It is alleged that modern athletes have gone to seed. Spoiled, undisciplined, long-haired, soft-nosed, registered to vote, they are not nearly so dependable as their forebears, a sturdy lot who contented themselves by sitting about hotel lobbies expectorating accurately toward potted palms. But then, who can you look up to anymore? Our other traditional all-American heroes have even more flies on them. Businessmen are held in low repute. Judges are viewed as wise only when examining over-the-counter stock possibilities. Our best politicians have gone back a far pace; they are today not nearly so adept at graft as our military men. Movie stars are no longer pretty, but, in fact, are valued for average looks. Once there were all those famous legs, breasts, biceps and cleft chins. Now we have only Paul Newman's eyes—and it has been years since he was divorced. By default, and since they no longer throw games, athletes are about the only people left we can trust.
So it is that in selling, which, after all, is what trusting is mostly about, athletes have ascended to a position of eminence. There is hardly a street corner left in the land that does not contain a hamburger establishment named after a sports star. In the old days athletes used to tend bar in the off season; now no saloon has a chance unless some jock has been given a piece of the action to front for it. Politicians cherish the athlete's endorsement. John Lindsay stayed so close to the Mets down the stretch that he came to resemble a banner. The military is forever bundling groups of pros off to the Pacific, so the peace movement is countering with Tom Seaver, whether he likes it or not. Athletes are placed on boards of directors and on municipal commissions. Above all, they are on display across the land pushing products of every design and type.
"The athlete provides recognition," says Steve Arnold, one of the founders of Pro Sports, Inc., a company that represents athletes in their sundry negotiations. "More than that, he also supplies the image. For most people the athlete is still the all-American boy. Actors, on the other hand, are actors, and there is the suspicion that they are always acting. That's the last thing you want when you hire somebody to endorse your product. The athlete provides sincerity."
Employing athletes as barkers is nothing new. The memory rolls with visions of scores of oldtimers reading haltingly, struggling with a script as they did with their written contracts, holding up some overwhelmed product in a meaty paw and, with misplaced inflection and all the wrong pauses, saying things like: "It tastes good, and it's good for you, too." Mercifully, there is more sophistication to the art now, if only because a run-of-the-mill 30-second spot will cost something like $1,000 a second and nobody in advertising is going to let a clod athlete louse up that kind of money as if it were a simple double-play ball. Athletes who make commercials now find themselves repeating endless takes for a whole day or two just to get their few seconds on camera right. But then, as Joe Kuharich might say, it is rare but not unusual for an athlete to make up to $25,000 for suffering such indignities.
November 17, 1969
There are still commercials shown that are agonizingly painful to witness, but for the most part athletes have reached a status where they are at least more capable than the other largest group of amateur advertisers—those unfortunate droves of housewives who go on at length about various detergents. Though athletes have made discomfiting appearances in commercials recently, the error often must be scored against the agency for inappropriate casting. When Y. A. Tittle was at his peak with the Giants, a woman representative of an ad agency actually called up an agent and asked if Tittle would appear in a hair tonic commercial. The agent tactfully suggested a substitute player with hair. Juan Marichal was signed to make some San Francisco radio spots for Saxon apple juice—"It will make you feel strong." Bay Area listeners were regularly treated to hearing Marichal, in his Spanish accent, declare what surely sounded like: "Sex and apple juice will make you feel strong."
The man who has employed athletes most effectively is George Lois, the 37-year-old president of Lois Holland Callaway Inc., a hot young New York advertising firm that has recently branched out into other areas—notably with Mantle Men & Namath Girls, Inc., which in a few months has become one of the largest employment agencies in New York. Brilliant and aggressive, even pugilistic, Lois had a basketball-baseball scholarship to Syracuse, but instead took a half scholarship for basketball at Pratt Institute in New York. He remains a complete sports nut, which is perhaps the prime reason why athletes fare so much better in his commercials. "Most of them know that it's good for them and that it will be hard for them to make fools of themselves," Lois says, "but they also know I'm a fan and I don't want to embarrass them."
