Catastrophes That Weren’t My Fault

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asteroid_earth_impact

Before I draw the curtain on my idyllic days in Detroit, I wanted to set the record straight.  There were some catastrophes that occurred that weren’t my fault. I’m not trying to deflect blame, but rather point out the fact that I was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Multi-billion dollar corporations always make mistakes, but because of their size, the mistakes tend to be huge. They continue, however, to make billions of dollars. Here are a few examples of “too big to fail.”

Asleep At The Switch

GM had a division called GM Photographic. GM ad agencies were instructed to give all of their photostat work to this group. Additionally, they were automatically given the printing jobs for all Chevrolet car brochures, much to the dismay of local Detroit-area printers. And so it was when CampbellReader's Digest-Ewald and Chevy decided to do a pre-printed full-line insert to appear in Reader’s Digest. The “Digest” had a huge circulation, larger than many major national magazines combined. And, even though the page size was very small, the magazine was able to sell itself as an efficient way to reach millions of readers. With this in mind, the agency created a 12-page insert to be bound into an upcoming issue of the magazine. Because of the size of the run, 9 million copies, GM Photographic was automatically award the printing job.  They were to print, collate, and bind 9 million inserts and ship them in time to appear in the next available issue of Reader’s Digest. The printing plates were produced and delivered to the GM Photographic presses. Soon, 9 million Americans would see”What’s New Today In A Chevrolet.”

The press proof check went well. The insert looked wonderful.  The order was given to throw the switch. The green “On” button was pressed, and the gigantic web litho machines came to life. On to the next project. Several days later, it takes a long time to print 9 million of anything, the agency received a call from the shipper scheduled to send dozens of shipping pallets to Reader’s Digest. “Uh,” the shipper said, “you might want to come and take a look at your insert.”  The agency’s head of print production sped over. What he saw made his blood run cold.  The shipper handed him a finished insert. The color was out of register. During four-color printing, the different color plates have to line up perfectly.  If not, the text and photos look like something from a 3-D comic book. OurRegistration_Misalignment production manager called the Account Man (not me) and the client. When they arrived, they opened the rest of the bundle on the pallet. All of them were out of register! The GM Photographic rep was called over. He tried to explain that this was very definitely an isolated thing and challenged the Chevy client to randomly pick any bundle on the dozens of pallets to see that they had been printed correctly. The client did. He picked hundreds of bundles, several from each pallet. They were all wrong! I wasn’t there, but I’m pretty sure there was a lot of screaming and shouting, as well as some sobbing. On a press run this large, someone is supposed to monitor the printing every so often to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen. Nobody did.  In fact, we later found out that the man running the press had…wait for it…wait for it…fallen asleep at the switch.  GM Photographic was forced to reprint all 9 million at their expense. I think the executions took place in the basement of the GM Building.

Those Pesky Typos

When you have a huge ad budget, you can buy lots of media, requiring lots of advertising. In 1976, Chevy’s ad budget was in excess of $100 million, the largest single ad account in the country. I came up with, what I thought, was a brilliant idea. The U.S. population that year was 218 million. Approximately 20 million were, what could we could call, new car purchase intenders. Why not take the $100 million ad budget and give it to a research company to visit each of these people for ten minutes and tell them how great Chevy was? If only one in ten did, that meant that 2 million people would buy a Chevy. I took the idea to Doug Allison, the head of Campbell-Ewald’s Research Department. He was so disheartened by the idiocy of my idea that he and Herb Fisher, the head of our Multi-Products Group, left the agency and started a little research company called Allison-Fisher. Oh well, maybe it wasn’t a good time to stop advertising, what with everyone wrapping themselves in American glory for the Bi-SpiritCentennial. Chevy was no exception. For ’76, Chevy had a theme “The Spirit of America.” They came out with special Spirit of America models; white cars with red and blue pinstripes. We used our huge ad budget to wrap ourselves in red, white, and blue. With that much media, a lot of ads had to be prepared. Sometimes they were put together too quickly. If you are going to represent the Spirit of America, it would behoove one to check for typos. A lot of people may see your mistake.

