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Make Ads Memorable
Written February 2019


During the 1920s, my grandfather Harry G. Buckingham left his Ohio farm with its cows and moved a little further down the milk-processing chain.  He relocated his family to the town of Byesville to run the local dairy.

The new arrival wanted to introduce himself to his neighbors.  That was simply good business.  In fact, he was bold enough to run for a seat on the Byesville Village Council.

And he won!  As was customary in those days, the winning candidate purchased an advertisement to thank his supporters.

Were such “cards of thanks” ever purchased by losing candidates?  I've learned of one erstwhile politician who did so.  R. C. Gano told about him in the January 1918 issue of the trade magazine Simmons Spice Mill.  You may not have kept your copy, so I'll summarize the story.

The loser was Thomas J. Webb of Chicago.  He was a coffee merchant who ran his business like a business.  He also had served for six years on the Board of Review in Cook County, trying to run government like a business even though it is no such thing.

Are businesspeople well-suited to run the government?  Not necessarily.  Thinking of Donald Trump, PZ Myers wrote in 2020 that "businessperson" is not a catch-all occupation. "There are diverse roles within a business. And some roles are not at all useful in most situations.  A slumlord doesn't work with supply chains.  Neither does a guy who runs casinos into bankruptcy.  Neither do Wall Street bankers and insurance company executives.  Those are actually the most useless possible qualifications for anybody to do anything other than leech off other people's money.  And who are we putting in positions of power in our country?  You guessed it, the leeches and parasites."

In November of 1916 Webb ran for re-election, endorsed by every newspaper in the city.  He purchased lots of advertising in the papers and on billboards, making his face and signature well known to all Chicagoans.

Somehow he lost.  But then he had an original idea, and his advisers urged him to follow through with it.

Promptly following his political defeat,” wrote Gano, “there appeared a card in the street cars of Chicago very similar to his political cards and thanking the Chicagoans who had voted for him.

“This card ran for three weeks and attracted much attention.  Many voters called him on the ’phone to say that a politician who, though a loser, appreciated the loyalty of his constituents enough to advertise his appreciation at considerable cost — was the right sort.  He accepted these compliments gracefully and with as little comment as possible.

“Then, when the next card came out, there were more ’phone calls, to the tune of, ‘By gosh, I suspected all along there was some trick to it.’

“There followed some really masterful coffee advertising.  The price of 39 cents the pound was unusual, and was explained as the very lowest at which this ‘better’ brand could be offered — and the phrase, ‘A superior blend so good that I take pride in giving it my own name and personal endorsement’ explained away the unusual feature of giving a man's full name to a brand of coffee.”

Gano noted the “cumulative effect" of Webb's strategy.  “A certain amount of good will attached to the political campaign, and this was carried over to the commercial campaign and undoubtedly contributed largely to its success.”

Let's continue Webb's story a couple of decades.  Robert J. Elisberg has blogged more than once about a conversation he once had with David P. Lewis, writer of radio commercials.  When Lewis was starting out in Chicago, he worked at the same ad agency as the celebrated copywriter Isadore J. Wagner.  “One of their clients was Thomas J. Webb Coffee (very big in the Midwest at the time), one of Iz's big ads.  David went on a know-it-all rant about how he hated the ad because it was so annoying.”

The commercial apparently was the old-time radio version of the Aaaflaaac Duck.  Elisberg describes it as featuring “a very whiny wife calling out to her husband” in a raspy voice:

As long as you're up,
get me some
Thomas J. Webb

Upon hearing “Mortimer,” a listener would freeze, waiting for the other irritating word.  And in those few suspenseful seconds, he'd hear the slowly-enunciated brand name.  Pretty slick.

The know-it-all upstart's supervisor pointed to a rate book.  “It showed that the ad was wildly successful and incredibly well-remembered.  He realized that you're not writing art but trying to get the public to remember your product!  (And then buy it.)”



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