"George Lois is a genius," says an account supervisor at another large agency, "but he has also got to be the only president of any company in this country who must spend $1,000 a year on adhesive tape. George takes the last part of every day in his office taping his ankles so he can go straight from there to play basketball or softball or volleyball or whatever else fool thing he is playing." While Lois was still working on the Volkswagen account at Doyle Dane Bernbach Inc., he once became annoyed during a meeting with VW officials in Germany. He fell the Germans were not exhibiting enough appreciation of his references to baseball. Lois, who is a big-boned, angular man, suddenly stood up, threw back his chair, dashed toward the end of the room and crashed artfully to the rug at full speed. The astonished Germans stared as the mad American returned to his chair. "Now that," Lois said, "is what I mean when I talk about sliding into second base."
Lois has formulated a premise for deciding when to utilize an athlete for a commercial. "There are only certain circumstances when an athlete is applicable," he says. "The ad must transcend the fact that you are using an athlete. You just don't say, hey, let's get a ballplayer for this. There must be a legitimate reason. You use an athlete only when it is apt to do so or, on the other side of the coin, in never-never land, when it is so ridiculous to use an athlete that it's a good bit for everybody. That's what we did for Braniff when we used Sonny Liston listening to Andy Warhol talk about painting and Salvador Dali discussing baseball with Whitey Ford.
"The horrible thing is to catch the athlete between these extremes, when he is neither being himself nor putting the world on. No commercial in recent years, for instance, was more pathetic and artificial than the Brylcreem one with Joe DiMaggio. There was Joe, all alone in that corny locker room talking with deadly seriousness about this hair thing, and you cringed with embarrassment. All you thought of was: How can poor Joe be that bad off? He must really need the money to do that."
By contrast, for Edwards & Hanly, a New York brokerage house, Lois used two athletes who came right out and started talking directly about their sensitive pasts. One commercial had Mickey Mantle, with a stupid grin, face into the camera and declare: "When I first came up to the big leagues, I was a grinnin', shuffling head-duckin' country boy. Well, I'm still a country boy, but I know a man down at Edwards & Hanly. I'm learnin'. I'm learnin'."
In the other spot Joe Louis was even more to the point, plaintively asking: "Edwards & Hanly, where were you when I needed you?" The resulting effect was not one of embarrassment but, rather, of a kind Of catharsis, and viewers rushed to entrust their money to a brokerage business that was able to induce such admiration among its clients that they would bare their souls on its behalf.
Perhaps the classic—and surely the most publicized—sports commercial was made last year when Joe Namath shaved off his Fu Manchu mustache with a Schick electric razor. The commercial got columns of newspaper attention, but curiously Schick Electric, Inc. and its agency, Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, Inc., scheduled it only as part of a Christmas campaign. The commercial appeared but a single time on each network, and while everybody knew that Namath made $10,000 just shaving, very few people knew who paid him or with what kind of instrument he dispatched the bush.
Lois' second class of acceptable commercials, the never-never land, is best exemplified by the Maypo campaign, which has probably utilized more of the nation's best athletes than any other advertising effort. The ads require that our greatest he-men must cry for Maypo. This gimmick has raised Maypo sales more than 10%, which is particularly impressive since hot breakfast cereals are no longer de rigueur on American breakfast tables. The Maypo commercials even have an underground art quality to them, because they are shown almost exclusively on kiddies' daytime TV and few adults have ever seen them. The Dallas Cowboys were mystified last year when young fans started congregating around Don Meredith and crying in imitation of his Maypo performance. Mantle, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, John Unitas, Ray Nitschke and Willie Mays are others who have cried for Maypo, although Mays was initially skeptical, fearing the ad might damage his well-cultivated "Say Hey" image.
Lois is expanding on the Maypo scenario this year and going for more plot. Last year there was no variation, save for Meredith, who ad-libbed "I want it" at the end of his spot, a bit of innovative histrionics that has led Lois to exclaim, "Meredith may be the best actor who ever lived." This year Maypo will feature Gil Hodges and Tom Seaver—who are, apparently, destined to appear in every commercial this side of feminine hygiene—in an original drama of the dugout, and, in the second half of the twin bill, Carl Yastrzemski and his mother will be seen discussing Maypo in a simulated breakfast nook. You know it is simulated, because the clock in the background is set at 8:25 and ballplayers are never up that early, except perhaps for sex and apple juice.