Building Roulette

Clients. naturally, like to have their ad agency close to them. They can summon a quivering Account Man at a moment’s notice, and they don’t have to travel very far to visit the agency. Thus it was for Chevrolet and Campbell-Ewald.  Chevy was on the 2nd floor of the GM Building, Campbell-Ewald on the 4th. The agency was never more than five minutes away. In the early 1970’s, the agency was informed that Chevrolet was moving to the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan. The agency was informed that they would be expected to relocate also. At that time, the largest office facilities in the area were a large Little Caesar’s, a Towne Club pop retail store (soda for non-Midwesterners), and Bob Thibodeau Ford. The decision was made to buy property on Van Dyke in Warren, across from CeCo Warrenthe GM Tech Center. Plans were drawn up. Ground was broken. 30400 Van Dyke was going to be our new home. Until Chevy changed General Managers. Tom Adams visited the new Chevy GM, Jim McDonald, to update him on our building’s progress. “Why are you putting up a building in Warren?” Jim asked. Tom said, “So we can be across the street from you when you move out there.” Jim said, “We’re not leaving Detroit, and neither are you.” Tom excused himself.  We scrambled to find tenants. Fortunately, the area was growing, so we were able to lease a lot of the space. Campbell-Ewald carried this real estate albatross around it’s neck until there was a regime change at Chevy. Campbell-Ewald was told that Chevy was moving out to the GM Tech Center, and that the agency as expected to follow them. Campbell-CeCo DetroitEwald said, “No problem! We might have a building we can use.” Of course, once GM announced that they were moving their corporate offices downtown to the RenCen on the Detroit River waterfront, Campbell-Ewald knew that they were going to have to pull up stakes and “follow the money.” They took space in a warehouse complex that was once part of the massive J. L. Hudson store, next to, ironically, Ford Field. I’m glad they’ve come home.

Next:  These Guys Are A Lot Different From GM!

Another “Close But No Cigar”

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Missing-The-Target

America and Chevrolet had survived the Bicentennial.  I had learned that playing cards at The Recess Club was a very bad idea. We settled into the task of churning out ads. Denizens of the GM Building soon discovered that the fastest way of getting from the 4th Floor (Campbell-Ewald) to the 2nd Floor (Chevrolet) was to take the interior stairs. The elevators took too long, and you always ran the risk of a Ford or Chrysler spy seeing the layout for the newest Vega ad you were carrying down for approval. There were over a dozen Account Men calling on as many clients. The stairway climbs began about 8:30 AM and continued well past 6:00 ant_farm_2PM. Up and down. Up and down.  If someone were able to cut away the outside of the GM Building, we would appear to be worker ants carrying around bits of food and waste. The only times we took the elevator were for lunch, or to go up to the 10th Floor (GM Legal) to be scolded.

On the role of women in the workplace front, not much had changed since the infamous Christmas party of 1971. Apparently, Account Men, especially the married ones, had to be protected from the sharp talons of home-wrecking husband-hunters. And the Personnel Department took this responsibility seriously. One of our married Account Men had taken a liking to a secretary in the Media Department. The “casual” desk walk-by soon evolved into the “Hey, you must have lots of boyfriends,” fishing expedition, then to the “Hey, if you’re free, I’d be honored to buy you lunch,” gambit, then onto the deal-sealer, “Hey, you know what? I hear that the food at Lelli’s (when there was still one on Woodward) is great.  How about we have dinner there tomorrow?” There then followed a succession of lunches and dinners. The Account Man was certain that after his next dinner, at Topinka’s, he would be able to whisk the lady across the street to the Howard Johnson’s Inn. There was one small problem. Putting the moves on a secretary at Campbell-Ewald was a lot like walking around in church without any pants on.  It sure felt good, but everyone immediately knew about it. The morning of the expected HoJo Hoedown arrived, with a note from the VP- Personnel on the Account Man’s desk.  “Please see me right away,” it said. He went over to HookerPersonnel and was told to come in, close the door, and sit down. The Director got right into it.  “You’ve been seen squiring (yes, he said squiring) a woman from Media around for lunches and dinners. I don’t know how to tell you this, but she’s desperately looking for an Account Man she can sink her hooks into to help her raise her kids. My advice to you is to stop seeing her.  To continue to do so could ruin your career. In fact, take a look at this.”  The Director opened his desk, took out a piece of paper, and handed it to the Account Man. On it were the names of ten secretaries…the Media lady was #4 on the list. “These women,” the Director said, “are known to be of easy virtue and have loose morals. I would advise you to not be seen in the company of any of them.” After the meeting, the Account Man told me about the meeting.  I asked him if this was going to make him change his ways. His answer parroted the punch line about the hell-raising young man in Ireland who went to confession to tell the priest that he’d had sex with one of the village girls.  “Was it Bridget?” the priest asked. “Mary? Cathleen? Megan? Ann? Margaret? Not Siobhan?” When he emerged from the confessional, the boy’s friends asked him if he’d confessed.  “No,” he said, “but I’ve got some great new leads!”

