people.
And we ran--I ran the business as though I were producing about maybe 15
movies at any given time in that you had different groups of people doing
different kinds of work at the agency. But each of them was supposed to
develop something tremendously, emotionally powerful that would make a major
change in the outcome, in the future of a business.
BOGAEV: Now the Alka-Seltzer campaign--Alka-Seltzer followed you to Wells,
Rich, Greene eventually, and you all came up with the famous `Try it, you'll
like it,' and also `I can't believe I ate the whole thing.' We have to listen
to that. We have that one. Let's play it.
(Soundbite of Alka-Seltzer commercial)
"RALPH": I can't believe I ate that whole thing.
Unidentified Woman #2: You ate it, Ralph.
"RALPH": I can't believe I ate that whole thing.
Unidentified Woman #2: No, Ralph, I ate it.
"RALPH": I can't believe I ate that whole thing.
Unidentified Woman #2: Take two Alka-Seltzer.
Unidentified Man #4: Alka-Seltzer neutralizes all the acid your stomach has
churned out. For your upset stomach and headache, take Alka-Seltzer and feel
Unidentified Woman #2: Did you drink your Alka-Seltzer?
"RALPH": The whole thing.
BOGAEV: Now this commercial won so many awards, and I think anyone over about
30 recognizes it immediately. When you first saw it in storyboard form, did
you know right away that that `I can't believe I ate the whole thing' had
Ms. LAWRENCE: Oh, yes. There were two of them at the time. There was `I
can't believe I ate the whole thing' and there was another one with the line
that said, `Try it, you'll like it.' They were perfect commercials at the
time because they--after having gone through a period of re-introducing
Alka-Seltzer as the solution for many, many, many different discomforts, the
world had gotten a little bit older. We were not in the '60s. By this time,
we were in the late '70s, early '80s, and the world was older. And people
were getting more obvious discomforts from overdrinking and overeating. And
we were--we wanted to come back and remind people of how effective Alka-Seltzer
was for overindulgence, but not in a way that suggested slobbism, but in a
sweet, entertaining, amusing, cool way, but that would never let you forget
what actually Alka-Seltzer did, but would also smile you into liking the fact
that you got these various conditions and that it was easy to cure them with
Now there had been very funny commercials done for Alka-Seltzer at a different
agency before we got the account back. They were hilarious commercials. They
BOGAEV: `This is one spicy meatball,' right, and...
Ms. LAWRENCE: That's right, exactly. They were very amusing, very
entertaining. But the problem with them was, we think, looking back on them,
because they didn't work, and we think the problem was that they were extreme.
They were all about the humor. They were MTV funny at that time. They were
very edgy humor, but they didn't really leave you feeling that what you were
going to get from the product was relief. And I have always felt that humor
in advertising is very powerful and it's wonderful. It's very friendly and
extremely effective, but that it has to encompass something--some kind of
information, some kind of idea about a product that makes you a little bit
nervous if you don't buy the product, that makes you think you haven't gotten
the best there is because the best would be this product. And when you have a
funny commercial that doesn't have--that doesn't tell you what to think,
doesn't tell you what to do, doesn't tell you what to expect, when you don't
feel that earnest relief in the product inherent in the humor, humor can be
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Mary Wells Lawrence. During her three decades in
advertising, she was, among other things, the guiding force behind the
campaigns for Alka-Seltzer, Benson & Hedges and I Love New York. Her ad
agency, Wells, Rich, Greene, was the first company on the New York Stock
Exchange run by a woman. Mary Wells Lawrence has a new memoir, "A Big Life
Mary, we'll talk more after a moment.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back with Mary Wells Lawrence. In over 30 years in advertising, her
clients included TWA to Alka-Seltzer, Philip Morris and Procter & Gamble. She
was the first woman CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Her new memoir is "A Big Life (in advertising)."
