Ad History

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A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 5 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959

Had lunch with Ted Regan again Friday, this time to return his generously loaned books on Ayer and on the 100 Greatest Advertisements. Next time we get together, I’m bringing my notepad and planning to grill him on his days pitching, winning, and retaining the U.S. Army account. He has shared lots of tantalizing details, but it is an amazing and important story that deserves a full treatment.

I told Ted I was good for one more blog post  in the 100 Greatest Advertisements series and that it was going to be about packaging and retail. There were two examples in particular that sparked some sharp contrasts. And not surprisingly, one of them is another Ayer story.

For everyone who has eaten at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, did you know the origins of the name? That country stores and early groceries, at turn of the century (pre-FDA) America, used to sell crackers, as well as just about every other item, out of wooden barrels or open boxes? A.W. Green, Chairman of the Board of the National Biscuit Company, is credited with pushing for a concept that was likely the forerunner of the packaged food business in the United States — selling branded crackers in neat, sanitary, exact quantity packages. Crackers that would always be clean and fresh and protected from moisture, dust, germs, odors, and whatever else that could find its way into an open barrel. Incredibly, Green’s board did not share his vision, did not want to disturb grocers or their barrels, thought the idea would fail, and did not get behind it.

U-Need-A-Better-Place-To-Keep-Crackers-For-Sale-Than-An-Open-Barrel!

U-Need-A-Better-Place-To-Keep-Crackers-For-Sale-Than-An-Open-Barrel!

Fortunately, one of N.W. Ayer’s top execs, H.N. McKinney, saw Green’s vision and raised it with a brand, a plan, and a campaign to entice the public via newspaper and magazine ads, streetcar cards, and posters/signage. And so, UNEEDA Biscuits in boxes were born and promoted by a little boy in a rain slicker (the art director’s nephew).  U-Need-A-Biscuit may be a corny name, but it worked. All of it worked. Together (integrated marketing communications anyone?). It all worked so well that National Biscuit had to build additional bakeries in different parts of the country in order to supply the huge demand that the Ayer campaign and the Green packaging concept created. You can bet that a lot of copycat packaging followed on and that little by little groceries and retail stores, and packaged goods companies, scrambled to entice customers with bright packaging, from folding cartons, to tins, to labeled bottles, cans, and tubes.

The irony is that today, the drive is in the other direction, toward less packaging and a more sustainable future. There are a lot of positive stories, but also mindless zealotry. Packagers keep trying to source reduce to lowest possible but sometimes absurd levels. I’ve had water bottles spring leaks because they have been rendered so weak and flimsy. I have found toilet paper now being marketed as eco-friendly because the cardboard roll in the middle is gone. Many landfills are at a point where they are actually looking for more trash in order to feed trash-to-energy projects.

The Catalog Side of Sears, Circa 1949.

The Catalog Side of Sears, Circa 1949.

The drive is also in the other direction on many retail fronts. I was struck by a couple of things on this page from the 100 Greatest Advertisements, which featured the cover of the Spring/Summer 1949 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog (where have all the Roebucks gone?). First, the cover didn’t obviously feature merchandise, unless worn by kids and teacher in the classroom setting depicted. Second, in that classroom setting, circa 1949, the emphasis was on Safety with a capital S.  There is a never-ending quest these days to make this the safest of all possible worlds (and that’s a blog for another day), but few people associate 1949 as a safety-focused year. Third, Sears’ message on the front cover talks candidly about higher prices being the norm, then casually delivers good news that many prices inside are lower than the prior fall.  Finally, the catalog came by way of Roosevelt Boulevard (I can still picture one of the Great Northeast’s classic landmarks).

Just as video killed the radio star, e-commerce has been making life very difficult in the retail bricks and mortar world. Sears is still there (but with a lot fewer stores), as are Macy’s, J C Penney’s, WalMart, and a host of others, especially individual specialty stores. While Amazon seems to be online’s 800 lb gorilla, the most successful retailers today are those who successfully bridge physical stores, great shopping experience web sites, and well-targeted catalogs. Know thy customers and reward their loyalty with many options, stellar customer service, and promos, discounts, and freebies. No one said marketing, sales, and advertising are easy.

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A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 2 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959

It never ceases to amaze me how many brands that began in another time in America are still intact with relatively few changes. Belief in brand graphic symbology and associations is unbending.  No one wants to mess with brand DNA for fear consumers will get confused or annoyed or attracted to a competitor.

These examples of unbroken brand equity jumped out at me from the pages of  the “100 Greatest Advertisements” book loaned to me by Ted Regan during our Ayer discussions leading to this mini-series.