So cut now to a studio on the West Side of New York, when it really is about 8 in the morning. Mrs. Yastrzemski, escorted by her husband, arrives to make her TV debut for Maypo. She is gracious, fine-featured, gray-haired, perfectly cast as the hypotenuse in an all-American triangle of baseball, cereal and motherhood. Mrs. Yastrzemski's name is Hattie, but everyone on the set calls her dear.
Carl, who played a doubleheader the day before in Boston, does not have as early a call as his mother, because he does not appear until the second act of the half-minute script. First, Mrs. Yastrzemski must explain to viewers how difficult her son was in the morning until she switched to Maypo.
Made up, Mrs. Yastrzemski begins to rehearse her opening speech with Ron Holland, Lois' partner. Men from various unions appear and start adjusting the height of the cabinet behind which Mrs. Yaz stands. Four different people, all calling her dear, adjust her apron bow at once. She goes over and over the opening speech, all 22 words of it. TV commercials, just like dramatic TV, are knitted, not created.
Yaz arrives as they are filming his mother's first takes. He stands with his father, and they watch together, mixing pride with a certain bemusement. One more take.
"You ready, dear?"
"Give us the bells, please," says Joe, the cameraman. Bells ring for silence.
"Roll 'em, please."
The TelePrompTer starts rolling. "My name is Hattie Yastrzemski. I had no luck in getting my son Carl to eat oatmeal until I switched to Maypo."
"End sticks," someone says. Bang! Everybody likes it.
Unfortunately, the lady with a stopwatch in charge of timing the segment says the bit is a second too long, so they start reshooting while Carl, pausing for a beer, puts a uniform shirt on. Baseball and the other major sports frown on their athletes appearing in their real uniforms unless someone kicks in for the privilege. The agencies sidestep this ploy by building their own uniforms. A lady comes in with a red B, just like the Boston B, to go on a blue cap she has that is just like the Boston blue cap. Yaz says he wouldn't know the difference himself, except that the hat is four sizes too big.
He comes out and watches while a medium closeup of the cereal itself is prepared. Since the rules were changed and you cannot use any artificial effects, such as substituting shaving cream for whipped cream and the like, there is a lady off to the side brewing tubfuls of real Maypo. She is mass-producing the stuff. "Get some hot cereal," someone cries, and she dishes out a bowl and rushes it to the table. Joe the cameraman peers through the lens. "I have smoke," he cries with excitement. The real steam can be seen.
But there is fraud in the air. Yaz comes over to his place at the table and sits down. And down and down. You can see the steam through the lens better than Yaz. "We should have got Frank Howard," Lois says, putting in a rush order for the Manhattan phone book. Get that, kids: Carl Yastrzemski eats Maypo, but he still has to sit on a telephone book at the kitchen table.
"All right," Joe says after a few more adjustments, "let's get a fresh bowl in there and try a few."
This is not the crying scene. They will do that last. In this scene Carl is supposed to say, "They also make chocolate and banana Maypo," and then his mother will pat him sweetly on the head for being so clever. Yaz tries, but Holland wants more expression. "Carl, be foolish, enthusiastic, ridiculous. Move your eyebrows."
Lois (aside): "If you get them before the cameras and can keep them there long enough, they'll eventually get so tired they'll do what you want."
At last it is time for a few cries, but Yaz, now perched on a high stool for the closeup, becomes self-conscious and is not up to the task. He is not crying at all well. Lois and Holland fret. Finally Lois says: "All right, let's tear him up. The other guys all did it better when they had the tears." A tear lady appears with an eyedropper and starts to put just the right number of tears on Yaz' face. It works. Immediately, although of course he cannot see himself, Yaz sounds as sad as he looks. He is, in fact, a very good crier. No Alec Guinness, you understand, no Don Meredith, but still a very good crier.
"Think like you just got a $500 fine," Lois says. The tears are running short. The tear lady is put on guard. "I want my Maypo," Yaz says, crying again. "All right, replenish the tears," Holland calls out. "Fast with them, we're going to keep rolling." She rushes in with the tear dispatcher and hurriedly fixes him up. "All right, fly out, dear, fly out, we're filming." Yaz braces on the stool, surveying the scene. "I want my Maypo," he wails. It is beginning to look as if he really wants to cry.