Well, I'm thinking here you were, the head of a company in a male-dominated,
completely male-dominated field. But perhaps being a woman, you might have
been perceived as not as threatening as a male CEO or a male executive. Did
you have an edge in this department, in terms of cultivating and keeping your
Ms. LAWRENCE: Well, there are two different things there. One was that I
worked hard at finding--at developing connections with my clients, so that I
understood them and we did things together or we could talk about things that
they couldn't talk to other people about. So I became very good friends with
them. And then there was the second aspect, which is that because I was a
woman and I--we were dealing with the CEO of a company. And CEOs live a very
lonely life because they are surrounded by people who are trying to get their
jobs, and they're always keeping a little bit to their breast because they
have, you know, this sense that people are trying to push them out the door
and get them to retire and take over. And I was a female who could read their
annual report and could talk about their financial reports and could talk
about their dreams and what they're planning for the company and what they're
planning for themselves, and they weren't threatened because I was a woman,
which is, in a sense, sort of a sad issue. But still, it worked to my
benefit. They told me everything.
BOGAEV: Though, this--when you first started your company in the '60s and
then built it up in the '70s, did you consider yourself a feminist at the
time? That was really the height of the first feminist wave. Did you relate
Ms. LAWRENCE: You know, people often ask that question. I have to honestly
admit that I've never thought of myself as young, old, white, black, male,
female or anything else. I've always--my--the way I developed as a person
just led me to become, very simply, a person in charge of an advertising
agency, which was my passion. I really wasn't at any time caught up in any
major issue. But what I think happened and that I'm very proud of is that in
the process or running an agency the way men run an agency and in having the
success that men had that I did it, you know? I mean, I did it. I didn't do
it, thinking that I was a feminist. I didn't do it, thinking that--I did it
the way men do it.
BOGAEV: I think male ad executives called you--What was it?--`queen of the
black widow spiders.' What was that all about?
Ms. LAWRENCE: Yeah, they did. They did. Well, you know, here I--you had an
advertising industry that was very WASPy, it was very conservative. They
were all members of a club. They all did things by kind of agreement, mutual
agreement. And into this atmosphere comes this young, blonde, heady girl who
wants to do everything differently and doesn't attend your club meetings and
doesn't show you the proper respect by kneeling and acts as though she can do
it just as you can do it. And at the time, it was a shock. And I took a lot
of business away from a lot of these fellows. And they didn't like it. And I
kept--our agency was incredibly successful very fast, and they were quite
angry. It went against the grain. I mean, people don't like to have their
clubs upset and their communities upset. And change--people don't like
change, and I was the first symbol of--I was one of the first symbols of the
youth movement changing the agency business, but I was also certainly the
first element of female success that had entered the industry. And it wasn't
taken well at all.
BOGAEV: Well, I think you caught flak from also feminists. I know Gloria
Steinem pilloried you as Uncle Tomming your way to the top.
Ms. LAWRENCE: No, no.
BOGAEV: So you were getting it from both sides.
Ms. LAWRENCE: Yeah. Well, again, that never bothered me for half a minute.
I just wasn't interested in the philosophy of what I was doing; I was
interested in doing it and getting it done. And it--I was interested in just
being what the men had always been in the advertising business. I just didn't
see any reason why I couldn't be just as successful as a woman doing the same
BOGAEV: Well, you carried that into your personal life, too. You married
Harding Lawrence, the founder of Braniff Airlines, and that was your first
big campaign. After the campaign was established, you married. And you had
unusual living arrangements. He lived in Texas where the airline was based
with your two daughters from your first marriage and his three children from
his previous marriage, and you would live in New York and fly in on the
weekends. You really--you pretty much lived like a man, right?
Ms. LAWRENCE: Well, I...
BOGAEV: By those standards of those days.
Ms. LAWRENCE: Yes. I guess so. Again, I wasn't thinking of it that way,
either. It was what I wanted to do. I simply always did what I thought I
really wanted to do. I mean, I wanted my children to have a family life, and
I thought Dallas was the perfect place for that. And we built a beautiful
home there. I wanted to be with my children and my husband, so I flew to them
because it was better--I mean, I was trying to create a kind of a community
life for them, as well as a family life. And I was the one who could travel.
I have tremendous energy. I've always had tremendous energy, much more than
anybody I know really enjoys because I make work, I make, you know,
challenges. If there aren't enough, I go out and make them.
BOGAEV: Mary Wells Lawrence. Her memoir is "A Big Life (in advertising)."
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
(Soundbite of music)
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