Inventing The Commercial

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Chevrolet and Ford filmed their gleaming new beauties swooping about the landscape from coast to coast. The Utah salt flats, surf-washed beaches, and the Pacific Coast Highway came to symbolize emancipated driving, TV-style. Chrysler—pre-Iacocca—used much the same imagery but usually with lower budgets and less panache. And Volkswagen led the way for imports in the early sixties with its memorable commercials from the new agency on the block, Doyle Dane Bernbach.

Such early VW Beetle commercials as “How does the man who drives the snowplow get to the snowplow?” set a new standard for auto advertising. And Doyle Dane Bernbach—non-WASP, informal, and brilliantly creative—began its meteoric ascent.

Cigarette makers—always lavish spenders until banned from the air in 1971—tended toward lighthearted image advertising, most of it on film when film cost too much for most advertisers. Among the first cigarette commercials were square-dancing cigarettes (Lucky Strike, 1948), dancing packs with women inside (Old Gold, 1950), and an animated penguin (Kool, 1954).

As the filter-versus-regular cigarette war sputtered through the fifties, Viceroy thundered about its “filter traps,” Parliament introduced its recessed filter, Kent created the Micronite filter (made of asbestos), and Marlboro offered the slinky, seductive Julie London crooning, “You get a lot to like with a Marlboro—filter … flavor … flip-top box.” The Marlboro cowboy and Marlboro Country, created by Chicago’s Leo Burnett agency, came later, around 1959. Perhaps the most successful cigarette advertising campaign in history, it still runs worldwide.

 

Very late in the TV cigarette era, around 1968, when Salem advertising was my responsibility at the William Esty Company, we launched “You can take Salem out of the country but … you can’t take the country out of Salem.” It was a relatively expensive campaign to film, using city and country locations from coast to coast.

One of my commercials called for a white gazebo with a Dixieland band and singers set among flowering trees. A search for just the right location turned up a slightly run-down gazebo in a grove of apple trees at a convent in New York’s Hudson River valley. The setting was ideal, and in exchange for a substantial contribution, the mother superior agreed to allow the use of the property for the filming. The gazebo was given a fresh coat of white paint with accents of gold and Salem green, and buses and vans were poised to whisk cast and crew there just as soon as the apple trees reached full flower.

Then, the night before the big day, a lashing rainstorm moved in and stripped the apple trees of their blossoms. But the location still looked fresh and spring-like, and that was Salem’s trademark. As I drove to the convent, dawn broke sunny and warm.

At six that morning a van filled with thousands of plastic apple blossoms rolled up to the convent, and by eight-thirty the trees were beautifully abloom with polyethylene flowers. The mother superior—a tiny sixty-ish lady with a saintly smile—watched as a swarm of workers redecorated her denuded apple trees. Then she turned to the film’s director, the late Peter Miranda, and said, “Oh, my! I thought only God could make a tree.” Miranda—one of the quickest wits in a witty business—clasped his hands, smiled, and replied, “Sister, this is what God would do—if he had our budget.”

As the live television ERA wound down—as Pat Weaver launched his magazine concept and as coast-to-coast networks were born, thanks to the laying of coaxial cable in 1951—Rosser Reeves emerged as the creative maestro of the Ted Bates Agency. For the next twenty years Reeves was Madison Avenue’s leading advocate of “hard sell” advertising.

In his 1961 book, Reality in Advertising, he claimed that his commercials for Anacin pain reliever had tripled annual sales in less than two years. Trumpeting “Fast … FAST … FAST RELIEF ” from “tension headache” and replete with lightning bolts and sledgehammers, Anacin’s one-minute spots were generally despised by viewers and derided by competitors. But Reeves and Anacin seemed to prove that people needn’t like a commercial to be influenced by it. They needed only to understand the message, find its promise appealing, and be willing to believe it. “Fast relief” is, after all, what a painkiller is supposed to deliver. Anacin made “tension headache” its own private ailment, and the spots ran everywhere, ad nauseam.

Rosser Reeves, Southern-born, was a shrewd thinker and marketer and an unabashed salesman. He was indifferent to style, taste, and artistry in advertising. He cared only about clarity, persuasion, and uniqueness. These he refined and distilled into his personal advertising formula—the “Unique Selling Proposition,” or U.S.P.—which he considered a virtual reinvention of salesmanship.