BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Sunday, the critically acclaimed A&C series Mad Men launches its sixth season. In the series, mad men, a portmanteau of Madison Avenue advertising men ply their trade through the sixties, when America went from Eisenhower gray and white to go-go Day-Glo. We see the ad men scrambling to match their ads to the new era. But in 1955, one real adman saw the future of advertising, and it was funny. Although the product, Piels Beer, was sold only in and around New York, its pitchmen became national celebrities. WNYC's Sara Fishko has more.
ANNOUNCER: Ladies, controlling household odors is an all-day job…
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SARA FISHKO: It was the middle of the 1950s. Television was young. Television advertising was – well, unrealized, you could say.
ANNOUNCER: So play safe. Odor-condition your home with Wizard…
LARRY OAKNER: It was still very hard sell.
SARA FISHKO: Advertising veteran Larry Oakner is the author of And Now a Few Laughs from Our Sponsor. He recalls the early ads for the painkiller Anacin.
LARRY OAKNER: Little hammers going on in people’s heads. Hard sell was really the, the tenor of the times.
ANNOUNCER: Yes, Old Gold, the cigarette with nearly 200 years of tobacco know-how….
LARRY OAKNER: There were dancing cigarette packages and stuff like that.
SARA FISHKO: Ed Graham, a Young & Rubicam copywriter, then in his twenties, was stuck doing unglamorous commercials for small appliances.
ED GRAHAM: SoI worked on G.E. fans and G.E. vacuum cleaners. “Reach easy, roll easy.”
SARA FISHKO: Graham had the idea that commercials with characters and humor could sell too, softly. And he set out to redo a local beer campaign that he thought was dismal, not up to the standards of Young & Rubicam.
ED GRAHAM: Y&R was doing a lot of good stuff but, but I found one that seemed pretty horrible.
SARA FISHKO: The product Brooklyn-brewed beer named Piels.
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Graham had been a fan of a droll and increasingly popular comedy team.
ED GRAHAM: So all of you who would like to be like Bob and Ray, send for our special book, How to Be like Bob and Ray.
BOB OR RAY: Would you like to grow up to be like us, boys and girls?
SARA FISHKO: Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding who’d been working in radio in the forties and early fifties.
BOB OR RAY: Simply address a postcard to the Bob and Ray Finishing School.
BOB OR RAY: No, the Boy and Ray Success Clinic.
SARA FISHKO: So Graham designed expressly for them a campaign around two fictional brothers, Bert and Harry Piel. The brothers, stylistic opposites, often disagreed on salesmanship.
PIEL BROTHER: To the Brothers Piel, others kneel.
PIEL BROTHER: Well, that doesn’t say anything about how good our beer is. Piels is delicious.
PIEL BROTHER: Serve Piels with your meals.
SARA FISHKO: Top Madison Avenue agency Young & Rubicam was mostly perplexed by the idea. Bob Elliott, the Bob of Bob and Ray and the voice of Harry Piel, remembers it was an uphill battle to sell the campaign.
BOB ELLIOTT: For that time, it was a real – excursion into who knows where, you know?
RAY GOULDING: We – we’ll tell the whole wide world. We’ll put in on television!
SARA FISHKO: From where we sit, where character and humor are common in spots –
HARRY PIEL: I never know when you’re kidding, Bert.
SARA FISHKO: - it may not sound like a revolution. But it was.
Finally, one executive at the agency approved the idea. They would record tracks, both scripted and improvised and create cartoon characters to fit the voices.
[PIELS AD CLIP]:
HARRY PIEL: This is Harry Piel, speaking to you from the main rifle range beneath the Piels Brewery in Brooklyn, New York. Piels, as you know, is the most delicious beer.
BERT PIEL: Why ain’t youse up?
HARRY PIEL: That was the voice of my brother Bert…
[END OF CLIP]
SARA FISHKO: The spots, featuring short hard-selling Bert Piel and tall, mild-mannered Harry Piel, began to run in 1955.
HARRY PIEL: Bert thought you’d be interested in why Mr. Duprey prefers our refreshing beer. Unfortunately, he speaks no English.
SARA FISHKO: Pretty soon Bob and Ray started to become Bert and Harry. They began to think like Bert and Herry, maybe because they knew all about them from creator Graham.
