The Run of His Life: How Hertz and O.J. Simpson Changed Advertising

Unearthing a Darkly Ironic Interview from the Ad Age Morgue

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The June 20, 1977, issue of Advertising Age.
The June 20, 1977, issue of Advertising Age. Credit: Crain Communications

About two-thirds of the way through the first installment of ESPN's riveting five-part "30 for 30" documentary feature "O.J.: Made in America," the focus pivots from the snow-flecked confines of Shea Stadium, where an indelible football legacy is secured on an unsettled Sunday afternoon in Queens, to the concourse of Newark International Airport, where a different kind of historical moment plays out.

Decked out in a tan three-piece suit and high-stepping his way across the terminal's acres of burnt-orange carpet as if the Steel Curtain Defense were in hot pursuit, O.J. Simpson's first appearance in the fall 1975 campaign for Hertz Corp.'s rent-a-car service marked a watershed moment for advertising, race and culture in the United States. It also earned Simpson a three-year, $600,000 endorsement contract, elevating him from the ranks of preternaturally gifted jock to genuine celebrity.

Shot just two years after O.J. Simpson shattered the all-time NFL single-season rushing mark, the first series of airport spots were an instant hit for Hertz, which saw its brand recall jump more than 40% and favorability among consumers improve by 35%. More to the point, in the first calendar year in which Mr. Simpson began appearing in Hertz ads, the company's net profits soared 50% to $42.2 million.

As a number of those who were involved with the Hertz campaign acknowledge in the ESPN documentary, the commercials effectively traded on Mr. Simpson's athletic prowess and good looks without acknowledging the identity politics that informed the '60s and '70s. Fred Levinson, who directed the first airport spot, made sure to zero in on friendly white faces who urged "The Juice" on as he darted and leapt his way across the terminal. Most memorable among these rapturous fans was the elderly woman who shouted, "go, O.J., go!" as he flew by, briefcase clutched in his right hand like an overlarge football.

Of course, black America could see right through the ruse. "O.J. was the first to demonstrate that white folks would buy stuff based on a black endorsement -- as long as it was not pressed as a black endorsement," said Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, during the Hertz segment. "The way they did that was to remove black people totally from any scene that O.J. was in. … They bought the notion that you could erase the black character, the culture. This is what made O.J. marketable."

By his own account, O.J. Simpson was so disinterested in race that he distanced himself from politically active black athletes like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor. "I'm not too well enlightened on the situation," he said in an interview excerpted in the ESPN doc. "I don't know exactly what they're trying to do."

As the sportswriter Robert Lipsyte recounted in an anecdote, Mr. Simpson was all but elated to discover that a female guest at a teammate's wedding had virtually segregated the star running back from his peers with a particulalry vile turn of phrase. When Mr. Lipsyte protested, Mr. Simpson told him he had it all wrong. "Don't you understand? She knew that I wasn't black. She saw me as O.J.!," Mr. Simpson exclaimed. Thinking back on that exchange, Mr. Lipsyte said, "At that moment, I thought he was fucked."

Mr. Levinson offers what is perhaps the most regrettable assessment of the young Mr. Simpson's appeal. "He's African, but he's a good-looking man," the director says in the first installment of "Made in America." "You know, he almost has white features."

Success, and an Ad Age cameo

So successful was the "Superstar in Rent-a-Car" campaign that Ad Age in June 1977 named the pitchman its second annual Star Presenter of the Year, an award bestowed upon the endorser who put up the biggest scores in categories such as "credibility, persuasiveness, sales effectiveness, image and 'merchandisability.'" (In a stark reminder of the inherent risks involved in celebrity endorsements, the Star Presenter of 1978 was none other than disgraced pudding shill Bill Cosby.)

Such retrospectively unsettling ironies abound in the interview Mr. Simpson granted the late Chuck Wingis in a story that accompanied the Star Presenter of the Year piece. Speaking from the set of the CBS made-for-TV movie "D.H.Q.," in which Mr. Simpson played an adulterous police officer who's been involved in a number of suspicious shootings, the pitchman-turned-actor said he'd taken the dark role as a means to erase his buttoned-down public image. "It's going to be tough, but I've got to tear down that picture of O.J. Simpson, the clean-cut athlete, to get believability into whatever part I happen to be playing," he said. "But I don't think the new image is going to hurt my work in advertising."

Mr. Simpson credited Hertz with "accelerating the pace" of his burgeoning film career, which at the time included a number of bit parts in productions like "The Towering Inferno," "Roots" and the Telly Savalas heist caper "Killer Force." "A lot of positive things have happened because of those Hertz commercials," Mr. Simpson said. "That commercial income gave me a chance to pick and choose and say 'no' to a lot of low budget parts that I shouldn't be doing for any amount of money."

If his movie bookings never really took off -- his biggest role was as the bumbling Detective Nordberg in the "Naked Gun" series -- Mr. Simpson's primary endorsement deal remained active until 1994, when he was arrested for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. So inexorably entwined were O.J. and Hertz that former CEO Frank Olson didn't cut ties with the company's long-time spokesman even after Mr. Simpson was first charged with assaulting Nicole on Jan. 1, 1989. (Police records indicate that Mr. Simpson beat his wife so badly that she required hospitalization; he pleaded no contest in April. Three months after that, NBC hired him to replace Ahmad Rashad on its "NFL Live!" pregame show.)

While Hertz severed ties with its star spokesman in the wake of the Brentwood killings, the rental company would unwittingly play a key role in one of the Simpson case's more surreal events. As it turns out, the infamous white Ford Bronco that led police on the low-speed chase down the 405 was a loaner. "Hertz owns it, and Hertz lets me use it," Simpson told LAPD detectives in his first (and only) interrogation on June 13, 1994. (When the bodies were discovered, Simpson was en route to Chicago, where he'd been scheduled to attend a Hertz meet-and-greet.)

Not surprisingly, Hertz and all the other extant brands that were once affiliated with O.J. (Chevrolet, Schick, Dingo boots, Foster Grant, RC Cola) wisely elected to steer clear of Saturday night's premiere of "Made in America," ESPN's sales team had little trouble roping in sponsors for the two-hour opener. Movies were particularly prevalent, as Paramount Pictures ("Star Trek Beyond"), Universal Pictures ("Jason Bourne") and Warner Bros. ("Central Intelligence") were among the five studios to buy time in the ABC premiere, while auto, insurance, telco and QSR also were well represented.

Interestingly enough, one NFL superstar popped up in a spot that aired during the opening salvo of "Made for America," as Head & Shoulders ran its 10-month-old "Shoulders of Greatness" ad, featuring Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr.

ABC reserved more than a dozen spots to promote its gameshow-heavy summer lineup ("Celebrity Family Feud," "To Tell the Truth," "Match Game," "The $100,000 Pyramid") as well as Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals.

Per preliminary Nielsen data, episode one of "Made in America" averaged 3.41 million viewers and a 0.9 rating among adults 18-to-49, beating all comers in the demo on the night. Part one will encore on ESPN Tuesday night at 7 p.m. EDT, and part two will debut at 9 p.m. For those looking to binge-watch the entire series, all five parts will be available for streaming on the WatchESPN app beginning June 14.

"Made in America" arrives on the heels of FX's dramatization of the so-called Trial of the Century. Per Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, "American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson" is this year's top-rated freshman cable series, averaging a 1.3 in the demo, or 1.65 million adults 18-to-49. With an average draw of 3.29 million viewers per episode, the critically acclaimed anthology strip now stands as FX's most-watched series since "Sons of Anarchy" closed out its seven-season run in December 2014.

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