Doug Thompson: “TODAY THE PITS, TOMORROW THE WORLD.”

Doug Thompson headshot

A few months back, not long after Stan Freberg died on April 7th, I wrote a column about his early career as a voice actor for Capitol Records children’s records and Warner Bros. cartoons, TV shows like “Time For Beany” plus his hilarious 13 week CBS summer radio series as well as his many hit parodies for Capitol.  At the time, I promised (or threatened, I can’t remember which), to write a second column on Stan’s amazing adventures in advertisingland.

_CLIO_AwardWhile Freberg hadn’t actually been creating ads for a while, his influence and style of humour is still being felt today (unfortunately not enough).

In 1995, Stan Freberg was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.  He was also inducted into both the Songwriter’s and the Animation Hall of Fame.  During his decades long advertising career, he won 20 CLIO Awards, the Academy Award of advertising.

Freberg’s irreverence was a breath of fresh air to radio and television advertising in an era when animated demonstrations of stomach bile while an actor pretending to be a doctor explains why this pill or that pill will fix that pesky problem, were prevalent on TV.  Radio was still into the ‘hard sell’…”Now’s the time to buy, buy, buy”…”Don’t miss this AMAZING sale”.

Stan incorporated his new production company on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. His new letterhead read ‘Freberg Ltd. (but not very)’ with the Latin motto, ‘Ars gratia pecuniae’ (‘art for money’s sake’).  Freberg’s logo was a cool looking seal, wearing sunglasses with a medal on his chest.  It was ‘The Great Seal of Freberg Ltd.’ designed by graphic artist Saul Bass, who won an award for his design.

Freberg-Limited-Card-large

 

Prior to his new venture, Freberg had created an advertising campaign for Contadina Tomato Paste.  They continued as a client for many years.  One of his early radio spots had a woman singing the jingle “Who put 8 great tomatoes in that little bitty can?  You know who, you know who, you know who”, without once mentioning ‘you know who’ (aka the sponsor’s name) until the final few seconds.

For the Paxton & Gallagher Company in Omaha Nebraska, Stan created a six and a half minute mini musical, a la Broadway for their Butter-Nut coffee brand.  It was called “Omaha” and sang and spoke of all the great things in Omaha, but only mentioned Butter-Nut Coffee at the very end.  The VP of Marketing for Butter-Nut was Donald Keough and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because he later became Chief Operating Officer and a member of the Board of Directors of the Coca-Cola Company and was at the helm when the company launched the disastrous “New Coke” campaign.  Keough was also later Chairman of Columbia Pictures Ltd (before Sony bought the Hollywood studio).  Keough, who died in February of this year, approved Stan’s script and musical score without telling the BIG guy what he’d done.  He was so sure Frebergs’ approach was right that when it was completed, he simply played the audio tape for Chairman Paul Gallagher.

freberg3Freberg recounted what happened next in his 1988 autobiography, “It Only Hurts When I Laugh”, “As the long commercial started, the old man seemed enthralled with the glorious musical sound.  Then his brow became deeply creased as time went on with no mention of his coffee. A small tic started in his cheek as he began to calculate what this must have cost and still, no Butter-Nut Coffee.  Finally, in the last minute, as the coffee was not only mentioned but sung about by the large chorus, he actually cried.  When Keough asked him at the end why he was crying, Gallagher said, ‘I’m just so grateful that they mentioned my coffee.  My God, for a minute there I thought they weren’t going to mention it all ALL’!”

Butter-Nut Coffee was huge in the mid west, with 60% of that market, but was relatively unknown in California.  Freberg had a devil of a time getting radio stations to play the Rogers and Hammerstein inspired epic.  Radio stations in that era were used to sixty second spots, not six and half minute ones.  Stan felt he needed a Los Angeles radio station to really make a splash in Southern California.  He went to top rated KNX (which had aired his 13 week CBS Radio program years before) and to Top 40 giant KFWB as well as KABC.

Nobody would touch it.

gene-autry-1Freberg was running out of options.  The client was getting antsy and wanted to know details of the advertising buy.  Finally Stan went to KMPC (then owned by cowboy star Gene Autry) and offered them an ‘exclusive’.  No other ‘big’ stations in Los Angeles would air this commercial, it would run right after the LA Dodgers baseball games (which always has had and continues to have a huge listening audience).  Improvising off the top of his head, Freberg promised to write regular sixty seconds commercials to run kmpcin KMPC morning drive and throughout the day promoting this big event after Dodgers baseball.  He also promised to take out newspaper ads (at the clients’ expense) in the theatre section of LA newspapers, designed to look like a Broadway ad to promote the airing of “Omaha” on KMPC.  The Sales Manager queried, “You’re sure I’m not going to hear ‘Omaha’ on KNX or KABC, Stan?”  Thinking quickly, Freberg responded, “You have my personal guarantee.  They can beg me for it, but they can’t have it.  Do we have a deal?”

