Executives on camera may not be pretty, but they're real
A new species of presidential campaign
Executives on camera may not be pretty, but they're real
Corporate image-making has been dominated in recent years by the promotional antics of major sports and show business celebrities on the television screen. But that Madison Avenue cliché has begun to lose its sheen and a new breed of actor is replacing the celebrity spokesman as the adman’s dream. Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca, Eastern Airlines’ Frank Borman and Laker Airways’ Freddie Laker are among the many chief executives of large corporations whose faces are familiar to today’s TV audiences. It used to be that the only heads of companies appearing on TV were local automobile and carpet dealers, whose tacky and blaring performances are mostly memorable for rousing viewers who doze off during late-night reruns. But when large corporations get into the act, the promos have an altogether new cachet. What has become an established trend in the U.S. is beginning to take hold in Canada.
The man in the vanguard of the Canadian ad revolution is David Nichol,
president of Loblaws Ltd., who not only liked what his American counterparts were doing but has chosen to push the concept a few steps beyond their sometimes reluctant or halfhearted efforts. The task is one he pursues with an uncommon zeal, tinged with a moral fervor. Tall, slightly pudgy and boyishlooking, the man has an unmistakably wholesome appeal. He admits that his biggest fans are middle-aged housewives and little old ladies. Nichol is now so familiar to Ontario shoppers that he no longer needs to be identified on the screen. Well-dressed and authoritative, he speaks to consumers with a straightforward, no-nonsense pitch: “At Loblaws, we don’t just talk about lowering your family’s food bill, we’re doing something about it____” The basic mes-
sage, always, is that he is doing good for the consumer. “We live in an age of disbelief,” contends the off-air Nichol, whose steadily increasing number of television appearances over the past three years has turned into nothing less than a corporate crusade against inflated prices and exaggerated claims.
The oozing zeal and apparent sincerity displayed by Nichol is shared by the other Canadian executives who have tested the pitchman game. Auto man Bill Pickett, president of American Motors (Canada) Ltd., first began making the tapes of his 60-second radio spots available to AMC dealers in 1972, when the company’s buyer protection plan was introduced. Pickett has continued to make new commercials at periodic intervals ever since. George Cohon, president of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd., recently appeared in TV and radio ads to raise money for Terry Fox, but his first television commercial for McDonald’s was aired last year when Cohon announced hamburger prices would be dropping by a nickel. “It was something I wanted to communicate to as many people as possible, in as short a time as possible,” he says. Among others who have graced the screen lately is Llewellyn Smith, the young marketing manager of E.D. Smith & Sons Ltd. and great-grandson of the company’s founder. Bob Woolley, president of Jarman Shoes, has been selling footwear to sports fans during NHL and NFL games for the past several seasons. But the newest entry in Canada’s executive celebrity sweepstakes is David Clark, the young and vigorous Thomas J. Lipton Ltd. president, brought to the screen last month to slay the competition. As Clark says in the commercial, he really does prefer Lipton soups to Campbell’s.
Credibility is clearly the cornerstone of the strategy that is prompting these presidents to become company spokesmen. David Nichol took over as on-air Loblaws spokesman from actor William Shatner. “People like Bill Shatner: he’s popular, attractive. Unfortunately, he doesn’t shop in Canada,” says Nichol. “People may enjoy him, but they don’t believe what he is saying.” This credibility gap is what this new wave of advertising is all about because, whatever the message, the celebrity promo not only lacks but mocks credibility. “I don’t think bringing in some movie star works,” adds Nichol. “It’s great entertainment but doesn’t sell. The consumer wants to see the guy whose job is on the line. I can’t afford to lie to the consumer. I can destroy Loblaws and myself.”
Supporting Nichol’s credo are recent consumer tests which show that real now works better than pretty—a notion that is nothing short of heresy in the ad world. Last spring William Esty Co. Inc., the New York ad agency for Interbank (MasterCard’s licensing company), tested two commercials using a professional actor and Interbank President Russell Hogg respectively. People randomly sampled at shopping centres preferred Hogg over the better-looking actor just as Loblaws consumer panels found Nichol more believable than Shatner. Yet Nichol says when his first commercial for Loblaws was aired in the fall of 1977, it ran against some heavy resistance from his associates and advertising agency, Vickers & Benson Ltd., who were less than enthusiastic about his plan to replace the Star Trek hero. “When I suggested I do the commercials, I think they went into cardiac arrest,” he recalls. However, Vickers & Benson Chairman Bill Bremner suggests that Nichol may be “grandstanding” when he takes credit for the idea. “We were the ones who put him in front of the camera,” says Bremner, recalling a day in Niagara-on-the-Lake,
Ont. in 1977 when the agency persuaded the Loblaws president to step into the public eye.
The problem facing Loblaws at the time was its lingering high-price image. For a few months, Vickers & Benson handled the Nichol spots. But, almost invariably, the sets had to be rearranged when he arrived and the shoot took up an afternoon of the president’s time. So, Nichol decided to do the television spots in-house and hire his own television communications director. “The first year we did this we saved more than half a million dollars in production costs by doing our own commercials,” he explains. “What you get from people at ad agencies is puffery. Our commercials have a home-made look. We do no-frills commercials. I think they suit the economic environment.” But Bremner of Vickers & Benson sees limitations when the president handles his own advertising. “At this point, the thrust of David’s advertising is concentrated on no-name lines and he’s done a
good job,” Bremner says. “I’m not sure when he moves into a more operational area where he might have 7,000 products to worry about that he could survive without an agency. I would defy him to write the kind of commercials that we’ve done.”
The impact of the Nichol ads can be seen in the stunning success of Loblaws’ no-name (generic) products and nofrills stores. Loblaw Companies Ltd. of Toronto, the parent of the Ontario supermarket chain Loblaws Ltd., reported profits of $22.6 million after the 1980 third quarter, compared with $14.2 million a year earlier. Company shares also reached a five-year high on the Toronto Stock Exchange last month.
Another company hoping for similar success is Chrysler Corporation, which is desperately in need of consumer confidence. Chairman Lee Iacocca is the classic example of the executive as reluctant performer and his stiffness sometimes shows it. Iacocca is said to dislike doing the commercials and complains that they take up too much of his time. Yet his agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt Ltd. of New York, remains convinced by his successful pilgrimages to Washington for aid that Iacocca is the only one who can sell the automaker’s product to the public (although recently that revered automotive analyst Frank Sinatra has been lending a hand).
While Loblaws’ Nichol is well aware that others are following his lead, he thinks the majority are unlikely to be so brazen as to join him on the air: “I don’t have to worry about most Canadian companies reeling out their chief executives on radio and TV. Their ad agencies won’t allow them to. It’s also against the nature of Canadian businessmen. They’re too conservative, too timid and terrified of the consumer to do it.”
For David Nichol, pitching no-name products is really more like preaching. Fittingly, his brother is a Baptist minister, with whom Nichol admits he has much in common: “We’re both communicators. I’m trying to sell Loblaws and make Dominion shoppers see the error of their ways. He’s trying to sell eternal life and get sinners to see the error of their ways. Both of us with limited success.” Perhaps the outstanding difference between them, with which Nichol would undoubtedly agree, is that in a secular world the average consumer cares more about saving on his food bill than his soul.
A worthy footnote, however. Asked about the effect on Loblaws’ credibility of having been convicted three times since 1975 of selling groceries at prices higher than advertised, Nichol replies: “The consumer doesn’t expect us to be perfect.” Yes, executive promos are really just a new wrinkle in an old game.
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