First, a comment on the book’s title circa 1959. When is the last time you heard anyone use the term Advertisement? Did it disappear when print buys began drying up in favor of online options? As the industry keeps changing, the word digital seems to precede a great many things, including advertising. As a purist, I am even troubled by the pay-per-click phraseology of Google Adwords. I’m sorry but a text link may be a form of paid media but it is so far from a great ad that it is itself a horrible bastardization.

The Cream of Wheat Chef continues to represent the brand long after this awkward racial moment from another time.

The Cream of Wheat Chef continues to represent the brand long after this awkward racial moment from another time.

Other forms of advertising change are even more dramatic. There is no date on the following ad for Cream of Wheat, but it is clearly of another time. Seeing it through the present prism of 2013 when we have a re-elected African-American President in the White House, and after a racially incendiary film like Django has been an Oscar Best Picture Nominee, it is surprising to encounter an Uncle Remus type figure proudly beaming at an outdoor board featuring the Cream of Wheat chef and proclaiming “Ah Reckon As How He’s De Bes’ Known Man in De Worl.” These kind of “statements” and “snapshots” of their time tend to make a lot of people in the present uncomfortable.

The Cream of Wheat chef remains the enduring face of the brand today.

The Cream of Wheat chef remains the enduring face of the brand today.

The real story behind the Cream of Wheat chef, according to Julian Lewis Watkins’ account, is its own testament to racial progress. The enduring image began when Colonel Mapes, one of the founders of the company, was having lunch at Kohlsaat’s Restaurant in Chicago in the early 1900s. His waiter was a handsome man with a winning smile. Mapes asked this anonymous man to be the face of the Cream of Wheat hot cereal brand. By the time the ad ran, this gentleman’s visage had become famous and had sold a lot of cereal. By 1959, when the ad was featured in this volume, he had become of the top three or four best-known trademarks in advertising. Ironically, just about every year in between, the company had been approached by various gentlemen who said they were the original chef. Colonel Mapes was able to disqualify all of them as fakes; ironically, the original model must have preferred anonymity, because by 1959 and the publication date, he had not contacted the company. According to Wikipedia, a chef named Frank L. White who died in 1938, claimed to be the original model. Wikipedia also notes that the chef character on the original packaging was given the name Rastus. Sounds like a bad minstrel show sketch. Remarkably, in 2013, the “bes’ known man in de worl” is still incredibly well known because his welcoming smile continues to grace all of Cream of Wheat’s modern packaging.

Elsie the Cow interestingly enough began life as a trade ad campaign in medical journals.

Elsie the Cow interestingly enough began life as a trade ad campaign in medical journals.

A recently revived brand icon is Borden’s Elsie the Cow. This article explains the current CEO’s plan to tap into all that equity. I was surprised to learn through the “100 Greatest Advertisements” that Elsie has only been around since the 1930s. Even more surprising is that she began life in a trade ad campaign for Eagle Brand condensed milk and other Borden dairy products featured in medical journals.  The ads were such a hit with doctors that proofs were posted to office walls. As Elsie’s popularity grew, she went from B2B to consumer, first with small newspaper ads, then radio spots, then a World’s Fair appearance, and finally in 1939, four-color national magazine ads. Elsie became so popular she even finds herself competing against other cows, which is no laughing matter.

The Campbell Kids got their start in 1899 on car cards.

The Campbell Kids got their start in 1899 on car cards.

The other brand sagas are tame by comparison. Local (Camden, NJ) food giant Campbell’s has been using kids (and later twins) to market soup since they appeared on car cards in 1899. This particular Saturday Evening Post ad is from 1935. The current Campbell’s web site and soup packaging seems to have gotten away from the vintage illustration approach. However, the twins are featured prominently on this Campbell’s blog.

Wonder whether the Smith Brothers, Trade and Mark, ever married brides named Copy and Right.

Wonder whether the Smith Brothers, Trade and Mark, ever married brides named Copy and Right.

The Smith Brothers (Trade and Mark) are also of that vintage era, predating Campbell’s kids by 47 years (1852 was first appearance in a “Cough Candy” ad that ran in Poughkeepsie newspapers. The founding members of the ZZTop fan club can still be found on cough drop product packaging as evidenced on the current web site.

Who says dogs never listen? RCA Victor's enduring brand suggests otherwise.

Who says dogs never listen? RCA Victor's enduring brand suggests otherwise.

Who let the dogs out? RCA still does.

Who let the dogs out? RCA still does.

Another of the most iconic brand marks of all time is the infamous fox terrier listening intently through the Victor Talking Machine to “his master’s voice.”  He began life as the real life dog (Nipper) of the painter Francis Barraud, who noticed his pet hunched over the horn. A star was born. Take note that the ad featured here listed the address of the Victor Talking Machine Co. as the Stephen Girard Bld., Philadelphia. A visit to today’s RCA web site shows not one fox terrier, but two. Does that count as a brand extension?

 

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