They did!

The daytime spots ran, the newspaper ads were placed, and the six and a half minute “Omaha” ran night after night, usually in drive time.  The Los Angeles Times did a feature story on the campaign and lo and behold, Butter-Nut Coffee went flying off the supermarket shelves, tripling their previous sales numbers in Southern California.  Not long after the radio campaign began, Stan received a call from the Omaha Symphony Orchestra.  They wanted him to come to the Nebraska capital to conduct “Omaha” for the Orchestra’s summer concert series.   Time Magazine did a story on Stan’s conducting debut and Capitol Records released “Omaha” as a 45rpm single.  Another Freberg advertising success story.

Chun King Chow Mein was another long time client of Freberg Ltd.  Chun King was based in Duluth, Minnesota and its’ President, Jeno Paulucci believed in Stan so much that he stayed with him for 30 years, adding other brands such as Jeno’s Pizza to the Freberg commercial stable.  But there was one Freberg commercial that had Mr. Paulucci livid.  He was so angry, that he fired his chun kingadvertising agency, then called Stan to yell at him.  The commercial in question was for Chun King.  It was not a well known brand in the U.S. at the time with only 5% market share.  So Stan created a commercial where a chorus sang: “Ninety-five percent of people in the USA are NOT buying Chung King Chow Mein”.  ‘It was early truth in advertising’, but Paulucci didn’t want to put it on the air.  He pleaded with Freberg to cut it back to 90%.  Stan refused.  They went back and forth until Stan had Jeno convinced to air the spot and to re-hire his advertising agency.  Freberg recounts the story in his autobiography: “Before he hung up, he made me a bet.  He said that if that commercial worked, he’d pull me in a Chinese rickshaw up La Cienega Boulevard in Hollywood.  Two days later, the commercial went on the air all over America.  Within three months, sales were up nationally 25%.  Jeno came out to Hollywood, rented a rickshaw and said ‘Get in’.  He padded along block after block as motorists honked at him and I sat back, watching this multi-millionaire pay off his debt.  Finally I said, ‘Enough already.  Pull over, before you have a heart attack.”

Jeno and rickshaw

Stan Freberg was definitely not your average, everyday advertising creative. He was something else man.

This isn’t the Chun King spot that we’ve just profiled, but it’s another classic Freberg TV spot for Chun King.  Jesse White (the former Maytag Repair Man), is the man who enters the elevator and if you look closely, the elevator operator is a young Arte Johnson, pre “Laugh In” fame.

Throughout most of his advertising career, Freberg used his ‘stock company players’, many of the same actors that had been in his parody recordings – Daws Butler, June Foray (who’s 97 years old and still with us), Jesse White, Peter Leeds, Byron Kane and Paul Frees.  His musical director, arranger and bandleader for several decades was Billy May, who’d also recorded with legends such as Frank Sinatra, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Peggy Lee, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and George Clooney’s aunt, Rosemary Clooney, just to name drop a few.

cherryStan’s radio campaign for the Radio Advertising Bureau in the mid 1960‘s was nothing short of brilliant.  His most famous spot from that series is called “Stretching The Imagination”, a multiple award winner where Stan had (in audio at least) drained Lake Michigan and filled it with hot chocolate, then pours a 700 ton mountain of whipped cream into the lake while the Royal Canadian Air Force towing a ten ton maraschino cherry, drops it into the whipped cream to the sound of 25,000 cheering extras. It’s still used in broadcasting and advertising classes today to show how powerful imagination can be when it comes to radio.  You’ll notice in this spot a technique that Freberg often used, where he starts the commercial in the middle of a conversation.  No set up, just jump right in.  The skeptical advertiser in this spot is character actor Paul Frees, who also voiced the Pillsbury Dough Boy’s little laugh (“hee hee”) as well as Boris Badenov and other characters on “Rocky & Bullwinkle”, Professor Ludwig von Drake for Disney and many, many voices that are heard during the various rides at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

The original commercial had Freberg’s last line as “Up to 17 inches, yes.”  He changed it to 21 inches a while later as television screens got bigger.

Here’s a spot for Meadowgold.  It speaks for itself…so I won’t.

In this commercial for Instant Butter-Nut Coffee, Stan spoofs subliminal advertising.

And here are even more classic Stan Freberg TV ads for Banquet Frozen Dinners, Esskay Franks, Zagnut candy bars, Jacobsen Lawn Mowers, Cheerios, Chun King Chow Mein, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls and Campbell’s Soup (featuring Broadway and Hollywood actress Ann Miller).