That Yastrzemski ever got to the Maypo high chair is something of a switch, for by far the largest share of national endorsement plums goes to athletes on New York teams. Recently this parochialism has been diminishing, although now that New York teams are winning again the Madison Avenue purview appears to be narrowing once more. Obviously part of the reason for the bias is ignorance: a lot of agency men have never heard of any but New York athletes. They go to a party and everybody is talking about the Giants, so they presume, apparently, that this random sampling is evidence that everybody in America is interested in the Giants. So they look no further when it is time to seek an endorsement.
Similarly, the agencies reinforce each other. Once an athlete gets a foot in the door and makes one commercial he is a good bet to make another. To Madison Avenue, a player who made a razor commercial is, ipso facto, better known than some stiff who is only hitting .335 with 43 home runs. Why? Because he made a commercial.
To be sure, the New York bias is not alone the province of admen. The national media are just as guilty, and at the other end of the country a similar disproportionate amount of attention and outside employment is lavished on Los Angeles athletes, whose payoff is TV and movie scripts. The man who suffers everywhere—East and West—is the black athlete, but as long as the U.S. consumer population is better than 85% white, white athletes will be selected for endorsements in great numbers even though more than half of the star athletes in the country's primary sports are black. To this day Frank Robinson has never been approached for a national endorsement. Jim Brown did not get one until 1965, his final season. Less than 1% of Bob Gibson's outside income derives from national endorsements. Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier has never endorsed a product. Hopefully, his first commercial will not come 25 years from now, standing before a television camera saying, "Madison Avenue, where were you when I needed you?"
But there has been some change in this area. O. J. Simpson's $250,000 contract with Chevrolet is one of the largest athletic endorsement deals ever, and whenever groups of athletes are used in ads there is sure to be at least one Negro. Jantzen, for instance, integrated its celebrity sports panel with Timmy Brown. Matt Snell is one of four Jets singing for Score hair dressing. Desenex foot powder, which first employed Jimmy Brown, has used Oscar Robertson with Jerry Lucas and Elgin Baylor with Jerry West. Ideal Toy used Stan Mikita, Pete Rose, Gale Sayers and Cazzie Russell in a group bit.
The Chicago Cubs worked out a unique arrangement among themselves this year with a promoter who prefers to identify himself as a "merchandising agent." The Cubs agreed to share equally all endorsement moneys, even if only one player was used. This concept was supposed to promote team solidarity, and it may have at first, but the socialistic Cubs grew so money conscious that it seemed only a matter of time before they would bill Mayor Daley for plugging CHICAGO across their road uniforms.
That endorsement money is distributed to a greater cross section of players today is accounted for in large measure by the new breed of players' agents or representatives. These men essentially serve a liaison function as they try to match the right athlete with a commercial campaign an agency or corporation has in mind. They also have driven the players' asking prices up. In 1964, when Steve Arnold was acting as a lawyer for an ad agency, he went to negotiate with a top quarterback for a commercial. He hoped to get the famous signal-caller for something slightly under the several thousand dollars that had been budgeted for his services for a couple of hours work. Arnold asked the cagey check-off artist what he considered fair. "Does $100 an hour seem too much?" the dummy asked. When Arnold returned to New York he told the story to another young lawyer, Marty Blackman, and they formed Pro Sports, Inc.
Attorney Bob Woolf steered Ken Harrelson to a financial bonanza last year. Chuck Barnes, O. J. Simpson's man, began by lifting racing drivers out of the grease pits. It is estimated that golfers still average higher endorsement fees than stars in any other sport, and this is almost entirely due to Mark McCormack, who pioneered the modern athlete-business concept with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
The boom has brought quick-buck artists onto the scene, too. "A lot of them are just giving everybody a fast pitch," Lois says. "If he is really representing an athlete, an agent should be thinking how he can get this guy into something respected, even meaningful, and not just get him to shill for everything that comes along. Bill Bradley has so far refused to make any endorsements, and I believe he is more right than he is wrong."
In any event, even a star white New York ballplayer with a hotshot agent is not guaranteed huge endorsement success. Only a handful can ever make it big over any extended period of time, because so few athletes have a high recognition factor—"good numbers"—among the whole consumer population. "You sit around with your sport-fan friends," Lois says, "and you think everybody in America must be familiar with the stars. But who have you got now that everybody, really everybody, recognizes? I mean using the criterion of walking down the street and having everyone know exactly who you are. Mantle, Namath, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Wilt Chamberlain—and with Wilt it is mostly because he is so tall.