The news of Datsun firing Parker signaled that yet another Import felt that it had outgrown its agency. Toyota had already kicked Clinton E. Frank to the curb in favor of Dancer, Fitzgerald, Sample in 1975. Honda, also in 1974, fired a little known LA agency called Chiat/Day and moved the business to Needham, Harper & Steers. Now it was Datsun’s turn. The ad agency feeding frenzy began. I was sitting at my desk, writing off my gambling losses, when the phone rang. It was George Beech.  He was a part of the William Esty team pitching Datsun. He said that he was in town, and that a “friend” suggested that he might like to meet with me. Hmmm, if they get the account and hire me, I’m on my way back to LA and a free car! Since it had worked so well before, I suggested we meet for breakfast at the Elias Brothers Big Boy near my house. Our breakfast the next day went very well. They were going to fly me to NYC to meet “the team.” I took a couple of vacation days and went. The William Esty main lobby closely resembled the wood  paneled grandeur of the New York Yacht Club. I’m convinced that 90% of all mahogany in the U.S at the camel-life-11-25-1946-999-M5time was used in the Esty lobby. Seated at a grand desk was a receptionist. I introduced myself.  She smiled and pointed to a large display case behind her.  It was filled with cartons of cigarettes.  “Mr. Cavanagh,” she said, “please help yourself to several cartons of your favorite brand.” Esty was one of the lead agencies for R.J. Reynolds, makers of Camel, Winston, Doral, Pall Mall, and Salem, to name several. When I told her that I didn’t smoke, she looked at me as if I had just desecrated the U.S. flag. I waited, uncomfortably, for my summoning. Someone came out to bring me back to an office. The mahogany stopped when you left the lobby. The decor was now old New York City skyscraper shabby. I met with a few people and found out that the “LA team is all set.” If they hired me, I would be working in New York.  I also sensed a great deal of confusion on Esty’s part as to how to organize the account. There would be a “client contact” team in LA, and the oompah-loompahs in NY who actually did the work. I figured that Esty didn’t stand a chance of getting the business, so I politely ended discussions with them after I got back to Detroit. Imagine my surprise when I heard the news that they had won the Datsun account. Oh well, if at first you don’t succeed…

With a new sense of purpose, and the knowledge that I wasn’t going to ever become Chairman of Campbell-Ewald because nobody had told me that I was the “crown prince” in-waiting, I trudged on and hoped that I never really screwed anything up. The Chevrolet National Car Account had a SVP-Management Supervisor, a VP-Account Director, and four Account Executives.  I was handling the National Small Car Account.  The fellow handling the National Big Car Account had left the agency, leaving an opening. At this time, Campbell-Ewald also handled Ramada Inn. Their headquarters were in Phoenix , AZ. As part of our client service, we stationed a young Account Man in Phoenix. We had become friends when he worked in Detroit in what the agency Ramada logocalled the Multi-Products Group…which meant everything except Chevy. During the Summer of 1977, the temperature in Phoenix was averaging about 283 degrees during the day, while it plummeted to 195 degrees at night. I mentioned to him that there was a spot on the Chevy account that had just opened up that he might be interested in. And, it was only going to be 95 in Detroit. Shortly after that, Tony Hopp left Phoenix to return to Detroit as the National Big Car guy on Chevy at Campbell-Ewald. I wonder whatever happened to him?

Next: The Clouds Part

What Do You Mean We Printed The Wrong MPG Numbers?

