Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Advertising Spokemen Go Bad

There have been many advertising spokesmen who have pitched their products for years. Mr. Whipple (played by Dick Wilson) warned customers, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin..." for 24 years and 504 commercials. Madge the Manicurist had her customers soaking in Palmolive dishwashing liquid for a full 26 years. Mrs. Olson sold Folgers Coffee for a full 22 years. But other advertising spokesmen aren't so lucky. Their careers are measured only in a few years or even a few months. Sometimes it is because they are utterly unpopular. Other times they may have started out popular, but people grew sick of them. Yet other times they find themselves in a scandal that makes them unsuitable for use as an advertising spokesmen.

Perhaps no greater example of an advertising spokesman who failed than Herb of the short lived Burger King campaign of 1985. For several years the J. Walter Thompson agency seemed incapable of developing a successful advertising campaign for Burger King. Slogans such as "Aren't you hungry for Burger King now?" and "The big switch (referring to Burger King's broiling burgers versus MacDonalds frying them)" fell on deaf ears. The J. Walter Thompson agency then fell upon what they thought was a surefire winner. Herb would be a nerd, the only person in the United States who had never tasted a Whopper. J. Walter Thompson sank an enormous amount of money in the campaign, a whopping $40 million.

The campaign began with a teaser campaign that consisted of cryptic messages in newspapers and banners at football games. The introductory spot itself was scheduled to debut on all three networks on November 24 1985. That first commercial explained how Burger King was launching a nationwide search for Herb, the one man who had never eaten a Burger King burger. In following commercials Herb's friends and family urged Herb by all means to try a Whopper. They even offered a 99 cent special on the Whopper to everyone except Herb. All one had to do is say, "I'm not Herb (or if your name was Herb, then "I'm not the Herb you're looking for."). At last, in a commercial aired during the Super Bowl, Herb was revealed. He was a balding man in glasses, a loud jacket, pants that didn't reach his ankles, and white socks, played by actor John Merrick. And it would seem that he finally tried a Whopper and loved it! Herb would go onto make an appearance on the Today show and as a guest timekeeper on Wrestlemania II. Burger King also plastered Herb's image on a wide array of merchandise: T-shirts, posters, pinback buttons, and so on.

Burger King also announced a contest. Herb now loved Burger King so much that he would visit one in each of the fifty states. Anyone who found Herb in a Burger King would be awarded $5000. Every $5000 winner would be entered in a contest to win $1,000,000. As it turned out, however, only one person ever claimed a $5000 prize. The whole time that the campaign had been going on, Burger King had not noticed that among the general public there were only two basic reactions to Herb. People were either utterly indifferent to him or they actively hated him. In fact, during the entire run of the campaign, Burger King's sales plummetted. The commercials had been set to run over a year. As it turned out, Burger King pulled the plug on the campaign after only four months. As to actor John Merrick, he was never heard from again. As to the J. Lee Thompson agency, immediately following the Herb debacle, Burger King fired them.

At least the Taco Bell chihuahua had a somewhat longer run. While played by a female chihuahua, the Taco Bell chihuahua was ostensibly male and spoke with a male voice. He made his debut in a test spot in September 1997 in the Northeastern United States. That first commercial started out making it look as if the dog was approaching a female chihuahua when, in truth, he was running up to a man eating Taco Bell. Sitting at the man's feet, the Taco Bell chihuahua looked up at him and said, "Yo quiero Taco Bell." The ad received such a good response in the Northeast, that Taco Bell took it nationwide. The ads had been created by the TBWA Chiat/Day ad agency.

The spot proved successful enough that Taco Bell would soon run a whole series of ads featuring the canine. In another popular spot he hovered under a person eating a Taco Bell chalupa, imploring "Drop the chalupa!" In a promotional tie-in with the American movie Godzilla, the Taco Bell chihuahua was running around New York City with a bag calling, "Heeeere, Lizard, Lizard." Upon seeing the size of this lizard (the American version of Godzilla), he exclaims, "Uh-oh, I think I need a bigger box." In the beginning the Taco Bell chihuahua would prove immensely popular. Both "Yo quiero Taco Bell" and "Drop the chalupa!"became catchphrases in the late Nineties. His image adorned posters and t-shirts. Taco Bell sold tons of Taco Bell chihuahua plushes.

