Freberg Unlimited

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When unwrapping Stan Freberg's new four-disc career retrospective on Rhino Records (Tip of the Freberg: The Stan Freberg Collection, 1951-1998), the discerning box set-opener will be sure not to miss Freberg's brain, which appears on the back. "I'm very big on the brain aspect of the box," says Freberg in his mock-stentorian announcer's voice. Though it's attached to an actual X-ray of Freberg's bespectacled face, the brain is an artist's rendition, colored a healthy shade of pink, suggesting, perhaps, that his comedic thought is as fresh as ever.

Which it is. Though some may not know it, the Los Angeles-based Freberg, now 73, is still in business with Freberg Ltd., continuing to create advertising, and he remains active in voiceover work, too. "We're just hard to find, because we don't want everybody and his brother calling me unless they're serious," says the man whose ad work is rarely if ever serious, except when it comes to sales results. But the last piece of Freberg advertising that most people will recall is the fabulously unstodgy Encyclopedia Britannica 800-number TV campaign, starring his son, Donovan, which ended its run in the early '90s.

Freberg is something of a demigod to many creatives who grew up in the `50s and `60s. Jeff Goodby, who calls the man a "martial arts master of advertising," has a fine essay on Freberg's ad work in the Tip of the Freberg booklet, in which he writes, "The brilliant ones, like Stan, realize that the mundaneness of what must be conveyed [in an ad] can actually augment the humor when it's placed in an unfamiliar context." Yet many young creatives no doubt have only a vague notion of what Freberg is all about, and some have probably never heard of him at all.

This is exceedingly ironic in the age of Gen-X/Y comedic `anti-advertising,' since Freberg can be considered the founding father of this movement -- established in the gray flannel year of 1956. It was way back then that Freberg, a song parodist and radio and TV funnyman who'd had a number of hit comedy records spoofing everything from Dragnet to Elvis Presley, was hired by San Francisco ad guru Howard Gossage to do something different for an ailing client, Contadina tomato paste. A nutty radio campaign based around the blithely silly "Who puts eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?" jingle ensued, sales took off, Ad Age called it one of the two top marketing successes of the year and it more or less stood the ad world on its head.

"Suddenly I was the `new wunderkind' of commercials," Freberg writes in the extensive Tip of the Freberg liner notes. "Inadvertently, I had been thrust into a second career; trying to make advertising bearable through humor." He didn't just make it bearable, he made it collectible. The box set was a year-long labor of love for Freberg, assembled entirely from the original master tapes, and it sounds as golden as the Golden Age of advertising that it exalts. Thanks to a disc devoted to his radio commercials, as well as a bonus videotape with some of his TV spots (all Freberg-directed), many of the classics for Chun King chow mein and Jeno's frozen foods, along with the "Today the pits, Tomorrow the Wrinkles" Sunsweet pitted prunes campaign, as well as plenty of lesser-known gems, are on hand. Curiously, the television work not only holds up, it's all so laid-back, retro-cool in comparison to today's cut-frenzied, technique-smothered stylings, it seems downright revolutionary.

Just as it was back then, for different reasons. "In the '50s, there was nothing funny," Freberg grimly remembers. "It was just me, then I was followed by Bob & Ray with their work for Piels beer. And there's a perfect example of advertising that didn't work at the point of sale." Unlike Freberg's. Freberg, it must be noted, is not simply basking in the glow of his comedic success, it's his sales success that validates his ad career. Indeed, without that success he wouldn't have had an ad career.

For example, Chun King president "Jeno Paulucci hated the original Chun King campaign," Freberg recalls, referring to a 1960 radio spot called "Truth in Advertising," in which it was revealed that only 5 percent of the nation had ever tried the canned chow mein. "He said, `I want you to redo it,' and I said, `No, I'm sorry, I can't do that.' He said, `Why not?' I said, `Because that's my best shot. If you don't like this, you won't like anything that I do. It's my first thing for you, and I gave this a lot of thought.' `Let me think about it,' he said. He played the tape again and said, `It's not so bad the second time around. I'll buy it, but if it works I'll pull you in a rickshaw up La Cienega Boulevard.' When sales went up 40 percent nationally, he rented a rickshaw and said, `Get in.' "

Freberg, despite his many ad trophies, has never been interested in creativity for creativity's sake. "If it doesn't move product or change perception, it's a failure," he says flatly. Of course, you also have to have at least a decent product. In the case of the aforementioned Piels campaign, "it was wonderfully animated, it was Bob & Ray's voices, it won all kinds of awards, but did not move the beer, and it was dumped," Freberg says. "It had to do with the quality of the beer. People didn't like it. Nobody ever dumped anything produced by Freberg because it wasn't working at the point of sale. That's why I always try the product, if possible, before I take the account. I tried Chun King chow mein, and it was all right. It wasn't exactly as good as taking it home from the Chinese restaurant, but it wasn't bad. As for Sunsweet prunes, I'm one of the few prune lovers in America." Nonetheless, his first Sunsweet spot increased sales by 400 percent, not to mention what it must've done for the toilet paper industry. "Jeno's pizza rolls were all right, too," Freberg adds. "We made the kids eat 'em, they had tons of hors d'oeuvres. `Why do we have to eat these again, Mom?' `Because Daddy's doing a campaign.' "

Freberg, a sort of one-man boutique, did all his creative himself and he did it his way, the client be damned, which can make the ad life not only genuinely fun but viscerally satisfying. "I once did a radio :60 for Chun King that was runing long by two seconds," Freberg offers by way of explanation. "There was a line in the spot where I say, `I just noticed I got a squeaky wheel on my grocery cart here.' The client says, `That's easy, just cut out the line about the squeaky wheel,' and I say, `No, no, I don't want to cut that out, that's what I call a Fre-bergism. Maybe people will re-member the commercial if I put a line in there that doesn't have anything to do with the product.' So I cut something else. Ten years later I'm in New York at a jeweler's getting my watch fixed. The jeweler recognizes me, and before I can say anything, he says, `I think I've got a squeaky wheel on my grocery cart here.' `My God,' I say, `that's amazing.'And he knew the product. Rosser Reeves, who did all that `little liver pills' kind of crap, and I were heading to the same point, the point of purchase. We just chose different routes to get there, that's all."

What does Freberg think of contemporary advertising? The only TV campaign he "really admires and covets," he says, is Goodby's "Got Milk?" He believes there's more creativity on radio than on TV today. As for ads in general, there's just too damn many of them, as far as Freberg's concerned. "I don't think the world would end if there was a moratorium on all advertising for six months," he declares. "Suppose Procter & Gamble stopped advertising soap for a year; do you think anybody'd be any dirtier? People wouldn't have to be subjected to this horrendous onslaught night and day. It's the invasion of Normandy against your brain. Eventually, the message is able to drive in over the tops of the dead commercials that are already piled up at the front of your forehead, and establish a beachhead."

But Freberg is not about to give up on advertising. In fact, he has a Michelina's pasta radio and TV campaign in the works. "I'm here," he says. "If a tombstone company comes to me, I can't very well try the product -- yet. This brain is for hire."

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