Truth in Advertising?

By Hy Abady

    Background first.

    In the 2000s, we got the fictionalized but authentic “Mad Men” advertising agency: Sterling Cooper. Some say it was meant to mimic Doyle Dane Bernbach — the real, the remarkable originator of the best advertising New York has ever known, from the period “Mad Men” took place, the 1960s. Doyle Dane, as it came to be known, ran an ad in those years for Avis under the very famous “We Try Harder” campaign.

    The ad I refer to ran in magazines like Time and Life. The headline: “The writer of this ad recently rented an Avis car. Here’s what I found.”

    Not what he found, but what I found. The interesting, thrilling shift to first person, which proofreaders at other ad agencies would have chided the writer for, remained intact. DDB — another shorthand version of the shop — often delivered these kinds of sophisticated and clever punches. To entertain the reader. To stand out and be noticed.

    And they certainly were.

    The visual was an ashtray full of cigarette butts, and the first two lines of copy read: “I write Avis ads for a living. But that doesn’t make me a paid liar.”

    Daring. Open. Honest. Truth. Exposing the brand for being sloppy, the copy continued. It was Avis’s way of saying that they had to be better, more vigilant, to beat Hertz, the number-one rental car company at the time.

    “We’re number two in rent-a-cars. So why go with us?” read another headline, the very first in the series, with the visual of what is also known as a peace sign, two fingers pointed up in a V, #2. It inaugurated the campaign, and each subsequent ad talked about how the underdog, Avis, was planning on closing the gap between the two. By trying harder.

    I don’t know if they ever did emerge triumphant. But since then, Enterprise (“We’ll pick you up” — do they, really? Even in Sheboygan, Wisc.?) and National (“Pick any car in the aisle and go!”) and Budget and Dollar and Rent-a-Wreck (that one is history) and Zipcar and others joined in the competition. A booming market, it seems, renting cars. A business that, like everything in the universe, has expanded. It’s a bit of a miracle that we still have only Coke and Pepsi in the cola wars.

    But this piece is not about colas or cars. It’s about cough drops. Pine Brothers Softchew cough drops.

    Not Luden’s, but Pine Brothers. Brands I remember for decades. Wasn’t Abraham Lincoln featured somehow on the package of one of those brands? No matter, but I wonder: Was he known for a sore throat?

    I keep digressing. I tend to. It’s not exactly A.D.D. or even A.D.H.D. It’s just that thoughts do occur to me as I write, and I find a certain relevance in including them no matter how wayward or off the point.

    But here’s the real point: Back in October of last year, watching something or other on television — although I know it wasn’t “Downton Abbey,” my favorite TV show, because they don’t have commercials on PBS, just fund-raisers, and often — a commercial came on for Pine Brothers. Martha Stewart walks into a room, sits down in a chair, and says: “Hello. I’m Martha. And I don’t do commercials. But I recently came across a product that I felt I just had to tell you all about. . . .”

    I’m paraphrasing a bit, and you can, if you wish, actually go to Google for the exact phraseology, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that she has done commercials. For American Express a while back, where her pool was mosaicked in shards of ripped-up credit cards. I don’t remember the point of that one. And then, there she was, and often, for Macy’s — a lot of spots with Donald Trump and Justin Bieber and others, during Christmastimes. No doubt she shilled for J.C. Penney when her stuff was sold there.

    So what was she saying? “Those of you who know me [does anyone really know her?] know I don’t do commercials.” The commercial ran again during the Golden Globes recently. “It’s because I believe in this product that I decided to do this one.” She actually sounded like she had a sore throat as she read her script.

    Turns out, though, her script was not actually written for her. It was written for Liza Minnelli. Which makes sense, because Liza really is a person who doesn’t do commercials. Oh, wait . . . I take that back. She did a funny Snickers commercial with Aretha Franklin in the campaign “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Betty White and Abe Vigoda started that on a football field during a Super Bowl years ago. Funny spots in a field of mostly mediocrity and worse. (Digression again.)

    But Liza Minnelli is hardly a spokeswoman for anything except, perhaps, rehab.

    Digging deeper into this untruth in advertising, I did find, online, that Liza backed out of the spot — right there! on the spot! — claiming it was way too much pressure. The Pine Brothers people said they turned to Martha Stewart after “our first actress had a nervous breakdown” just before filming. Ms. Minnelli had also sent a list of demands including black Egyptian cotton towels and a $400 coffee service.

    So, amazingly — I assume Ms. Stewart is a very busy lady — she got the call that same morning and presumably said, “Yes! I’m on my way!” The crew was all in place, the Waldorf Towers suite already chosen and paid for as location, and Martha was instantly able to step in.

    For a cool one million dollars.

    Hair and makeup took 10 minutes. The filming itself took all of 30. No quick cuts. No music track. Just Martha in a chair with her/Liza’s spiel.

    Forty minutes total. A 30-second spot. One million bucks.

    The script was not changed — how could it have been? It would have required so much back-and-forth between the agency and the brand manager and the director and who knows who else. The script was in place. Only the performer was changed to keep the star power, the celebrity quotient, intact.

    Astounding that there was not a thousand meetings to discuss this sudden and drastic casting change. Martha is nothing like Liza, though they’re contemporaries — Martha a bit older; one’s hair is platinum blond and the other’s dead black. I doubt that Liza cooks, and Martha certainly doesn’t sing. All they have in common is, perhaps, their diva-ness.

    No, Martha isn’t Liza. Martha seems way too controlled to have a nervous breakdown. Martha is quite professional. And Martha did not request two cartons of cigarettes on the shoot, as Liza did.

    Maybe she needed the cigarettes to make her voice sound even gruffer? Maybe she needed the cigarettes because they would have suppressed the breakdown?

    Cigarettes. Like the butts in the bygone Avis ad.

    Nowadays, cars don’t seem to have ashtrays, although you can still find them on airplane armrests.

    There is no cigarette advertising anymore.

    Avis would have a hard time running that ad that they did in the 1960s. But they still run that tagline from 50 years ago: “We Try Harder.”

    Shouldn’t the advertising industry do the same?

    Hy Abady has worked in advertising for close to 45 years. For 36 years a part-time resident of Amagansett, he will be spending next summer in East Hampton.