Even in the beginning, however, all was not well. Hispanic groups complained that the chihuahua was a thinly veiled Mexican stereotype. And while the Taco Bell chihuahua had initially been a bit of a phenomenon, as time went on, he became less and less popular. There were many who actively hated the little dog. Perhaps worst of all, Taco Bell's sales dropped. In the end, Peter Weller, president of Taco Bell, was replaced by Emil Brolick, a veteran of Wendy's. Taco Bell dropped the TBWA Chiat/Day ad agency and returned to Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide for all its advertising. As to the Taco Bell chihuahua, she was fired. While there have been reports that the chihuahua campaign was ended due to pressure from Hispanic advocacy groups, it is equally likely that the low sales also played a role.

The Taco Bell chihuahua never appeared in another commercial for Taco Bell. The dog appeared as one of those auditioning for the role of GEICO spokesman, along side the gecko, in a 2002 commercial. He also appeared in an episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Other times it is not dwindling popularity that dooms an advertising spokesman, but a simple, old fashioned scandal. This was the case of the Dell Dude. For those of you with short memories, the Dell Dude, whose official name was "Steven," was the zoned out, zany techno-geek who pitched computers for Dell. And while the actor who played him, Ben Curtis, could be considered Generation Y at best, the character of the Dell Dude was a purely Gen X archetype. His spiritual ancestors were Jeff Spicoli, the resident stoner in 1982's classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Wayne and Garth from Wayne's World, and Bill and Ted from the movies Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. One gets the feeling that the Dell Dude would have no problem hanging out with Jay and Silent Bob from Kevin Smith's movies. Well, quite simply, the Dell Dude was yet another in a long line of Gen X slackers, but while Wayne, Garth, Bill, and Ted got off on music, and Jay and Silent Bob got off on comic books (well, and grass as well...), Steven the Dell Dude got off on Dell Computers.

The first commercial featuring the Dell Dude debuted during the holiday season of 2000. It featured Steven making a videotaped plea to his parents to get him a Dell Computer for Christmas. That first commercial was so successful that Steven the Dell Dude was featured in more commercials. He might be lurking anywhere, in an electronics store convincing customers to buy a Dell, visiting neighbours, as a high school graduate making a speech before his class, and even as Santa's little helper in a department store. The ads resulted in a number of catchphrases, such as "We're getting a Dell, dude!" or "You're getting a Dell, dude!" Whenever a customer bought a PC with which he was disappointed, Steven might chastise them with "You could have got a Dell, dude."

Steven the Dell Dude became a veritable phenomenon. Dell sold baseball caps, T-shirts, notepads, book packs, and CD cases. Steven the Dell Dude even had his own web site for a time. If there was any doubt of the success of Steven the Dell Dude, one need only look at the sales of Dell. Since the start of the Dell Dude campaign their sales had risen 16.5 percent. That was more than double the previous years.

Unfortunately, in October 2002 the end was near. Dell launched a series of ads that focused not on Steven the Dell Dude, but on the interns at Dell headquarters. The Dell Dude would at least appear in one of those commercials. And Dell made it clear that they were not ending their relationship with actor Ben Curtis or his character. There were then plans for Steven to continue to appear from time to time in Dell ads.

All of that would change one fateful night on February 9 2003 when actor Ben Curtis was arrested at Ludlow and Rivington on Manhattan's Lower East Side on a charge of misdemeanour marijuana possession (as it turns out, maybe Steven the Dell Dude did hang out with Jay and Silent Bob....). Initially Dell maintained that despite the arrest, they still had a relationship with Curtis. Soon afterwards, however, Ben Curtis's employment with Dell was terminated on grounds of "unspecified violations of company policy." Steven the Dell Dude has never again appeared in a commercial for Dell.

I could probably name other instances in which advertising spokesmen have gone bad. Most often it seems to me that it is a case similar to that of Herb, in which a character is just plain unpopular (if not quite that extreme). Almost as often it is a case of a character who was once popular, but eventually started getting on people's nerves, such as the Taco Bell chihuahua. It seems to me that commercial spokesmen being dismissed due to some scandal is actually very, very rare. Off the top of my head I can think of only one other group of commercial spokesmen who were dismissed due to a scandal. Old Milwaukee Beer's spots featuring the Swedish Bikini Team resulted in a lawsuit from female employees of the Stroh's Brewery (who made Old Milwaukee) maintaining that the ads were misleading and helped foster a work environment of sexual harassment. The ads ended immediately.

Regardless, it is clear that not every commercial spokesman can be the Maytag Repairman (who has been around since 1967, played by Jesse White, Gordon Jump, Hardy Rawls, and Clay Jackson) or even the Brawny Lumberjack. There will always be a Herb or a Baby Bob (gods, he was creepy).

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