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4048-1374

Beginning with the oil crisis of 1972-1973, America woke up to the fact that their cars needed better gas mileage. Unfortunately, imported cars (mainly Japanese) offered better gas mileage than domestic cars. One of the quickest ways to get better gas mileage was to make the cars smaller.  This made them lighter.  The engine had to carry less weight, and, viola’, the mileage was better.  Domestic car companies began churning out small cars and trumpeting their gas mileage. There was one small problem.  The manufacturers were putting out their own mileage figures. Ford offered California buyers a specially equipped vehicle they called the Pinto MPG, inferring high gas mileage. They also did a commercial featuring a Ford LTD driving from Phoenix to LA and getting great gas mileage numbers. The problem? The drive from Phoenix (1100 ft elevation) to Los Angeles (233 ft elevation) was done by a professional driver who was  basically driving downhill. vintage_rabbit_mpgThe EPA stepped in and ordered that all MPG figures be submitted to them for certification. Testing was done on a dynamometer. There was a strict protocol to be followed as far as the testing went.  It provided mileage numbers that were created in a laboratory. It was a flawedDatsun system, but at least all the manufacturers had to adhere to “testing” results for their MPG figures.  “Your actual mileage may vary.” Two numbers were figured; a “City” number which took stop and go driving into account, and a “Highway” number which almost always was higher. Manufacturers with higher numbers now had a new, powerful unique selling proposition. MPG as a USP!! Some companies even used gasoline efficiency as their theme line.

Chevrolet entered the MPG Madness with the Vega and the Chevette. Built on GM’s T-platform, the Chevette was already a “world car.” GM had been selling it under several different names around the world since 1973. My next assignment at Campbell-Ewald was as Small Car Merchandising Account Executive. We created, for Chevrolet, most of the dealer showroom display and sales materials.  I figured I was put on small cars because i had been “tainted” with California counter-culture thinking, and was better able to understand this silly rush to small cars…a phenomenon that most people in Detroit fervently hoped was a passing fancy.

Now that Chevy was selling small cars, they uncovered something that could derail their efforts to make the imports go away.  Chevy sales personnel Businessmanhad no idea what Vega and Chevette competitors offered, or even how they were priced. They didn’t know the competing models’ trim levels or standard features. There was a lot of confusion out there. It made converting an “import intender” somewhat problematic. We convinced Chevrolet to let us produce the “Chevy Small Car Guide.” This was to become my own personal Summa Contra Vehicula Importa.

The Small Car Guide, as it came to be called, was a monumental undertaking. It had to be comprehensive, meaning that we had to touch on ALL now-competitive imports, not just the Cerberus of Toyota, Datsun, and Honda. It also meant that we had to give details on EACH model from the ALL the competitors. It had to be durable. We wrapped the binder cover in thick Kellsvinyl to protect against coffee spills, spittle, and blood. The binder rings had to open and close easily, as we would be updating it every year. The dividers had to be sturdy to withstand constant section flipping. There was a rumor that these dividers were made of Kevlar, allowing the Small Car Guide to be used as a bullet-proof shield. The poor salesman would now be able to tell the difference between a Triumph Vitesse Sports 6, and a Simca 1204, and how the Chevy Chevette was the right car for the customer. When finished, the Small Car Guide was over two inches thick and weighed in at almost six pounds. The world had not seen such a concentration of knowledge since the Julius Caesar set fire to the Great Library of Alexandria. I still have my copy of the Small Car Guide. It makes a great door stop.

We received some great news late in 1975. The Chevette with the 1.4L engine and 4-speed manual transmission, was certified with a very impressive City figure of 28 MPG, and phenomenal 40 Hwy MPG!!!!!  Shove those numbers up your Blubird all you imports. Finally, good news on the MPG front. We realized that we had to flood the nearly 6,000 Chevrolet dealerships with displays, posters, and banners heralding these game-changing MPG numbers. Meeting with our Chevy client, we settled on a “package.” Each of the 6,000 packages would contain:

  • Six car toppers…three sides,  24 ” tall, with the MPG numbers 18″ tall
  • Four 36″ x 48″ window posters featuring the MPG numbers
  • Fifty 6″ x 12″ vinyl press-on window stickers with the MPG numbers
  • Four 12″ x 18″ stand-up counter cards with the MPG numbers
  • Twenty 3″ in diameter lapel buttons with the MPG numbers
  • Five suggested local newspaper ads with the MPG numbers

Crowd at dealershipThat should do it.  Festive and straight to the point.  We were on a tight production schedule to get the packages to dealers ASAP. They went out on time.  We knew that this kit would “drive showroom traffic.” Soon, thousands of import intenders would be driven into a Chevette buying frenzy by this beautifully designed showroom trim kit. The materials had been up for about a week when I got the call from our legal folks. Those weren’t the right MPG numbers!! “What do  you mean we printed the wrong MPG numbers?”

