Steven Heller | Essays


It was not difficult for Ralph Ginzburg to look like an arrested pornographer in the 1968 advertisement titled “Wanted.” He was, afterall, convicted of violating a Federal obscenity law by using the mails to promote Eros, the hardcover magazine that celebrated love and eroticism, and he would eventually serve eight months in a Federal facility as punishment for his crime. By his own admission, he published the most controversial, taboo-busting magazines of the twentieth century and, by my estimation, authored some of the most provocative text-driven promotional ads of any century. He was a brazenly committed pitchman for his landmark publications, two of which, Eros and Fact, were driven out of business by the legal system. 

Meanwhile, the newer, no less risqué Avant Garde was gathering its circulation. Ginzburg mastered the grit and bravado of direct advertising. His full- and double-page advertisements like “Wanted,” weighing in at over 4000 words, was similar to the way crowd-sourcing is used today: to generate interest and harvest subscription dollars, often in  advance of publication. “Wanted” is decidedly one of his most compelling ad concepts. 

When “Wanted” first ran in Evergreen Review in 1968, Ginzburg was awaiting a Supreme Court decision on his appeal for the 1963 obscenity conviction (the appeal was denied in 1972 and lead to the prison sentence). The ad, which his lawyers would have preferred he forgo so as not to antagonize the Court, was a hard sell manifesto-cum-promotion which explained the succes de scandale of Eros (declared obscene by the USPS), Fact, which questioned Presidential nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater’s psychological fitness, and Avant Garde, which Ginzburg called “a pyrotechnic, futuristic bimonthly of intellectual pleasure.”

Readers of the periodicals where Ginzburg’s ads appeared were predisposed to reading text-heavy stories, so why not text-heavy advertisements too. It was a gamble that paid off. The ad prose was spritely and often written in the third-person. “Wanted” started as a paean to Ginzburg’s accomplishments: “Pictured above is Ralph Ginzburg, publisher of the most notorious and wanted magazines of the twentieth century.” The text cites the spat with Goldwater as a publishing milestone: “The intellectual community was galvanized by Fact and bought—devoured—over half a million copies, despite the fact that Fact was not available at most newsstands … But certain Very Important Persons got mad at Fact, including Barry Goldwater, who sued the magazine for $2 million, and it, too, was driven out of business.” 

Following paragraphs that were certain to seize liberal-left sympathies, the narrative continued: “Undaunted, Ginzburg rallied his forces and last year launched still a third magazine, Avant Garde …  Although still in its infancy, Avant Garde already enjoys a readership of over one million, while its growth rate is one of the phenomena of modern publishing.”

At the time, “Wanted” captured my heart, mind, and wallet. And what sealed the deal was not such stories as “The Secret Plans of Leading Tobacco Companies to Market Marijuana,” “Allen Ginsberg’s Script for a New Film by Charlie Chaplin,” or “The Case of Hitler’s Missing Left Testicle,” but rather the following answer to the rhetorical “What makes Avant Garde such a tutti-frutti frappé of a magazine?” 

Avant Garde stones its readers with its mind-blowing beauty. I bring to the printed page a transcendental new kind of high. This is achieved through a combination of pioneering printing methods and the genius of Herb Lubalin, who is Avant Garde’s art director (and, incidentally, America’s foremost graphic designer.”

For a teenager (me) with the ambition to be an art director, reading that paragraph (and seeing the magazine) was such music to my eyes that I followed through with a subscription. And took heed of Ginzburg’s suggestion to “… sit back and prepare to receive your first copy of the most wanted, arresting, and rewarding magazine in America today (and the only one put out by a publisher with real conviction).”

This article was originally published in May 2015.  

Comments [1]

Great post, Steven. Good to see RG being discussed. He was an important, if problematic character in 60s and 70s America. A true anti-establishment figure. And through his work with Herb Lubalin, he was also a great patron of graphic design. When I was working on my Lubalin book (plug, plug) I discovered something interesting about their relationship. Herb’s widow Rhoda told me that when Ginzburg was jailed for sending Eros (an 'obscene' publication in the eyes of the US authorities) through the US mail, Herb said to her: ‘I should have gone to jail, too.’ What this shows us is that Ginzburg and Lubalin worked as equals on the three publications you mention - Eros, Fact, and Avant Garde. Clearly Lubalin the art director felt as culpable as Ginzburg the editor.
Adrian Shaughnessy

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