In a 1976 interview with Ad Age, Mr. Cosby said he gives
advertisers "a person who believes in their product, while if I
presented a Bill Cosby who didn't care, their sales would stop
right there on the screen. Obviously, I could never do that. Once I
believe in the product I aim to sell it, and that's what I think I
do better than anybody."
Well enough, in fact, that in 1978 Mr. Cosby was named Ad Age's
Star Presenter of the Year. "My approach from the beginning has
been, I want to make the program interrupt the commercial," he said
at the time.
Not all his commercials were funny. "I never saw anything funny
in a car commercial -- but that's OK. Whatever they wanted to do --
it's their product and I'm the spokesperson, and I'm going to
deliver," he said the other week, 34 years later. He never took the
negative approach -- "that wouldn't be Bill Cosby" -- and his
portfolio of commercials has always been "right in line with
family, growing up, these kinds of things."
Mr. Cosby tipped his hat to Burrell Communications in Chicago.
He said the agency put "dignity" into commercials for the black
market. Burrell "educated black people with pride and a great sense
of history, and guided the great sense of history, and guided the
client on what was correct and not correct."
Mr. Cosby's offer to do the White Owl spot caught the cigar
company's management by surprise.
He suggested that Burrell still needs to be front and center as
a "watchdog." Sometimes, when doing humor, agents still want black
actors to be "sassy, brash, over the top, in their attitude," and
it can do equal harm whether the commercials play to a
predominantly white audience or to heavy black populations.
But Mr. Cosby contended that it was the wrong approach to just
make commercials for a particular ethnic group. "Put it out there
for national consumption as well," he advised.
Mr. Cosby said he had great working relationships with many of
the advertisers he did business with. With Kodak, he said, he took
"every cent he was paid" and arranged dinners at historically black
colleges. The top brass at Kodak attended. "Mr. . Cosby and I
enjoyed it, and I think the Kodak people enjoyed it as well." And,
he said, the Crest people were "absolutely wonderful," paying out
scholarship money to deserving black students. In the commercials
for the Procter & Gamble toothpaste Mr. Cosby played the role
of tooth decay, complaining about a mouth that gets brushed with
After he had Kodak, Crest and Coca-Cola under his belt (Mr.
Cosby joked that he was replaced at Coke by a couple of white polar
bears), his agent, Mr. Brokaw, called to tell him that the Ford
marketing people had a meeting with the board of directors and they
agreed it was time to have an African-American as their
He initially turned down the assignment. Not only was his wife,
Camille, expecting their fifth child, making him reluctant to leave
home, but Mr. Cosby said in the 1976 interview that "the marketing
people got so involved with the question of whether or not they
were going to accept Bill Cosby, the black, that they forgot to ask
the black if he wanted to do it first."
But pressure from his agents at William Morris -- "with great
balls of sweat rolling down their heads" -- prevailed in the end,
and the Cosby commercials for Ford's durability and reliability
went into production as scheduled.
Perhaps the most popular -- and most beloved -- of all his
commercials was for Jell-O pudding, where he talked to young kids
about why they liked the product and the different ways they
consumed it. With a product such as Jell-O pudding "it's just a
matter of doing a happy moment, latching on to a key phrase like
'Yummy for the tummy,' 'Thank you, mother dear,' 'Ummm, Jell-O
pudding.' Those catchphrases happen to be very important when
you're dealing with Jell-O pudding," Mr. Cosby said in 1976. The
spots sold the stuff like crazy.
During the days of the iconic "The Cosby Show," he sponsored
race-car driver Willy T. Ribbs, the first black man to qualify for
the Indianapolis 500. But Mr. Cosby said he could never get the
kind of help "to truly balance the driving field for Willy." As Mr.
Ribbs remembers it, Mr. Cosby said to him: "I'm going to give you
this much money to get the ball rolling. I ask you only one thing
in return: Don't damage me."
But Mr. Ribbs said they were hopelessly outgunned.
"We were a one-armed man in a barroom fight. We were competing
against 10 teams who had twice the money." When Mr. Cosby was the
starter at a race at the Meadowlands, high above the cars on a
cherry picker, Willy drove by him and waved, "and it broke my
heart," Mr. Cosby remembers, because he couldn't get enough
financial support for him. "All I saw was this black man going
around and taking time out to wave thank you. Because of color it
has to come to this."
Mr. Cosby professed he doesn't know what makes a good
commercial. "It's like a room full of people looking at page one of
calculus. How do you know who's going to understand? And they might
be laughing, but what was the product? You've got to entertain no
matter what, but people have to remember what was being