Hitting the Spot
Of course, sponsoring the highly rated programs was key, but as viewers became more sophisticated, the commercials themselves required more polish and finesse. After all, if the ad didn’t sell the product, it was useless. Several genres of TV commercial emerged: the testimonial, the mini-drama, the celebrity endorsement, the demonstration. But, the cornerstone of American TV advertising was (and largely still is) what experts call the “identifiable character”–Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Whipple, and countless others.
Among the earliest, and certainly one of the most successful, ID characters put to work on television for a brewery was “Mabel,” a genial blond bartendress who rarely spoke, but ended virtually every commercial with a friendly wink. Beginning in 1951, and for nearly the next 20 years, Mabel and her tray of Carling Black Label Beers glided across millions of television screens in response to that familiar call, “Hey Mabel–Black Label!”
Mabel’s graceful charm and captivating smile seemed to hit beer drinkers right between the eyes. One observer commented that Mabel could “compel any man to leave home–to fetch a carton of Carling’s, that is.” Indeed, with Mabel leading the way, the Carling Brewing Co. skyrocketed up the list of America’s largest brewers, from number 28 in 1951 to number 6 in 1957.
Pot shots from rival brewers were inevitable. In a clever TV spot for Labatt’s Beer, a young woman exits a tavern with a package under her arm. Wearing dark sunglasses and a scarf over her head, she scurries down the sidewalk, her face obscured by her coat collar. Much to her dismay, she is stopped by a man-on-the-street interviewer, complete with microphone and camera crew. Upon inquiry, the young woman reluctantly reveals that her package contains a six-pack of Labatt’s. The interviewer then asks, “Would you tell us your name?” The woman, as if relieved that her dark secret has been uncovered, removes her sunglasses dramatically, looks directly into the camera, and says, “Why, yes. I’m Mabel.”
Of course, Labatt’s hadn’t lured away the real Mabel–merely a close facsimile. Carling’s Mabel was played by Jeanne Goodspeed, a New York actress and model. In the mid-1950s, when Goodspeed ended her career to become a mother, Carling faced a bit of a dilemma. Mabel’s popularity precluded casting a new actress in her role. Instead, animated cartoon Mabels, together with clips from Goodspeed’s very first Carling shooting session in 1951, were the basis of Black Label commercials for years. Finally, in 1970, a new actress was cast in the role, but only to witness the final departure of Mabel shortly afterward.
The success of Mabel notwithstanding, not all ID characters were live actors. During the 1950s and ’60s, animation in TV commercials was predominant, and for good reason. Certainly, animation was far less expensive to produce than live action. But, more important, it offered maximum creative flexibility, allowing advertisers to produce dynamic, original commercials limited only by the animator’s imagination.
Hamming It Up
Never were the advantages of animation better exploited than in the long-running commercials featuring the wacky-go-lucky Hamm’s bear. Making his television debut in 1953, the Hamm’s bear ultimately became one of history’s most recognized advertising figures. In 1965, the Audit Research Bureau reported that the bear ranked first in “best liked” advertisements nationwide, an impressive achievement considering that Hamm’s commercials aired in only 31 states.
At least two aspects of the Hamm’s bear commercials were critical to their overwhelming success. First, each spot was, in itself, a miniature story, complete with plot, characters, conflict, and (if the bear was lucky) resolution. The spots had genuine entertainment value and elicited good viewer attention. Second, the animation and interspersed real-life shots dramatically showcased Minnesota’s pristine wilderness–the crystal-clear lakes, the heavy foliage, the abundant wildlife–in order to drive home the Hamm’s theme: “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters.” Consumer perception that Hamm’s Beer was pure, natural and refreshing was thus achieved through vivid imagery instead of trite, easily forgettable ad copy.
By 1969, the future of the Hamm’s Bear was uncertain, as the brewery’s advertising direction began to change. Nevertheless, over the next 20 years, the bear would be called upon periodically to replay his role as chief Hamm’s Beer salesman. In 2000, St. Paul’s Pioneer Press named the bear as a runner-up on its list of “150 Influential Minnesotans of the Past 150 Years.”
Rivaling the Hamm’s bear in terms of public recall and likeability was the animated comedy team of Bert and Harry Piel, fictitious owners of Brooklyn’s Piel Bros. brewery. During the 1950s and ’60s, New Yorkers fell in love with the cantankerous, loud-mouthed Bert and befuddled, soft-spoken Harry–who got their voices from the comedy team of Bob and Ray. Commercials typically depicted the brothers stumbling through some sort of promotional endeavor for Piel’s Beer only to be foiled by an unexpected snafu, setting off Bert’s temper and Harry’s futile efforts to calm him. The pair became so popular that thousands of letters were mailed to them at the Piel’s brewery, and the Bert and Harry fan club numbered over 100,000 members.
But critics pointed out that, while Bert and Harry were undeniably entertaining, they did little to support any particular image or attribute for Piel’s Beer. In the end, the critics proved right. Bert and Harry went down in history as the textbook example of that all-too-common advertising dilemma: Good reception, poor response. During the initial six years that the duo hawked Piel’s Beer, the brewery’s sales, on average, grew less than 1 percent per year. Bert and Harry even poked fun at the problem in one of their commercials. “Some of you–and you know who you are–were laughing at our commercials and not buying our beer. The free ride is over!” yelled Bert. “We have a new theme: ‘I’m laughing with Piel’s in my hand.’ What’s fair is fair!”
The pair was finally pulled from the airwaves in 1960. But, they returned two years later when Piel’s ad agency, Young and Rubicam, staged a mock election in newspapers and radio, the result of which was that New Yorkers wanted Bert and Harry to return. Fate was not much kinder to the comic brothers that time and, in 1965, they were retired yet again.