My first thought was to flee to Canada.  I still had relatives there. The trim kit had cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce and ship. Would GM also want to execute my family as well as me? I had visions of being strapped in, next to a crash test dummy, as our test pointing-fingersvehicle hurtled toward the impact wall at the GM Proving Grounds. Then I remembered the prime directive of all good account men: “Don’t take the blame if you can deflect it elsewhere.” But where? I started with the original numbers.  They had been published in an EPA Guide. Our legal department had a copy of the latest guide which showed the MPG numbers to be lower. The latest guide had come out while the kit was on press. Ahhh, wiggle room! But where did we stand legally? More importantly, where did I now stand in the food chain? This had to be resolved with a “plausible deniability” answer before Chevy got wind of it.  I decided to go to the source.  I called the EPA.  After being bounced around from functionary to functionary like a steel ball bearing in a pachinko game, I finally found the person responsible for “Automotive Advertising Certification Compliance.” I pled my case.  Help me Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope. There was a chuckle on the other end of the line.  “You ad guys sure get worked up over these numbers,” he said. “The numbers you used were what we call ‘interim’ numbers. We use those until the final ones come out.”  “But what’s a young account man to do when we have deadlines to meet?” I asked. “Oh, you’re OK,” he said. “We can’t expect commerce to halt while we finish ourepa_logo testing. The interim numbers are legit because that’s all you had to go on at the time. You’re OK.” After a few moments my breath came back to me. “Can you send me a letter on EPA stationary explaining that, just to be on the safe side?” He did.  I showed it to our legal department.  We all agreed that nobody else needed to be notified about our kit with the higher numbers…especially not Chevrolet.

Next: I Am Driven Happy

I Am Shown To My New Office

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Young Turk

I knew that I had to first see John Bluth, VP-Account Supervisor. John would be my boss. The Campbell Ewald Chevy Merchandising group was located in a hallway just to the right of the elevators. On either side of the hallway were doors framing translucent glass that led to the secretarial areas. Off of this area were the doors leading to the individual offices. I tried my luck with the door that said John Bluth. John was a great guy. If something hit the fan, he would work with you to fix it. John outlined my duties.  I was to be the Chevrolet Sports Marketing Account Executive. Chevy was neck deep with sponsorships of NCAA, Major League Baseball, the AAU, the Soap Box Derby, and the Chevrolet Super Sports (SS) Team which was comprised of sports celebrity endorsors. Not too shabby! John took me across the hall to meet his boss, Chuck McLaughlin, Sr. VP-Management Supervisor. If Ricardo Montalban and a leprechaun were to have a child, it would have been Chuck.  Stylish, genteel, sophisticated, with a quick wit, devilish sense of humor, and a twinkle in his eye. After meeting with Chuck, I was shown to my office. Each office had at least one window, and a Frigidaire window-mounted air conditioner.  From the air, the old GM building looked like conjoined Hs, thedet01 verticals connected by a long horizontal member. My windows looked across to the next wing, and down to the GM waste removal area. I’m quite sure that my window air conditioner was powered by a Pratt and Whitney 2500HP engine, the same engine that powered  the WWII P-47 Thunderbolt. If I wanted to talk on the phone, or have a meeting in my office, the a/c had to be shut off.

On my desk I had a phone and a Dictaphone recording device. I was told that it was faster to just write my memos out in longhand and give them to my secretary. There was a wooden coat rack in the corner, and two chairs in front of my desk. The filing cabinets behind me were empty…except for an unused condom that was caught in one of the file rollers.  Probably left over from the Christmas party of 1971.  I asked for some Lysol and paper towels to clean my desktop. John came in and dropped about sixty pounds of files on my desk. “Familiarize yourself with these. It will give  you a good idea of what you will be doing. And, call the travel office and have them book you a ticket for LA. You’re going there on Thursday.” Whahhhh??  As the sports merchandising guy, i would be attending each week’s NCAA UCLAFootball game on ABC. UCLA was playing Ohio State in LA on Saturday.  This was the drill: Thursday fly to location city, ABC booked my room; Friday attend pre-production meeting with ABC  technical people, handle any ticket requests local Zone people had; Saturday go to the game (with my all-access ABC credential) and make sure Chevy display near end zone was visible, make sure Chevy guy presenting Scholarship Award check knew how to pronounce the players’ names, then attend post game party; Saturday go home.

