Ms. Helmsley, often referred to as the Queen of Mean, gained notoriety during the 1980s for her illegal activities and tough reputation as well as for the legendary hotel ads, which often featured a photograph of a smiling Ms. Helmsley.
The best-remembered among them were created by Beber Silverstein Group, where Mrs. Helmsley was first dubbed as "Queen." The most iconic of the sets featured Mrs. Helmsley standing in front of a line hotel staff and pointing.
The aim of the campaign was to underscore the high quality and luxury of the hotels under the Helmsley brand, which she owned with her husband, Harry, who died in 1997. Mrs. Helmsley's demand for attention to detail and excellence were at the forefront of every ad. Joyce Beber reported to The New York Times in 1990 that the campaign contributed to a 63% rise in hotel occupancy in the space of four months.
Mrs. Helmsley's ads message did not stick to traditional print. Her recognizable face was also featured on cards sold on newsstands at her hotels and her signature ended TV spots, testifying to the uncompromising standards of the hotel line. For many, Ms. Helmsley came to signify the opulence and materialism of the 1980s.
Late in the decade, Ms. Helmsley captured the attention of the media in a very different way, as she was convicted of tax evasion. Even then, her ads were brought up in the case as a factor in jury selection. In the end, Ms. Helmsley was sentenced for four years and released after one and a half for good behavior.
As her court case lingered, several ad executives mused over where the campaign for her company should head. In an April 25, 1988 Ad Age article, "Helmsley stirs reservations," Neil Ostrergren, then VP-marketing for Wyndham hotels, said Mrs. Helmsley created a brand awareness through her ads that made her properties well-known in a short time period.
'She runs a helluva hotel'
Over time, Ms. Helmsley switched among several ad agencies, which often continued to feature her photograph as well as allusions to her "royal" status. In 1990, after appearing in the campaign for a decade, Smith/Greenland removed her famous mug from the majority of ads (only a quarter of her face was seen in one ad).
Eventually, Mrs. Helmsley returned to Beber Silverstein, where a relaunched campaign in 1995 helped to reinvigorate business at her hotels. This effort did not feature her face, but pictures from the hotels with the tagline "Say what you will, she runs a helluva hotel."
Despite her reputation, that was something most people agreed on.