During my 15-year tenure writing gags, sketches and parody lyrics for Bob Hope, I spent many hours with him on the road taping TV specials. An inherent and unavoidable byproduct of television and movie production is down time and, whenever we had a few minutes between takes, Bob enjoyed regaling us with stories from his early days in show business -- funny things that happened to him in vaudeville, on radio and during his Paramount Studio road picture days with Bing.
One May, we were at West Point taping a two-hour special for the cadets. During a lull in the shooting as we sat in his Winnebego waiting for his next call, he told us a story which I think better than any other sums up the awesome power of the mass media to sell consumer products. And it's even more true today than it was in the period now so long ago when the events he spoke of took place. Here's the story he told us:
Following glowing reviews in Broadway's "Big Broadcast of 1938," the Pepsodent toothpaste company offered Bob his own radio show to replace their sponsorship of the popular "Amos 'n' Andy." Bob assembled a crack staff of veteran radio writers, directors and actors that included announcer Bill Goodwin, orchestra leader Skinnay Ennis (soon replaced by Les Brown) and a walrus-mustached, former trombonist named Jerry Colonna. The show, which debuted on September 27, 1938, had all the earmarks of a hit, but unexpectedly got off to a rocky start. It took ten or twelve weeks of tinkering with the format before Hope was satisfied with the laughs he was getting from the studio audience (the show would remain on the air for 20 years).
Since radio was still in its infancy, there was as yet no reliable method of measuring listenership. If the live audience appeared to enjoy the show, it was considered a success. Later, the Hooper Ratings, an audience sampling system similar to today's Neilsens, would be used to set advertising rates. But when Hope began his show, the Hoopers were still in their experimental stages and he was forced to wonder from week-to-week how he and his on-air gang were doing. Whenever he approached executives at Pepsodent's ad agency, all he would get was, "Don't worry about it, Bob. You're doing great. Just keep doing what you've been doing." He got the strange feeling they weren't leveling with him.
One day, after the show had been on for almost a year, he was approached by a man on the golf course who had been playing in the foursome ahead of him. "Bob, I want to thank you," said the man. Hope, thinking he was just another fan, returned the compliment and moved on. "No," continued the man. "I want to thank you for making me a millionaire." Of course, Hope had no idea what he was talking about.
It seems that the man had run a small cardboard box factory that he'd inherited from his father. It was a modest business servicing many clients -- including Pepsodent. "About six months ago," explained the man, "Pepsodent doubled their orders, then a week later, tripled them. Eventually, I dropped all my other customers and provided boxes for Pepsodent exclusively. My company became so successful, I ended up selling it for a million dollars. Thanks, Bob." Hope was stunned. No one at Pepsodent had mentioned such a large increase in their production of toothpaste. Completely by accident, Hope had stumbled onto an audience gauge as accurate as the Hooper Ratings would later become.
Hope smiled wryly as he concluded his story. We all sat mesmerized. "Well?" one of us asked, "what did you do then?" "Let's just say," said Bob, "when contract renewal time came along, I negotiated one of the biggest goddamned raises in the history of radio."
The persuasive power of the mass media to sell products couldn't have been driven home more forcefully and Bob Hope never forgot the lesson he learned from it. Over the ensuing years, he would make sure that his name became aligned with major sponsors whose products he would hawk enthusiastically in countless TV commercials -- a practice that some Hollywood stars of Hope's magnitude considered somehow degrading to their "art."
After Pepsodent, Hope's name would be linked with Chrysler and, later still, with Texaco, a relationship that culminated in 1974 in a $4 million, five-year television production deal (a sum unheard of at the time). In the mid-1980's, he received $3 million from Southwestern Bell Telephone for a series of TV spots for their "Silver Pages" that took him but three days to film. In California, he appeared in numerous commercials for Cal Fed Bank, in which he was a major stockholder. Fittingly, his final appearance on television, at age 95, was in a commercial for K Mart directed by Penny Marshall.
And it all came about because an appreciative box maker over half a century before had taken the time to say "Thanks." Sometimes, the lessons we learn best come from sources we least expect.
"How Bob Hope Learned About The Power Of Advertising -- A Lesson He Never Forgot" is copyright 1998 (c) by Bob Mills (All rights reserved). Portions may be quoted with attribution.
(Bob Mills is an attorney-turned-comedy writer who now delivers motivational corporate and cruise ship lectures based on his adventures with Bob Hope. Full details can be found at http://www.laughmakers.blogspot.com. He also publishes "Funny Side Up," a free topical comedy newsletter delivered by e-mail Mon-Fri. Sign up at http://funnysideup.listbot.com/ or send a "subscribe" e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org)
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