Selling white shirts and Mexican beer

hathaway shirt ad.jpgAd industry veteran Gawen Rudder reminds us of the brilliance of David Ogilvy's 'The Man in the Hathaway Shirt' campaign

New York, September, 1951: Aussie Frank Sedgman beat Vic Seixas 6-5, 6-1, 6-1 in the US Open, colour television launched, I Love Lucy was in final production and the fledgling agency Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather celebrated its third birthday.

Sitting in his small Manhattan office 41-year-old advertising newbie David Ogilvy was restless. He looked after a small group of British clients, including Wedgwood China, Guinness and British Travel, but was casting around for a local brand. "With so many agencies, so much competition, I'd got a gimmick, a terrific advantage," he claimed, "My English accent, which helped to differentiate me from the ordinary."
The opportunity arose when Ellerton M. Jette dropped by. He was head of C.F. Hathaway, a man on a mission from a little-known 116 year-old shirt-manufacturer in Waterville, Maine. Coming straight to the point, Ogilvy asked, "How much money have you got to spend?" The reply, "$30,000." Silence. "I almost burst into tears, fifteen per cent commission on that amount wouldn't have kept anyone alive for very long." Before he could say no, Mr Jette made him an offer he couldn't refuse: "If you take on the job of making us a national brand, Mr. Ogilvy, I promise you this. No matter how big my company gets, I will never fire you. And I will never change a word of your copy." The two shook on the deal and the flattered Ogilvy set to work.

True to his title at the agency - Vice-President in Charge of Research - he spent days doing in-depth research on Jette's client base and came up with no less than eighteen concepts before settling on a campaign built around the image of a Hemingway-type character dressed in a Hathaway shirt.

Ogilvy settled upon a distinguished looking acquaintance, a middle-aged Russian émigré named George Wrangell, who claimed to be a Baron and cultivated a splendidly photogenic moustache. He got the idea for an eye patch, he said, from a photo of the US Ambassador to Britain, Lewis Douglas, who had injured his eye whilst fly fishing in England. But he got the core idea itself - the idea of this aristocratic man with an adventurous life - from the James Thurber story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (His biographer and former O&M CEO, Ken Roman, suggested it came more from 'the secret life of David Ogilvy.' As a dashing young executive, Ogilvy was prone to capes and bow ties while most others favoured grey flannel suits.) Putting the talent in an exotic location gave the pitch a fictional element and "story appeal," as Ogilvy put it.

The first ad appeared in the September 22, 1951 edition of The New Yorker magazine and caused a sensation, triggering an immediate increase in sales. Keen to capitalise on this early success, Ogilvy decided to limit all the media solus to The New Yorker for four years, and began producing a new image each week in which 'The Man in the Hathaway Shirt' tried his hand at a different sophisticated pastime: examining a Purdey shotgun, playing the oboe, painting a copy of a Goya masterpiece, conducting the New York Philharmonic. The magazine's readers would wait to see what the Hathaway Man was up to this week. Wrangell remained the centrepiece of the campaign for several years until he was replaced by other, similarly eye-patched talent. That first insertion in The New Yorker cost just $3,176 and within a week, every Hathaway shirt in the city was sold.

In its time the campaign became so recognisable that it once ran with no headline, no copy and no mention of the brand. It finally ran out of steam in 1976 and Hathaway left Ogilvy & Mather in 1983 and went to TBWA\Chiat\Day before moving its account in-house. The company closed its factory in 2002.

The story surrounding the campaign prompts two thoughts. Was Mr Jette's tempting offer to the agency too good to be true? In setting up the meeting, his task was to forge a relationship and build Hathaway into a major national brand. He knew Ogilvy had two problems: He worried that his biggest clients might walk away, and he hated it when clients messed with his creative.

Secondly, it got me thinking whether, back in 2006, Euro RSCG New York consciously borrowed the Hathaway strategy in creating 'The Most Interesting Man in the World' gold Effie campaign for Dos Equis beer. Again the focus was on 'The Man,' a similarly Hemingway-esque character in a white shirt, but performing slightly more obscure feats of bravery.

Brighton, England, 1966: The Advertising Association's showing of 'Risk and Responsibility' featured a re-creation of the time-honoured agency creative review board, headed by a young-ish Brylcreemed Jeremy Bullmore, then head of creative at J. Walter Thompson. He played a risk-averse, chain-smoking client opposing an obsequious account director, played by Mrs Sam Rothenstein from Masius Wynne-Williams.

The object of their filmed discussion was 'The Man in the Hathaway Shirt' print ad. The focus of their presentation was that creative risk-taking is essential to effective advertising.
Scene One: First impressions, "Very good, excellent, awfully good," then hesitation, "God knows I'm no copywriter, but that headline ... it's more like a statement than a promise." Scene Two: Revised headline, 'You'll look better in a Hathaway Shirt.' Reaction: "Very good, but ... can we risk featuring just one white shirt, what about showing the range?" Scene Three: Revised visual. "The art director wasn't all that happy, but here it is .... Aah, that's so much better isn't it? But there's one thing ... women are the main shirt buyers ... shouldn't we show ...?" Scene Four: Clinging woman caresses shirt. "Splendid. What a simple solution. But ... (hesitates) there's just one more thing. That ... umm ... eye patch, are we cashing in on a disability? Does he have pink eye, or perhaps conjunctivitis? Scene Five. The offending eye patch is removed. The 'client' is rapturous, "Tremendous, great, and it hasn't lost a thing! And we've eliminated risk. Wonderful."

But by eliminating risk, Bullmore and his colleagues approved a less effective print ad, less capable of commercial persuasion. They'd set out to design a horse and ended up with a camel.

In a similar vein, rumour has it the original headline for the Volkswagen 1959 launch ads that became 'Think Small' and 'Lemon' was 'Willkommen.' As Bill Bernbach reminds us, "Logic and over-analysis can immobilize and sterilize an idea."

GAWEN-ad-1.jpgSydney, Australia, 1970: Amongst the Mullins, Clarke & Ralph, Macquarie Street clients was E.E.Whitmont & Sons from Blacktown, once the largest shirt maker in the southern hemisphere. Founded in 1911 by German haberdashery peddler Edward Elias Weissberger, his son Cecil 'borrowed' the eye patch two years after the Hathaway launch and used it in its advertising and logo up until its closure in 1979.

I seem to recall the creative at the time was Alan 'Mo' Morris. I should know, I was the account director.

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