ED GRAHAM: What I did for Bob and Ray is I wrote biographies of Harry and Bert, where they went to high school, in Brooklyn, and then I followed their careers in early business. Harry had invented a colloidal suspension as a chemist and, although I really don’t know what that means, it sounded kind of good.
HARRY PIEL: Harry Piel, the tall one.
BERT PIEL: Bert Piel, average in stature.
[AUDIO UP & UNDER]
ED GRAHAM: And Bert was in sales.
BERT PIEL: Piels actually tastes best of all.
HARRY PIEL: Because it’s the driest of all.
BERT PIEL: Try some at your local tarvern.
HARRY PIEL: If they have none, congregate elsewhere!
BERT PIEL: Where they carry a product of Piels Brothers.
HARRY PIEL: Throat-wise, it’s delicious.
BERT PIEL: Yes.
SARA FISHKO: The chemistry of Bert and Harry clicked in a particular way. For one thing, Bob and Ray, for all their prior work together, had only once before played brothers.
BOB OR RAY: We did do a couple of band leaders who were supposed to be twins, the McBeebee twins, and they talked in – closely in unison.
McBEEBEE TWINS: Hi – gee, it’s certainly great to be back here.
BOB: As close as I could follow whatever Ray said –
[McBEEBEE TWINS TALKING]
And I got pretty good at it.
[McBEEBEE TWINS TALKING]
SARA FISHKO: But the Piels, Bert and Harry, were characters.
BOB OR RAY: Well they were believable, even though they were animated.
SARA FISHKO: The animation was by Jack Sidebotham.
RAY OR BOB: Everything Jack Sidebotham touched had a certain warmth to it, which they really needed because Bert Piel could be a pain in the neck.
[CLIP]: BERT PIEL: Piels tastes best of all because it’s driest of all! Remember that, viewers. Piels –
HARRY PIEL: Excuse me, Bert –
RAY OR BOB: Jack’s rendition of him made him seem like a loveable guy.
SARA FISHKO: And unlike now, there was at least a little more time for Graham and his gang go play around with.
ED GRAHAM: We had a full minute to work in. Almost all the ones people remember were minute commercials. And I think if we were limited to 20 seconds, we probably never would have gotten the character development that we did get.
SARA FISHKO: All this would hardly be worth mentioning if this hadn’t become a genuine television advertising phenomenon. For a long stretch, Piels Beer numbers shot up wherever the commercials ran. Fan clubs sprang up around Bert and Harry.
HARRY PIEL: Presenting Bert Piel as Mr. Smoothie.
BERT PIEL: Smooth A. Come in, my fragile princess. Let me get you something. A beer, perhaps? [CLAPS]
RAY OR BOB: We’d get calls on the street if we were walking together and it would be hey, Bert and Harry, how are you? Instead of a twosome, we became a foursome.
SARA FISHKO: Reportedly, people actually stayed home just to catch the latest Bert and Harry commercial. Newspapers – and this had never happened - printed the commercial schedule so people would know when they could catch Bert and Harry's latest antics.
HARRY OR BERT PIEL: A pristine class of Piels Light Beer am I, a host of wondrous things…
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SARA FISHKO: But life, commerce and culture are fickle. After years of the brothers, the Bert and Harry spots burned out, despite protests from many thousands of devoted fans. Piels Beer had begun to underperform. A new era, the early sixties, called for new slicker advertising.
ANNOUNCER: There’s only one way to get the honest taste of Piels, the hard way. In a world of false values, that’s something nice to think about…
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SARA FISHKO: A forgettable follow-up to a landmark campaign.
LARRY OAKNER: There was such an innocence in the fifties –
SARA FISHKO: Larry Oakner.
LARRY OAKNER: - you had two medium. You had TV and radio. You could make an impression. You could stand out.
SARA FISHKO: You could, and they did.
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Everything was about to change, as the fifties gave way to the sixties. Piels added one more thing to the list. Commercials could now be better than the products they advertised and more amusing than the programs they supported. They could deliver something beyond hard sell hammers in the head. For better or for worse, there was much more soft sell to come. For WNYC, I’m Sara Fishko.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sara Fishko produces The Fishko Files for WNYC.