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLr85q35Kp0OfWjXgloNHC3SHY7sybIwni

Of course, we can’t wrap up our little Freberg advertising adventure without seeing and hearing the commercial whose tag line sits atop this column.  It comes from a Stan Freberg Sunsweet Pitted Prunes TV commercial.

Freberg almost derailed his advertising career before it had really gotten underway.  At Christmastime 1958, he recorded a scathing attack on the over-commercialization of the holiday season.  He titled it “Green Chri$tma$”.

His long time label, Capitol Records, refused to release it.

GreenChristmas_StanFrebergIt was certainly controversial.  When Capitol balked, Freberg asked to be released from his contract.  That gave them their first pause.  Stan had made money for Capitol.  But they stood firm on their decision.  Then Freberg made a tentative deal with Verve Records to release “Green Chri$tma$” without them even hearing it.  Stan went back to Capitol and offered to buy the master tape to be released on Verve.  This time, the executives in the Capitol tower in Hollywood started to waver.  After a brief internal discussion, they said Capitol WOULD release it, but with two small changes…don’t mention whose birthday the Christmas holiday celebrates and take out the cash registers at the end of the record.

Freberg refused both changes.

Capitol then gulped and told Freberg that against their better judgment, they would release “Green Chri$tma$” as is.  No changes.

The single reached number 44 on Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 chart that year Stan-Freberg-resizeand added a wack of ca$h to Capitol’s Chri$tma$ bottom line.

Stan Freberg has always made me laugh, whether it was his parody records or his commercials.  In fact, I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on eBay over the past few years buying copies of some of his rarer advertising work to add to my archives.

————————–

 

Seriously-mad-men-15416369-500-232

Television advertising has had some bright spots over the years, usually during commercial breaks in the Superbowl broadcast.  Lately though, there are some really creative TV commercials.  Two that I like are Dairy Queen and Sears Canada.  The Sears spot features a woman who lives in a stylized fantasy world and simply cannot get to sleep.   Even adding nearly a dozen mattresses or playing vinyl albums on a record player in the middle of the night doesn’t help. When the sun finally arrives in the morning, she goes to Sears for a new mattress.

Problem solved.  This spot is called “365 Nights”.

The Dairy Queen “Flamethrower” TV ad is my all time fav from the last few years.  It’s a man and woman in a booth at Dairy Queen and the guy (played by Tim Martin Gleason) wants to try DQ’s Flamethrower.  This wonderful actress (Allyn Rachel) deadpans “Remember what happened last time?”  It’s so creative that I will sit through it EVERY SINGLE TIME.  I LOVE this ad.  It’s only 30 seconds and naturally enough it’s called “Last Time”.

http://www.ispot.tv/ad/70Uh/dairy-queen-flamethrower-cheeseburger-last-time

So as someone who’s made a very good living from creating commercials and who’s been jaded and frustrated over the years by clients and advertising agencies types who wouldn’t know a great commercial if it crawled up their pant leg and bit them on the tuchus, I appreciate great creative that WORKS…and that, for me, is what it’s all about.

=DT=

Doug’s column appears here every 4th Monday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

dbawis_buttonDoug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. 
He’s won a shitload of awards for his creative efforts, over 150 at present count.  He’s interviewed, as well as 
worked with major celebrities on various radio and television projects, including Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, 
Randy Bachman, David Foster, Wolfman Jack, Bob Ezrin  and John Candy.  Doug was Creative Director for 
Telemedia Network Radio in Toronto for 13 years.  He’s also worked with ABC and NBC Radio networks in the U.S.  

His first television series, “Hi Fi Salutes”, for Canada’s Hi Fi Channel, won a Platinum Award at the World Television 
Festival in Houston, Texas.  He wrote and produced 28 episodes of “Hi Fi Salutes”.  Doug also wrote and produced 
“Pressed In Canada”, a one hour television documentary on the early Canadian independent record company scene.

He continues to do work for Sirius/XM, NFL Canada as well as other companies.  Doug’s also a Professor of 
Communications at Seneca College@York in Toronto.

Currently, he has no plans to sit in a rocking chair in his backyard and grow old gracefully.

3 Responses to “Doug Thompson: “TODAY THE PITS, TOMORROW THE WORLD.””

  1. Pure class .. and classic, Doug. Wow, Freberg was very influenced by Gilbert and Sullivan!
    Fascinating. Thanks!

  2. Hey Doug, sorry if this is not the correct place but I’ve been trying to get hold of you regarding the CHUM Tribute website.
    Feel free to not actually post this comment but could you please send email

  3. […] I learned again that much.  A fascinating character in advertising, radio and TV.  Click here.  And here.  Trust me.  It’s good stuff.  And we are less for not having Freberg around […]

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