The TV Issue

Hey, Joan, 'Can We Talk' About Advertising?

Onetime Copywriter Joan Rivers on Product Placement, Celeb Endorsements and What Makes a Spot Successful

By Published on .

You can call Joan Rivers whatever you want, just be careful when you dub her an "icon." "I don't mind that as long as the adjective is 'working.' If you're a 'working icon' that's fine," she said.

Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers Credit: Andrew Southam/E! Entertainment

A 45-plus-year veteran of TV, Ms. Rivers is definitely still working. Since her career renaissance as the winner of NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice" in 2009, she's been the subject of a popular feature-length documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," an ongoing jewelry pitchwoman on QVC, the host of E!'s "Fashion Police," and the co-star of WE reality series, "Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?" The 77-year-old is perhaps even more famous now than she was in her heyday, thanks to a tireless work ethic and a refusal to merely hold open the door for successors.

"Oh, you're goddamn right I'm still holding it open. I'm actually trying to shut it behind me. I'm slamming that door and putting a double lock on it," she said. "You gotta stay current, and you damn well better work on your material all the time."

Ad Age caught up with Ms. Rivers in between an appearance on QVC and a regular stand-up gig at New York's West Bank Cafe, where she shared her secrets to showbiz longevity, her thoughts on product placement and the one regret of her famed career.

Ad Age: You started your career as a freelance copywriter right out of college in New York. What did you get out of that experience?

Ms. Rivers: Money. [Laughs] I'm really a writer, basically. I was an English-lit major in college. ... I don't know what I got of it, but obviously I was good at it. I had humor that helped them a little bit. All the clever ads are the funny ads, whether you're looking at Geico or whatever -- anything that makes you laugh after you watch it works.

Ad Age: So how does a copywriter transition to comedy?

Ms. Rivers: It all merged because I was working as a comic in Greenwich Village, I did Second City, and then out of that they'd begin to put you on early-morning TV. I did a children's show for a second on Channel 11 in New York, then my first gig was on Carson. In those days when you were on Carson, you scored. The door was open.

Ad Age: You recently returned to E! as the host of "Fashion Police" and also star with your daughter, Melissa, on a reality show for WE. Did the success of your documentary play any role in helping get those two shows greenlit?

Ms. Rivers: No, that's advertising. ... Nothing gets greenlit without those stupid audience polls where they get six housewives to come in and get a sandwich. And it's, "Who would you watch?" Then it's all about numbers.

Ad Age: You also have an alternate career as a jewelry designer and host for QVC. How does TV work as an ad vehicle for your business?

Ms. Rivers: God bless QVC. I was the first living celebrity that said this was a good idea. They had celebrities on before me, but I knew with TV you could sell. ... I did a show called "Can We Shop?" nearly 20 years ago, which didn't get enough time, and they were stupid to cancel it. ... It was Tribune -- they should've left it on, it would've been huge. That's my one regret. The only show I would've done again. It was so ahead of its time. What a retail opportunity, and it still is out there. Somebody should figure out how to take "The View" and we can sell and chat.

Ad Age: "The View" does do the occasional product placement, however. What's your take on that as an ongoing trend in TV ?

Ms. Rivers: That I don't like. It's sneaky. "Oh, he's dying, give him a sip of Coke!" "Quick, he's gonna have another heart attack, get some Dom Perignon, fast!" I think a chat show that also sold and chatted again, they know what you're doing. Nobody came to me and said, "You gotta wear Donna Karan." "Fashion Police" is about reviewing. That's like saying to a reviewer, "You've really got to like Shakespeare this week, because we're doing 'Lear,' and you gotta like Shakespeare."

Ad Age: Speaking of ads, you recently appeared in GoDaddy's Super Bowl spot. What did you think of the news that CEO Bob Parsons killed an elephant on camera?

Ms. Rivers: What? He killed an elephant? I didn't even hear this. ... You sure it wasn't a third wife? Oh my, that's badly advised. Plus for me, two things come to mind right away. That's terrible, terrible, terrible, because I'm such an animal lover. The second thing is, who gets the tusks? He's a nice man, but somebody should've said, "Bob, don't be an asshole." You can't do anything these days because of videotaping.

Ad Age: What have you been up to with GoDaddy since that spot aired?

Ms. Rivers: You know, I thought it was brilliantly done, and I haven't heard from them since. I'm not the GoDaddy girl. I loved it; it's so much fun to do, and they did it totally professionally. What I'm laughing at now was a [FunnyOrDie video] I just did for Svedka Vodka. I've got so much plastic surgery they put my head in a jar, which I thought would be so much fun to do. I did my impression of "The Exorcist." I love it when ad people, agency people listen to you. Let's do what you want, and then let's ad lib.

Ad Age: As a copywriter from the 1950s, have you ever seen "Mad Men?" How true-to-life is it?

Ms. Rivers: Oh, yes, my very good friend Brian Batt is on it, so I watch every week. I'm a product of the '50s, but none of us looked like that. Show me a chubby girl that doesn't wear a belt. Of course, I would be the young, hot copywriter. I'd be sitting there just flashing away from the typing pool.

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