"The best way to find out if an athlete is really well-known is to ask your wife. I asked mine once if she knew who Johnny Unitas was. She had heard the name, that was all. I told her he was a quarterback, and then all that interested her was the name—unite-us, how appropriate that was for a quarterback. That was it.
"On the other hand, the rare athlete who does gain a universal reputation is better known than any movie star or politician. You ever walk down the street with Mickey Mantle or Joe Louis? You can't do it. Everybody knows them. It's phenomenal."
Leaving aside, then, the small coterie of truly recognized sports stars, it may be financially more profitable for the pretty good pro not to be located in New York or Los Angeles or Washington. In most of the other major league cities, the local sports heroes are often the only genuine celebrities. Indeed, in places like Cincinnati, St. Louis, Baltimore and even Philadelphia the local athletes' prime competition for endorsements comes only from sports announcers: Waite Hoyt, Jack Buck, Charlie Eck-man or Pete Retzlaff (before he became general manager of the Eagles). In Detroit the athletes mainly battle against a TV weatherman and a talk-type disc jockey for endorsement loot.
Kansas City is typical of the smaller-city syndrome, where the athlete is the only name in town. This summer four of the Royals, who surely couldn't even get listed alphabetically at Celebrity Service in New York, were used to endorse Smaks, a drive-in hamburger chain. Dick Halstead, who runs the agency that represents Smaks, selected Lou Piniella, Joe Foy, Moe Drabowsky and Eli Rodriguez more or less by employing a form of the Lois wife test on himself. Halstead is no sports fan at all. "Their names were vaguely familiar to me," he says, "so I figured if I knew who they were, then almost everyone would.
"From a believability standpoint, I just don't know how effective it has been but, after all, a hamburger is a hamburger is a hamburger and this is a different way of saying the same thing. Also, in using baseball players for Smaks we emphasized the point that both the team and Smaks are home-town enterprises."
Far from being penalized for not playing in New York, the not-so-super pro athlete benefits from being one of the few stars in a small heaven. Steve Stone-breaker, a former linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, would have been lucky to pick up a hundred bucks plugging a used-car lot in the game program if he played in New York or Los Angeles. But in 1967 in New Orleans, Stonebreaker became the patron saint of all journeymen when he reached his goal of matching his salary with income from endorsements and other outside promotional activities.
Admittedly, Stonebreaker is an exception. He became a local institution when he threw a punch on the field during a game. New Orleans fans had seen their team pushed around enough to delight in this aggressive behavior. But other athletes have found themselves suddenly in demand for advertisements where their unusual shapes, habits or attitudes can be used to advantage. Wilt Chamberlain climbs into a Volkswagen. Phil Linz blows a harmonica. Denny McLain pumps a Hammond organ. Jim Palmer eats pancakes. Ray Graves and his Gators go for Gatorade. All 26 pro football right guards favor a certain deodorant. Lew Burdette extols Mail Pouch chewing tabacco—"Bring back the spitter." Don Drysdale has no grease in his hair. Graham Hill pulls in for some gas. Joe Pepitone reaches for a hair spray. Barbara Jo Rubin keeps her apprentice allowance with Metrecal. And so it goes, as agency imaginations search the locker rooms for the most appropriate images for their products.
Now, for the glory of Bayer Decongestant Capsules, Gump Worsley is discovered sitting in the corner of a Montreal hotel room at 11 p.m. trying desperately, after all these years, to learn overnight to speak good French.
At 41—or more—Worsley may still be the best goalie in hockey. A stumpy, rumpled crew-cut man, he is altogether lovable and would surely have become Yogi Berra if Joe Garagiola had lived down his block. Everybody in Canada knows The Gumper. By contrast, Bayer Decongestant Capsules are going into only their third year on the Canadian market, and they have yet to make the playoffs against league-leading Contac.
Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, the New York agency that handles the Bayer account, decided that the problem was primarily one of image. Gump was selected as the image of La Capsule Bayer. He is, after all, not only a distinctive personality but distinctively Canadian, as well. Besides, not only is hockey very Canadian, the hockey season just happens to coincide with the time of year in which everybody gets colds. Finally, and perhaps most important considering the sensitive ethnic realities of the Dominion, Worsley is of English origin, starring for Les Canadiens, the country's esteemed French team. Worsley is selected, then, not because he is an athlete but because he is probably the only man in the whole country who satisfies all the image requirements. The Gumper will help you put your cold on ice.
The commercial is to be shot tomorrow, in both languages. First Gump will have to do it in French, getting the most difficult part out of the way. He plays with a predominantly French team and lives in a neighborhood that is 90% French-speaking, but Gump has not been prepared to say things like Neo-synephrine, minipills, runny nose, sneezing and sniffling in his second language. These are not, in fact, easy things to say in a first language.
So Gump sits in the hotel room and repeats the script to Carole Mondello, a production assistant with TDF Studios, which has contracted to film the commercial for the agency. Carole is seated on the floor. Peter Thompson, the director, paces nearby. Lou Dorkin, the account supervisor, sits on a bed, occasionally consulting as Gump butchers "Néo-synéphrine" again. Next to Dorkin is Roberta Heller, who is in charge of production, but who is not helping Gump's concentration any, since she is obviously going to catch cold wearing such a low-cut dress.
"Say centaine," Carole says to Gump, rising to her knees, reaching with her pleading little hands toward his chair.
"Centaine," Gump replies, sounding something like a Berlitz beginner in Jersey City.
"No, no, no, no, no. Centaine, centaine. Think zis, think zis. You are going to see all zees millions of little capsools."
"I remember," Gump replies, apropos of nothing, "in French you never pronounce your S's at the end."
Peter Thompson walks over. "Do your best," he says gravely, waving a finger. "Remember, people will think of you as a person, not as a pitchman."
Gump considers that. "Yeah, but what about the repercussions? Me teaching children all over Canada to speak bad French." Everybody throws up his hands. If they had wanted Marshall McLuhan down in Toronto they probably could have got him cheaper. Gump studies the script in the silence. "Néo-synéphrine," he says at last. Still Jersey City.
"Néo-synéphrine," Carole explains. "Néo-synéphrine."
"Néo-synéphrine," Gump suggests. A little better.
"Néo-synéphrine. Think like: cinema and friend."
"Cinema and friend. Néo-synéphrine." Much improved. North toward Montreal from Jersey City, perhaps as far as Troy, N.Y.
"Bravo," Carole cries.
"Néo-synéphrine," Gump says. And, reading it all in French: " 'When I start to get a cold, I start right in on these. La Capsule Bayer. They've got Néo-synéphrine.' Cinema and friend. Néo-synéphrine." He pauses and yawns at the exertion.
"Is it too late for you?" Roberta asks.
"Oh, no," Gump says. "When I did the Gump's Pumps commercial at the gas station with Beliveau we shot until 5 in the morning."
"Was that in both languages, too?"
"Oui, I speak many English."
Carole perks up again. "Shall we try some more, Gump?"
"You know," Gump says in impeccable English, "I didn't even get my contract till today. Hmmm. 'One in the morning and one at night does it.' O.K. Hmmmm. 'All these hundreds of minipills loosen up my stuffy nose.' Centaine, hmmm. All right. Uh oh. This again. These two are going to get me."
Carole picks over his script to see the offensive words, and then reads them for everyone's benefit, " '...sneezing and sniffling.... Cut down on the sneezing and sniffling, too.' Sneezing: les éternuements. Sniffling: les reniflements."
Gump: "Les éternuements. Les reniflements. Now that's what I was saying about not pronouncing the S's."
Carole: "Oui, yes, but in les éternuements, with the les, where the first letter of the next word is—oh, what is that?"
"Yes, a vowel. Thank you. You bring them together: lays-ay, lays-ay, lays-aytairnumah. Lays-aytairnumah. Les éternuements."
" Les éternuements" Gump says. "Les éternuements."
"Les éternuements et les reniflements." He was at least to Burlington, Vt., closing in on the border even.
By the eighth take the next day at the Arena Marquette, Gump's accent had arrived at suburban Montreal. The schoolchildren of La Belle Province had been spared a mutilation of their tongue in the name of La Capsule Bayer. Worsley himself was exhausted, but then, unlike hockey, the endorsement business is no game.