Veteran direct mail copywriter Frank H. Johnson, the man credited for the widely used direct marketing device dubbed the “Johnson Box,” died on Tuesday in Manhattan at age 88.
Although Johnson disclaimed any recognition for inventing the Johnson Box, Irwin Glusker, his friend and former art director at American Heritage magazine, said that was irrelevant.
“It doesn't matter who created it — he used it better than anyone else,” Glusker said.
Johnson, Glusker and other former Time Inc. executives founded American Heritage in 1957.
A Johnson Box, often depicted as a box-shaped outline of asterisks or a tinted box, is used to highlight text that conveys the main message of the direct mail offer.
“In modern direct mail, the Johnson Box is like the eyes on a person's face. It's almost inconceivable to imagine a person without eyes,” said Albert Fried-Cassorla, president of direct marketing and advertising firm Fried-Cassorla Communications Inc., Melrose Park, PA. “And while the Johnson box may not apply to every selling situation, it's one of the most potent features of any direct mail communication.”
Over the course of a long career that began in 1934 at Time Inc., Johnson was responsible for countless successful direct mail pieces.
“He had the gift to be able to make himself enthusiastic about any topic, and he could sell you on it, too,” Johnson's daughter, Judith Thoms, said of her father.
Before the formation of American Heritage, Johnson served as circulation and promotion manager for the Time Inc. title Fortune magazine.
In 1966, he was the first winner of the National Association of Direct Mail Writers annual award.
After a long career at American Heritage, Johnson freelanced for clients such as the Nature Conservancy; Audubon Society; Bronx Zoo; Guggenheim Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Harper's, Ms. and Newsweek magazines.
He often advised his clients to do their own direct mail pieces, though he often took on such assignments as a freelancer, Thoms said. His feeling was that no outsider would believe in the offer more than the company making it.
“My father was a writer — he suffered all of the things that writers suffer,” Thoms said. “He was very conscious of every word, and he really didn't like to have his writing tampered with.”
Johnson is survived by three children and six grandchildren.