I was fortunate that my first game was a night game. Most games were played on Saturday afternoon. This triggered the Chevrolet Sun-visor Program. In concept, it was very clever. Produce cardboard sun-visors in the home team’s school colors, with a very large Chevy bowtie logo on the top of the visor, and the team’s football schedule on the underside of the visor.  They would be distributed free at the gate, with the expectation that the ABC cameras would broadcast a sea of Chevy logos as they panned the packed stadium. On Monday of the week of the game, ABC would call and tell me who the teams for Saturday would be…this was before the era of “regional” games. I would whip out my College Sports Information Director’s Handbook and find out the school’s colors, the capacity of the stadium, their current season’s football schedule, and the name of their Sports Information Director. I would call the SID and tell him that Chevy was donating $500 to their booster club if they would distribute the visors at the game. By noon, I had contacted the printer with the quantity (basically, the capacity divided by two because half of the stadium was in the shade), the school colors, the schedule, and a shipping address and a local contact to confirm delivery.  The completed visors were toTexas arrive by Thursday afternoon.  My first “visor game” was Texas – Oklahoma. The visors had arrived, Jim Bob Gullickson of the Hook-Em Horns Boosters called to confirm.  We were ready to rock and roll. I dutifully sent out a memo telling everyone to watch the game. Gameday arrived. The cameras panned the vast stadium crowd. Nobody was wearing a visor!!!!!

What had gone wrong?  They got there in time.  Jim Bob seemed to be a man of his word. Then the the glaring flaw in the program hit me. Most college teams make the visiting fans sit in the sun, the home team season ticket holders get to sit in the shade and don’t need a sun-visor.  No Oklahoma fan would be caught dead wearing Texas colors. Students don’t wear visors, they wear horns, or beaver hats, or gator heads, or Spartan helmets. I offered a solution that I knew would keep the multi-billion dollar General Motors Corporation solvent. Reversible sun visors! We lost the schedule, and printed the school colors of both schools, one per side. The next week at the Alabama – LSU game, the Chevy bowtie ruled the day.

For a while we had convinced ABC to mount their sideline cameras in the beds of Chevy Luv trucks. As the play on the field moved back and forth, you could see cameramen clutching their cameras as the trucks lumbered up and down the field. The clarity and stability of the shot relied on the acceleration and braking skills of the driver.

mrcoffeeI was settling into the routine of an ad guy…well, at least a sports promotions guy. A quick breakfast, the long commute down Woodward, lunch with the other account men in the GM cafeteria, the long commute up Woodward, dinner and bed. To break up the day, I decided to try a new beverage that had just been invented: coffee. There was no coffee room or break room.  Someone in our group brought in a nifty thing called a Mr. Coffee. The secretaries were in charge of the “Coffee Club.” For $5 a week, you had unlimited access to the coffee. Not being an addict yet, I opted for the 25 cents per cup plan. The NCAA football season was winding down. Visors were printed, car displays were arranged, cue cards were made, pre-production meetings  were attended. We were preparing ourselves for the ultimate football game, the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Chevy’s Offensive and Defensive Players of the year would each receive $10,000 scholarship checks for their schools during the halftime ceremonies. The teams were set: USC vs Texas A&M. I was told that I would go to the game and manage the Chevy halftime festivities.  I told all my friends and family to tune in.  It would be monumental.

75liberty-lg

Next: Miss America Shows Me Her Undies

The Bloom Starts To Come Off Of The Rose

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Wilted rose

Don’t get me wrong, I had the world’s greatest job. Lunches at Chasen’s and at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, dinners at Perino’s and The Brown Derby, Preferred “client” seating for tapings of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, and the Tonight Show. Visiting relatives thought I was a god. When things got slow in the office, I’d go make dealer calls in San Diego, Palm Springs, or Las Vegas. Sometimes I would go into our small projection room and watch old Chevy commercials that were in our TV vault.  The commercials, stored on tiny 16mm reels, were classic examples of the days when you didn’t have to talk about your latest lease deal, your MPG numbers, or let the public know that they were seeing “professional drivers on closed roads.” There was Dinah Shore telling me to “See the USA in my Chevrolet” because “America’s the greatest land of all…Mmmwahh!” Pat Boone, the teen heart-throb, pitching Chevys on the Pat Boone Chevy-Showroom. Doug Mahoney was one of our West Coast TV production people. He came in while I was watching the classic 1964 “Castle Rock” Chevy commercial where the agency had perched a Chevy and a very terrified model on the top of Castle Rock, 1500 feet above the Utah desert floor. Doug worked on the commercial.  As the helicopter flies over the top of the rock,

