By Louis A. Zona
Back in the early days of television, variety shows were very popular. They consisted of music, dance, comedy routines, magic, acrobats and other diversions.
Dinah Shore, who had gained fame as a singer, actress and spokeswoman for General Motors, hosted one of the most popular variety shows. She sang a Chevrolet commercial with lyrics that have stayed in our collective heads these many years: “See the USA in your Chevrolet. America is asking you to call. See the USA in your Chevrolet, America’s the greatest land of all.”
While we would all agree with the sentiments she expressed, I daresay that it would miss the mark today.
Today’s television commercials seem to be structured around mini stories of families diving into swimming pools or of automobiles driven through the Painted Desert or a maid of honor interrupting the bride on her wedding day, advising her a certain nerve medication could help.
Back in the 1960s, any number of television commercials went to jingles that became earwigs. Do you remember the Alka Seltzer commercial “Plop plop, fizz fizz. Oh what a relief it is!”
It was a 1950s commercial jingle for Brylcreem that stole the show.
Everyone knew it: “Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya! Brylcreem you’ll look so debonair. Brylcreem the gals will pursue ya. They love to run their fingers through your hair.”
It’s unusual for the actors in commercials to become known by their real names. Enter Clara Peller, who asked, “Where’s the beef?” for Wendy’s, a line that was picked by political candidates.
And who could forget Juan Valdez in the Andes Mountains, hauling coffee beans for the Colombian Coffee Federation?
How could we forget the cola wars that pitted Coca-Cola against Pepsi? “Pepsi Cola hits the spot – 12 full ounces. That’s a lot!”
Today’s commercials just amaze me. Ad agencies apparently know full well just who is watching out there in television land. They must surely know that I am older than 21, even older than 41.That undoubtedly is why the commercials that appear when I’m watching Andy Griffith are definitely aimed at us old folks. One after another, they ask us to take various medications for a variety of age-related illnesses and afflictions. You can only imagine what information these ad agencies have about each of us to unerringly aim certain ads directly at us.
How could they possibly know that I experience occasional dry mouth and wintertime dandruff? There’s no way that they should know that I’ve lived in my house long enough to need a new roof within the next year or so? Or could they?
What I have learned is that traditional advertising methods have changed since professor Bill Flad taught advertising at what was then Youngstown University in the 1960s.
Flad had experienced the inner workings of a large Madison Avenue ad agency and in his classes shared the challenges they faced. His descriptions of today’s agencies with digital graphics would be interesting as would be the power of social media. What a contrast to the radio advertising that happened in post-war America!
I think back at what Arthur Godfrey accomplished through radio back in the 1950s. If you wanted to sell a product back then, you tried to enlist Godfrey whose “Little Godfreys” numbered in the millions. His daily radio program had people like my mother trying a product only if Arthur approved. He often reminded his listeners that he would never endorse a product that he himself wouldn’t use.
Godfrey’s approach to endorsing products was highly personal. When he was hospitalized for a long period of time, he claimed that his best friend in that hospital room was his radio. But what bothered him was that advertisers spoke as if his room were full of people, when obviously he was usually alone. He knew then to speak to a solitary individual in a highly personal manner.
My mother believed that “Arthur” was talking only to her. And if he used only a certain brand of detergent, that was good enough for my mother and millions of other listeners.
Godfrey referred to himself as “the old red head,” who in his radio days seemed the voice of our country. He was an honest and trustworthy pitchman who understood each person’s needs, that that person might be home alone, ironing clothes or preparing the family meal, whether he were in Youngstown, Ohio or Decatur, Ill.
Every one of us of a certain age remembers the greatest television pitchwoman of all time, Betty Furness. In the early days of television, it was Furness who stood before a Westinghouse washer and dryer and told America how much easier life would be with a totally automatic appliance.
My father, having lived through the Great Depression, always worried that those sad days would return. Consequently, Dad would never have sprung for a new washer were it not for Furness’ soft-sell approach. An entire generation was moved by her sincerity and salesmanship. Betty Furness became one of the most recognized personalities of post-war America.
While Dinah Shore sold cars, Betty Furness sold refrigerators, with “the old redhead” still believing in the power of radio to help shape American popular culture.
America gave the world advertising theories and techniques virtually every country on the planet adopted and tailored, one more valued export.
How about the dog and the jingle, “N E S T L E S. Nestle’s makes the very best –chocolate.”