Bullfights and Hula Dances With a Father of Ad Self-Regulation

Wild Times Recalled at 90th Birthday of AAF's Howard Bell

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Howard Bell, 1989
Howard Bell, 1989 Credit: Crain Communications

Friends and family celebrated Howard Bell's 90th birthday the other weekend at his longtime summer place at Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland.

Some of his old compatriots from advertising also showed up for the festivities, including David Bell, Wally Snyder and Rick Squire. I was there to document it all (or at least most parts).

Rick, who ran the American Advertising Federation's Cleveland office before retiring to become organizer-in-chief of local golf outings and other fun events at his winter condo in Naples, Fla., where he pals around with Howard, emceed the proceedings.

David, who ran Interpublic for several years after heading True North, started his talk by owning up to being the illegitimate son of Howard Bell -- that crack drew more than a few laughs.

Wally, who joined the AAF from the Federal Trade Commission and took over as AAF president when Howard stepped down in 1991, called Howard his "mentor and inspiration." Wally now serves as executive director of the Institute for Advertising Ethics. He's written a book on the subject, due out in the fall, titled "Ethics in Advertising: Making the Case for Doing the Right Thing." Wally also serves as chairman of the National Advertising Review Board, the industry's self-regulatory body that Howard started.

Jonah Gitlitz, who served as exec VP of the AAF under Howard, couldn't make the party, but he sent a letter that Rick shared with us. Jonah's friendship with Howard started in 1963 when he gave up journalism to work for him at the National Association of Broadcasters, where Howard was director of the NAB TV and radio codes.

"Even in that era a great way to get the public's attention was through celebrity TV promotion spots. And through the NAB we had access," wrote Jonah. So he and Howard spent time with Jack Benny, Henry Fonda and Charlton Heston. "We should have known that Charlton Heston went to DeWitt Clinton high school in the Bronx. It was a real coincidence when we learned that we both went there, too."

So then it was my turn.

Howard made a profound contribution to advertising when he founded the industry's self-regulatory apparatus. But it had a rocky beginning.

Anybody who watched "Mad Men" knows that the business was far different back in the late '60s and early '70s. For one thing, ad people were in Ralph Nader's crosshairs, as our Washington editor, the late Stan Cohen, put it, "because they defended a culture that assumed unsubstantiated claims and tricky production gimmicks were legitimate sales tools." Stan contended it was in the industry's best interests to clean up its act.

Howard agreed. Industry people at the time didn't want to make the self-regulatory decisions public or turn companies that didn't comply over to the FTC. Howard and Stan worked together to build favorable momentum for self-regulation by printing some of the cases, and Howard admitted he might have leaked a story or two to our man in Washington. In the end, their efforts helped get Nader and the FTC off the industry's back.

That was Howard's serious side, but the side I can attest to was his fun side. I used to attend almost all the AAF annual meetings as well as the western AAF affairs, and I can tell you those people knew how to partay!

One evening they asked for volunteers for some Hawaiian dancing. Howard and I were the first onstage as we rolled up our pants and put on coconut bras to get ready to hula. In the audience were a few serious ad people. "Isn't that Howard Bell, president of the AAF?" one proper agency exec said to legendary adman Bart Cummings. "Yeah, it sure is," Bart replied. "And isn't that Rance Crain, editor-in-chief of Ad Age?" he asked. "That's Rance, all right," Bart told him. Bart reported to us later that the agency man just shook his head and walked away.

Another time Howard and I were in San Diego for a western AAF meeting, and as part of the entertainment we took a bus ride down to Tijuana, Mexico, for some bullfights. When we got down there, we were asked if any of us wanted to match wits with some "baby" bulls (only about 600 pounds). Luckily, they had ample pitchers of margaritas on the bus, so by the time we got there, we were feeling little pain. Both Howard and I jumped into the ring.

I took off my bright red linen jacket to wave at the bull, which actually worked for a pass or two. But eventually the bull got the better of me, and its horns connected with my thigh. I went down, but bounced right back up, and yelled, "Olé!" My late wife, Merrilee, rushed down to the ring, and her first words to me were: "How's the jacket?"

One more story, if I may test your patience. Back in 1992, when we were at our summer home in Cape Cod, Howard and his dear late wife, Chan, and Bart and his wife, Margaret, were visiting us along with my mom. Bart and Margaret wisely took off for higher ground when it was announced that Hurricane Bob was bearing down on us. My mom, the chairman of our company, known for her spirit of adventure, was determined to stay put. As Howard remembered that episode, when Mom passed away in 1996: "Gertrude insisted on riding out the storm at home. She remained calm, inspiring us by her courage and resolve. It was not easy, but we finally persuaded her to leave with us." Another factor that slowed our departure: The wind blew an internal door shut so tightly that Merrilee and Howard couldn't get out of the room until they almost ripped the door off its hinges.

That's the Howard Bell I know. Always a lot of fun, but at the same time, he worked hard to make a crucial and lasting contribution to the betterment of the advertising industry. Happy 90th, my good friend.

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