we see a model, Shirley Rumsey, smiling at the camera. The dulcet tones of Joel Aldrich, Chevy’s long time announcer, telling us that “Chevy stands alone.” What you don’t see are the high winds blowing around at that altitude (notice Shirley’s hair and her dress), the harness that Shirley wore under her dress which was bolted to the frame of the car (preventing her from being swept over the side), or Doug, hidden in the trunk with a walkie-talkie, holding on to her legs through a hole in the back seat. Shooting finished late in the afternoon.  The helicopter pilot said that the winds had picked up and flying Shirley and Doug off would be too dangerous.  His suggestion was that the two of them spend the night in the car.  Doug was all for that.  Shirley said that she’d rather jump over the side than spend the night in the trunk of a car with Doug. They brought them down. In college, I did a parody of this spot for a mattress company as part of an advertising assignment. The professor gave me a C-, saying that it was “utterly unbelievable.”

But everything wasn’t food, fun and games. GM, and the other Detroit car makers, were becoming slightly annoyed with what they thought was a passing fad…Japanese cars. After a bumpy start with the Datsun Bluebird, and the Toyota Toyopet, these companies, along with Honda, offered products that became hotBluebird sellers in California. Chevy’s response was the Vega. Instead of building a small car from scratch, take a big car and shrink it, they thought.  To stem what was being called the Japanese invasion, Chevy started the California Marketing Project. They assigned a department head level manager to run it out of the Regional office in San Francisco. In addition to my regular weekly report, I was assigned the responsibility of writing weekly reports for the California Project. What kind of ads were they running? How heavy was the media spend? Did their engines, like the Vega’s, blow up? I even mentioned a blatantly xenophobic memo that was now circulating in the West Coast zone offices, written by a Zone Manger in the Cincinnati Region. He sent it to all of his dealers, decrying the fact that even though America had won WWII, the Japanese were again attacking the good old USA by “lobbing thousands of tons of steel onto our cities.” I received a call from someone in Detroit.  “Knock it off!” I was told.  “Your reports are too negative and they are upsetting a lot of people back here. Can’t you talk about anything positive?” I was going to mention that new “import fighter,” the Chevy Monza, that couldn’t be designed and engineered for California without having to choose between the Vega engine, and a monster 350 cubic inch car-fire(5.7 liter) V-8 that was designed to go into cars weighing a ton more.  I loved LA restaurants too much to bring that up. Also, GM was getting bad press in Southern California.  To comply with California’s tough emission laws, GM’s post combustion catalytic converters would heat from 750 to 1000 degrees. This made parking your car in any dry grass during the SoCal brush fire season somewhat problematic. The late Kenny Hahn, an LA County Supervisor at the time, invited the press to a demonstration. A GM car was parked, with the engine running, near some dry grass. Within minutes, the reporters got their stories.

I’d write reports talking about the great price/value story the Imports had. I’d be scolded and told that their value story was only due to an undervalued yen. I would say that the mope from Culver City who’s shopping for the best deal doesn’t really care about the yen/dollar exchange rate. Detroit made a lot of money on option packages. They also offered a fistful of trim levels.  The dealer was quite happy if you drove away in a new Impala Luxus Elite Brougham Tourismo SS Squire Spyder Custom Towne Car.  The Imports were offering an average of three trim levels, all fairly well-equipped. Usually: L, S, and LS. I was smart enough to realize that, like a Great Lakes ore freighter, GM couldn’t turn around on a dime. The models coming out the next year had been decided upon almost three years earlier.

The ad agencies handling the Imports weren’t slouches either. When Chevy or Ford would drag their heels on renewing a California sports buy, the Imports, with fewer layers of people who could say “No” at the client, would pick them up.  The same was true when Chevy got out of outdoor.  All the franchise freeway and airport signs they had were picked up by Datsun and Toyota.

See-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil-monkeys-14750406-1600-1200When clients came out to the West Coast, they were surrounded by people who didn’t want them to think that anything was wrong.  Not all Regional and Zone people were like this, but the few who weren’t were easily shouted down. The general feeling was that consumers would come to their senses and return to the True Faith. Even if it meant playing the “Buy American” card.

Next: “You’re Here To Do What?????”