Chicken hawker Frank Perdue dies

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Legendary poultry pitchman Frank Perdue died last week after a brief illness. He was 84.

Mr. Perdue was one of the first company CEOs to stand in front of cameras to hawk his own products, and the tactic proved a huge success for the one-time family egg company, Perdue Farms. Perdue grew into a $1.2 billion branded-chicken business following more than 200 TV spots that he starred in wearing his signature white lab coat and hat.

Mr. Perdue, then chairman of the company his father founded in 1920, in 1971 came up with the idea of using mainstream advertising to sell the company's proprietary breed of chickens. After researching marketing strategies and interviewing nearly 50 agencies, Mr. Perdue settled on Scali, McCabe, Sloves. The New York agency's VP-Copy Director Ed McCabe persuaded the straight-talking Mr. Perdue to star in the first campaign, an effort on which the company spent over a half million dollars in TV and radio during the first year.

Other ideas and other talent failed to capture the knowledgeable air and folksy sincerity Mr. Perdue injected when he talked about his business, Mr. McCabe told Ad Age in 1974.

The combination of Mr. Perdue's Maryland drawl with talk of the healthy way he fed "my chickens" and the tagline, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," prompted sales for the then-small Northeast poultry marketer to rise from $63 million in 1971 to $142 million in 1974.

The farm boy turned celebrity endorser single-handedly carried the brand's advertising through 1991, when Mr. Perdue stepped down as chairman. At that time, the elder Mr. Perdue began to appear side-by-side in advertising with the new company chairman, his son Jim, a transition approach that lasted until 1994 when Jim Perdue finally took over the reins.

Lee Garfinkel, chairman-chief creative officer at DDB, New York, who worked on the account for years after it transitioned to Lowe Worldwide, previously told Ad Age, "We found that Frank could basically stand in front of the camera for 30 seconds and talk about chicken and be very engaging." That engaging nature helped buoy the once commodity chicken business into a major branded category.

Mr. Perdue until recently continued to lunch with production workers or make supermarket visits to assure consumers that quality standards were still being met. He is survived by his third wife, Mitzi Ayala Perdue, as well as four children, two stepchildren and two grandchildren. The company paid tribute to Mr. Perdue with full-page ads last week in the New York Times and his hometown paper, The Salisbury (Md.) Daily Times.

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