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BRINGING BRANDS TO LIFE FROM JACK BENNY TO ELLA FITZGERALD, THE PRESENTER CAN SEAL THE DEAL

By Published on .

When Johnny Carson in the late '60s satirized the Man from Glad, the white-suited kitchen superhero, Leo Burnett Co. executives knew their campaign had not only built nearly universal recognition for Glad sandwich bags, it had penetrated the collective consciousness of American pop culture.

It could only have happened on TV because superheroes must be seen to be believed-and then parodied.

Advertisers came to TV in the late '40s with 20 years experience in brand building on radio. No one needed to tell them the differences between print and broadcast advertising: The price of reach was brevity, and the antidote to brevity was intrusiveness, repetition, persistence.

Television was made for the hard sell. Rosser Reeves, godfather of the Unique Selling Proposition, boasted that his Anacin commercials, which pictured headaches in terms of hammers and lightning bolts, were the most hated spots in TV annals. Yet they took Anacin sales from $18 million to $54 million in less than two years.

In radio the best remembered, most successful examples of national brand building had one thing in common: a long, exclusive association between brand and program. To say one was to think the other. Jack Benny and Lucky Strike; Fibber McGee & Molly and Johnson's Wax; Bing Crosby and Kraft. The bonding of star with brand became such a powerful force in radio, it took pressure off the creative ingenuity of the selling message. Pepsodent quips still pepper old Bob Hope movies running on TV.

TV sponsorship began where radio left off. Anyone in advertising over 50 knows that in the beginning Berle meant Texaco, Groucho meant DeSoto cars and comedy meant Colgate. The messages were simple enough: see the brand, buy the brand.

The link between star and brand made the intrigues of sponsor conflict arcane and brand managers sensitive. In 1957 singer Gordon McRae filmed spots for the DeSoto, a decision that cost him guest shots on a later Buick special and "The Ed Sullivan Show," which was sponsored by Lincoln.

Sensitivity even penetrated to brand categories. Chevrolet once refused to clear Andy Williams as a guest on Steve Allen's show because it was sponsored by Greyhound. If viewers were going to "See the USA," GM wanted no misunderstandings: it was to be from a Chevy, not a bus.

OWNERSHIP HARD TO COME BY

But as program expenses soared and networks maneuvered for program control, big national advertisers found it harder to "own" a show. By the '60s they found themselves buying half a program, then a quarter, then spots.

As the bond between brand and show loosened and the message could no longer rely on the creative life support of tailor-made comedy or drama, the creative focus of the ad industry began to drift from creating programs to creating commercials. To build a powerful must-watch incentive into each ad may well have been the most fundamental shift in the history of broadcast advertising.

Fortunately, television offered pictures. Early TV attempts at creative visuals seem naive today. Old Gold packs danced. Cartoons characters proliferated. And in 1949, columns of Lucky Strikes marched about in military precision on "Your Hit Parade." Such simple stop-action photography was novel enough to set off a wave of imitations.

Many of the best-remembered commercials hit paydirt by becoming miniature, 60-second, standalone programs. They built a brand by making themselves irresistible to the viewer. Over the years experience would distill a variety of ways to be irresistible: humor, sex, song, stars and sentiment. If a brand could not afford to own a network TV program, it could certainly afford a consistent presenter.

Many became stars of a sort on that basis, especially women. In the early years their names became synonymous with their spoken-for brands. Bess Myerson sold Frigidaire. Joanne Jordan sold Hazel Bishop; Barbara Britton, Revlon. All were high on credibility, low on sex.

The matrix for them all was Betty Furness, a '30s movie actress who had played the girl back home for Fred Astaire in "Swing Time" but who in 1949 became leading lady to a long line of Westinghouse appliances. She had class, presence, authority, intelligence and not an ounce of sex appeal to get in the way. She could have sold a missile launcher as effectively as a toaster.

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Presenters would prove durable because TV, more than any other medium, was the ideal bully pulpit for the product demonstration: stomach acid eating through cloth, razors shaving peaches, a Sears DieHard battery starting a dozen cars at once. In the '80s, Pepsi taste-test demonstrations were so persuasive they even convinced Coke, which invented its Pepsi taste-alike, New Coke.

An early lesson TV taught advertisers was that there's nothing more compelling to viewers than a great face. By the '60s, the faces began to look sexier. The best of them did it all with their eyes, not their bodies. Gunilla Knudsen made it impossible for any man to ignore Noxzema shaving cream.

INTERESTING FACES

Faces didn't even have to be pretty, just interesting. Jack Gilford gave Cracker Jack a huge boost and Bert Lahr's most famous role after the Cowardly Lion may well have been hisFrito-Lay spots.

Outside the context of the regular series, major celebrities were first reluctant to invest their prestige on TV as brand presenters. One of the first in the late '50s was Edward G. Robinson, who delivered a cultured pitch for Maxwell House coffee, switched briefly to his tough-guy mode ("Try it, see."), then ended with a kindly "you'll like it."

TV also produced a population of critters, cartoons and clay people who would have long lives (see story below).

"The remarkable thing about television was the way it compressed the whole process of brand identification," says Rudy Perz, creator of the Pillsbury Doughboy at Leo Burnett Co. in 1966. "The Doughboy probably could have been effective in a combination of print and radio 20 years before. But it would have taken years for the market to put image and voice together. TV, however, gave the audience the picture, voice, character and warmth in one package."

The speed of TV worked both ways, though. As swiftly as it could build a winner it could bury a dud. When Ford recruited Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong to unveil the Edsel in 1957, virtually the entire country recognized a loser within 24 hours.

By the '70s, the power of a brand could swallow up the identity of its own celebrity presenter. There was a telling scene in the film "Saturday Night Fever" in which a character mentions Laurence Olivier to John Travolta, who's never heard of him. "He's the great actor," the friend says. "Never heard of him," Travolta mumbles. "Come on," the friend says, "the guy in the Polaroid commercials." "Oh yeah, him."

MEMOREX MAKES ITS MARK

As participating sponsorship grew, however, the door opened to new brands from younger companies.

Consider Memorex circa 1970. Memorex then was a computer company specializing in add-on memory for mainframe units. It had a large investment in computer tape technology and an appetite to take on IBM in the mainframe market. Such hubris had killed off many computer companies by then and it might have killed Memorex.

As bankruptcy loomed, however, it brought in a man from Procter & Gamble Co. to get its tape into the consumer market. The timing was excellent. Scotch had dominated a small and static consumer market for reel-to-reel tape since the late '40s. The market wasn't growing because the clumsiness of open reel machines blocked the road to the mass market. All that changed with the introduction of the audio cassette.

In 1970, Memorex and Leo Burnett Co. stormed the category with a startling demonstration of fidelity, first with anonymous opera singers; then with the imperial presence of Ella Fitzgerald and a rhetorical question: "Is it live or is it Memorex?"

"Ella took it to a different plane," recalls Bill Haljun, who worked on Memorex for Burnett. "That campaign, which was principally television, literally blew Scotch away. More important, it hit just as the cassette was turning tape from a niche item into a mass-market product. Memorex became the No. 1 cassette in about three years. By the time the Japanese came along with Maxell and TDK, Memorex was so entrenched only a catastrophe could have dislodged it."

No wonder TV has been such a hard habit for brands to break. Today, though, proliferating communication technologies and marketing strategies may be in league to undermine TV's cohesive power. As channels, games, cable, tapes and computers compete for tube time, marketers discover smaller and smaller niches to target.

Choices expand geometrically. Stay tuned for the next 50 years.

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