Not a Fake Ad: I Spy two new books from the Ann Arbor Observer highlighting its beloved monthly contests


Fake Ad and I Spy books

If you live in the Ann Arbor school district, you are a recipient of the Ann Arbor Observer. The monthly magazine offers in-depth reporting on local issues and residents, a robust calendar of area events, and two long-running contests that are often the first things to which readers turn: "Fake Ad" and "I Spy."

If you're a superfan of these challenges, you won't have to wait until the next Observer arrives because the magazine is publishing two books of highlights from the contests: I Spy…Architecture: Photo Puzzles From the Ann Arbor Observer, Vol. 1 by Sally Bjork and The Fake Ad Book: 47 of the Best Fake Ads of All Time by Jay Forstner.

Forstner has worked on "Fake Ad" since the early 1990s when he had his “dream job” of being a staff writer for the Observer.

“I came up with the 'Fake Ad' as a way of trying to contribute more to the Observer because I loved the publication and the people I worked with," Forstner says. "The funny thing is that in the first years after I started writing the 'Fake Ad,' I also wrote some of my best articles for the magazine. I think the 'Fake Ad' was my way of connecting with my work.”

Bjork proposed the "I Spy" feature to editor John Hilton in late 1998.

“It originally focused on historic architecture and eventually expanded to include other things," Bjork says. "It began in February of 1999 and, thankfully, it has been going ever since."

Picking favorites from these beloved features proved difficult for both writers. Forstner recalls the fake ad for the Victorious Egret lingerie shop for ornithologists. “It combines three of my passions: wordplay, sexy lingerie, and bird watching," Forstner jokes, "which are very difficult to pursue all at the same time, sadly.”

Forstner is also fond of recurring themes in the fake ads, something that sharp-eyed readers have also appreciated.

“It’s like the fake ad exists in this very thinly disguised alternate version of Ann Arbor,” he says. “Birch Cedar Mall has been the location for many of them … Boundaries Books, Good Earth Earth Goods. I’ve also really enjoyed coming up with the side effects of medication in the fake ads. One of them led to my all-time favorite comment from a reader: ‘Maybe I want extra elbows!’”

For 'I Spy,' Bjork loves highlighting the “beauty of the architectural details, like the Darling Block, Marchese Brothers, and St. Thomas Church.” Other personal preferences include the cherub on Main Street from where the Crescent Works Corset Factory was located once upon a time, the rosette from the Law School, and the detail of Rackham Graduate School, all of which appear in the book. “I also gravitate toward ones shot from odd angles or an atypical point of view," she says, "such as the Arthur Miller Auditorium, Maynard House, and the Fleming Administration Building, to name a few.”

And if your favorite 'I Spy' contests aren't in this book, look for them in subsequent volumes, which Bjork says will be titled Public Art & SculptureSigns and MuralsMore Architecture, and Vanished.

Both writers affectionately recall some of the more memorable moments on the job.

Bjork says, “There was one, which is actually one of my favorite photos, where we received more letters than guesses. In fact, there was only one guess, so that person won by default. I shot the wall of Ross Business School, which is very distinctive, with the outer cladding of the parking structure silhouetted in front of it. I won't do that kind of thing again -- it didn't go over well with some entrants.”

Forstner says, “One of the challenges has always been to find phone numbers I could use in the fake ad. We used the 555 exchange, the Observer fax number … movie theater numbers. But one month I had the brilliant idea of using my own phone number in the ad that was for a farm market or something. So, Saturday morning my phone started ringing off the hook, with people hoping to buy pies or go apple picking. I never did that again, although I did sell a lot of fritters that morning. People sure do love fritters.”

For the past 44 years, the Ann Arbor Observer has been a regular part of locals' lives, and contests like "I Spy" and "Fake Ad" have cemented their place in the magazine's history.

“I say this in the foreword to the book," Forstner says, "but I’ll repeat it here: If you’re lucky, if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll be remembered for something. And I know I’ll be remembered for the 'Fake Ad.' We don’t have a huge following, but they’re devoted. We have some people who have entered the contest every month for years, and I’ve become very attached to them. The book is a celebration of that collaboration between the 'Fake Ad' and our clever Fake Adders. I love the idea of going on a book tour and getting to meet these people in person and spend time getting to know them face to face and up close and personal.

"Now, with the pandemic, it just seems like the perfect time to do that," Forstner says dryly.

Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cat.

"I Spy…Architecture: Photo Puzzles From the Ann Arbor Observer, Vol. 1" and "The Fake Ad Book: 47 of the Best Fake Ads of All Time" can be ordered here.