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TEMPEST IN A SOUP CAN BBDO EXEC RECALLS LANDMARK LEGAL BATTLE BETWEEN CAMPBELL, THE FTC AND 5 LAW STUDENTS (PART 1 OF 3)

By Published on .

From 1968 to 1972, Campbell Soup Co. and agency BBDO fought a legal battle with Federal Trade Commission that ended up introducing the term "corrective advertising" into the marketing lexicon-to the future lament of some brand marketers.

In this condensed version of three chapters from his work-in-progress memoirs, retired BBDO associate creative director Dick Mercer-whose credits include "The Manhandlers" for Campbell and "Have It Your Way" for Burger King-gives an insider's view and understanding of this protracted dispute, which he calls material "for a second-rate musical comedy."

He shows how ad "propping" was brought before the bench; how five college students really directed the show; and how Mr. Mercer himself finally found out who started it all.

One winter in the mid-1960s, Campbell Soup Co. invited its Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne ad team to Camden, N.J., headquarters to see a new product.

It was chicken soup, garnished with pieces of chicken and literally thousands of tiny tagliarini stars. Campbell asked the team to name the product and create the introductory advertising.

Four of us came up with the name we wanted before the train got back to New York. I got off at Newark with the name firmly in my head and started writing ads in the taxi on my way home. The name was Chicken & Stars.

We later wrote other names and put them through the mandatory testing, but Chicken & Stars won.

My group went to work writing ads. A young woman I had recently hired came up with the winner. Her headline was: "New from Campbell's! Chicken soup in the star spangled manner!"

She took it to Bob Ballantyne, the art director, and together they worked out a superb ad. It was a close-up of a steaming tureen of Chicken & Stars soup on a white, star-shaped iron trivet atop a red, white and blue tablecloth. Beautiful.

After the client had given us the green light to produce the ad, art director Ballantyne told me he had something in the test kitchen for me to see.

Ballantyne was a short, trim, athletic man with keenly intelligent eyes set in the face of a prizefighter. He was one of the more talented people I knew in the business, but he had the personality of a porcupine. And his quills were always out.

We walked into the kitchen and were greeted by Vinnie Meehan, the demure and quietly efficient home economist who ran the operation. On the counter was a clean soup bowl. On the stove, a pan of Chicken & Stars.

"OK, Vinnie," said Ballantyne, "show him. Ladle the soup." She brought the pan to the counter and began filling the bowl with Chicken & Stars.

"Well?" Bob asked.

"Well, what?" I answered, looking at the soup.

"Where are the God damn stars?" he said.

Sure enough, there wasn't a star in sight. I turned to Ballantyne, "What happened? Where are they?"

"In the bottom of the bowl," he said, smiling unpleasantly. "The little suckers don't float. They sink to the bottom. How ya gonna do the ad if ya can't see the stars?"

Bob Ballantyne loved to see authority figures in trouble. I wasn't going to prolong his pleasure. "Beats me, Bob," I told him, "I'm sure glad it's your problem, not mine," and I walked out.

Rising to the occasion

The main thrust of the illustration of a Campbell ad had to be a close-up of what the Campbell people referred to as "The Soup Surface." That was the be-all and end-all of the ad.

About two weeks after our meeting in the test kitchen, Ballantyne called and asked me to meet him in the print production department. He wanted me to see the film from the shoot.

Ballantyne was smiling. A real smile, not his try-to-hit-me version. The photographs were beautiful. There was that red, white and blue tablecloth, the white star-shaped trivet, the gorgeous tureen and ladle and the steaming soup. Best of all, just below The Soup Surface, clearly visible along with the tender pieces of chicken, were those tiny tagliarini stars!

"Hey!" I said happily, "The stars are out!" Turning to Ballantyne I shook his hand, "Bob, you're a genius. How the hell did you keep them from sinking?"

I will never forget his answer: "Shards of broken glass."

It was "propping"-placing foreign objects beneath the surface to support the garnish. Normally, they used clear glass marbles, he said, but the stars were so tiny they had to use broken glass to get more of them in.

I didn't feel it was cheating or dishonest or illegal. It was artifice, the technique of art. Illusion. At the time, I'd been in the business about 20 years and was used to artifice. I knew, for example, that any time you saw a clothing ad with the photograph of a beautiful young woman wearing a lovely gown or dress, you could be certain that if you could see that young woman's back, you would see a forest of clothespins clinging to her apparel ... wherever necessary to make the front of the garment smooth fitting and perfect.

Everyone at Campbell was extremely pleased with the finished introductory ad for Chicken & Stars. And they loved The Soup Surface. Let history record that no one at the client or in the agency ever asked Ballantyne or me how The Soup Surface got to be so wonderful.

We never talked about this. We never thought about it. We just took it for granted. None of us ever thought that three years later we would be thinking and talking about such things for days and nights on end.

The pot thickens

April 1968. It was the blest of times, it was the cursed of times. The U.S. was prosperous; we were as close to full employment as you can get. In my tiny corner of the world, we were happily toiling night and day in preparation for the annual spring marketing meetings at Campbell.

Yet, at the same time, our whole country and everything in it seemed to be coming apart at the seams. President Lyndon Johnson was trying desperately to win the war in Vietnam without losing the peace here at home and was failing at both efforts. Continuing violence in our cities had spread to college campuses, and in New York a mob of student protesters swarmed into Columbia University's Low Memorial Library, seized the office of Columbia President Dr. Grayson Kirk and deficated on his carved, mahogany desk.

I read about this on the train on my way to work on April 25, 1968. No sooner had I arrived at my office when the secretary to agency creative director James Jordan called and said he wanted to see me at once.

Jordan was busy at his typewriter behind his rabbit's warren of stacked videotapes, teetering piles of storyboards, marketing plans and research reports. He heard me come in and stopped typing. After a long moment he spoke: "Read about those college jerks up at Columbia last night?" he asked. "Well, looks like somebody did [something similar] on Bev Murphy's desk."

W.B. (Bev) Murphy was president of Campbell Soup Co. And he had received a letter from the Federal Trade Commission asking Campbell to supply detailed information on how Campbell's soups were prepared and photographed for magazine ads and TV commercials.

"Didn't come through the account group," Jordan added. "Campbell's lawyer called our lawyer. That's gotta be serious."

Ray Maloney was BBDO's general counsel. A short, round-faced man with a law degree from St. John's, he had the personality of a popular parish priest. Soft-spoken and thoughtful with a ready laugh, he was a good listener and his analysis and advice was never surprising but solid and dependable. You could bet the farm on what Ray Maloney thought.

According to Jordan, Maloney thought the FTC had received a complaint about Campbell's soup advertising and was looking to find us in violation of some regulation or other.

"Just be sure our hands are clean," Jordan told me. "If we're doing anything wrong I want to hear it right now. We adding more chicken to the chicken soup? Putting more oysters in the stew?"

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