Bill Cosby Looks Back on His Life in Commercials

Entertainer to Receive AAF President's Award for Contributions to Advertising

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Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby Credit: Marketwire

Bill Cosby got into TV commercials because he liked the punchline of a White Owl cigar spot.

This was prior to his first series "I Spy," and Mr. Cosby thought the commercial would be an ideal way to get him more exposure and advance his career. He figured that repetition of the slogan -- "We're going to get you" -- would make him more top-of-mind, especially to the broader audiences he was seeking.

So Mr. Cosby asked his agent, Norman Brokaw, to call the makers of White Owl to inquire about using him as a spokesman. In those days, as Mr. Cosby recalled, people tended to look at the U.S. in terms of race, "and with race there's a belief in advertising that doesn't want to offend people or lose buyers; [there are] a lot of things they will shy away from." He said during that time, TV audiences never saw a commercial "with a black person holding something, buying a product, so the absence of pictures, in retrospect, said a lot."

Even though he had had numerous appearances on the "Tonight Show," Mr. Cosby's offer to do the White Owl spot caught the cigar company's management by surprise -- "our color [was] sort of a boogey man," Mr. Cosby said. But they approved the idea "and it worked." Not only did White Owl's sales go up -- so did Mr. Cosby's recognition. "It was good publicity, of course, and it helped my career."

That was the start of Mr. Cosby's lucrative sideline as one of the most popular and effective TV commercial pitchmen of all time, for such big advertisers as Del Monte, Ford, Crest, Coca-Cola, Kodak, and of course, Jell-O pudding. And it's why he will be the first recipient of the American Advertising Federation's President's Award for special lifetime contributions to advertising. It will be presented at the Advertising Hall of Fame induction ceremonies March 30.

The Cos and Jell-O
The Cos and Jell-O

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."

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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 Crest.

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 spokesman.

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 advertised."

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