Category Archives: Ad Stories

Those Angry Insurance Ads

You know that weird cousin or drunk uncle no one wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving? The one that makes you think “Yeah, I’ll just bring another bottle of 2-Buck-Chuck to Grandma’s today?”  I’m wondering if some advertisers have decided these folks are an untapped market. I mean, conspiracy theory nephews need car insurance too, right?

And none are better at tailoring their ads to Facebook-fight aunts than Liberty Mutual Insurance. Their current campaign, filled with angry, put-upon people is enough to make the most ardent ad-lover scramble for the remote’s mute button.

Let’s pretend you are the new beloved of a wonderful person. They have brought you to a family gathering where you will get to meet the whole damn clan.  Suddenly, your cousin who is no longer allowed at the golf club isn’t so embarrassing, is she?

First up is cousin Lily. She’s…um…well, she’s really into her car. Please, whatever you do, don’t mention Brad Pitt at dinner. Trust me on this.

liberty insurance ad Brad

Oh look! It’s Aunt Justine and Uncle Phil. Their native tongue is passive aggressive. If we’re really lucky we’ll get caught in one of their fights, but have no idea they have thoughtfully put us in the middle until the drive home!


And now we meet Aunt Kat. We politely refer to her as “organized”. A potluck at her house is no less orchestrated than a military invasion. Want to know why my brother isn’t here today?  He brought the wrong spoon for the potato salad to last year’s Forth of July picnic and hasn’t lived down the shame yet.

coffee lady

Mutual Liberty, I get it, folks hate paying for insurance, it’s weird and expensive. I even applaud you for understanding this fact! I’m just trying to figure out your game here. Your competitors’ spokes people include a charming, personable and (I think Australian ???) gecko, the adorable and approachable Flo, the golden voice President from 24, and the now super buff JK Simmons, and you, what? decided to go with an anti-hero?

Yet, Mutual Liberty isn’t alone in this. It seems more and more groups are going for the angry crowd. Blue Buffalo dog food’s ads had characters who were ready to sharpen pitch forks because their dogs’ food wasn’t gourmet. Now University of Phoenix has released an incredibly pissed off commercial that promises we will all be sorry for underestimating their students, to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz.

There is no doubt we are living in a hayday of the angry person, I just never expected Madison Avenue to grip this derision for profit. What does it say about our society when the sizzle we are selling is burning anger?


Radio’s Favorite Food Expert

Kids, Aunt Mary has gone down the rabbit hole, and like Alice my eyes have been opened to a new and fabulous world.

A friend gave me this adorable and very pink promotional cookbook that I thought would be perfect to share with everyone. It’s kitschy and charming and unlike a lot of retro recipes, it’s not gross. As I like to think of myself as Fun and Fancy, I thought it was a perfect fit for a mid week Facebook post.

Scanning in the cover I saw the book was presented by Mary Lee Taylor.

Well, who the hell is Mary Lee Taylor? I assumed she was some B-list Betty Crocker. I began searching online and was pretty sure Google was going to come back with a palms-up shrug and an “I dunno.”

Nope! What popped up was an Aunt Mary trifecta: retro recipes, clever PR and a groundbreaking woman. We will unpack this mystery woman a bit, but first, here are some things it would be helpful to know:

  1. It was very common for food companies to come out with promotional cookbooks featuring new ways to use their products. These are still highly collectable.
  2. Historically, women have been what we would call “early adopters” to emerging industry. Often working for lower pay and offering more collaboration, women were on the forefront of many new media including stunt journalism, advertising, radio and later TV production.
  3. Radio programs were generally sponsored by a product that was looking to target an audience. The radio program would be tailored to engage that audience. For instance, detergent companies looking to attract women to their product would sponsor daytime dramas, which later became known as Soap Operas.

Erma Perham Proetz was working as a copywriter for a St. Louis advertising firm starting in the 1920’s. By some evidence she seemed to already be an expert in nutrition and cooking when the PET Milk campaign was handed to her in the midst of the Great Depression. Sure, she could have gone down the recipes-in-magazines lane, but she took a hard turn into radio. Under her pseudonym, Mary Lee Taylor, Proetz started hosting short radio segments offering wisdom, encouragement, household tips and yep, recipes featuring (and sponsored by) PET Milk to her listeners.


Soon her wildly popular segment expanded to 30 minutes and a national audience. The first half was a lighthearted show featuring a newlywed couple, the second half showcased Proetz and her recipes. This is when she started offering free-by-mail recipe books which were also incredibly popular.

This show lasted for 20 years! During this time Proetz moved up the ranks of her firm, finally becoming the executive vice president. Her other accomplishments included becoming a top leader of women in business in St. Louis and the US, being named by Forbes Magazine as an Outstanding Woman in Business, and she was the first woman elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame. Damn girl!

Sadly, the show did not make the transition to television and was cancelled in 1954, a decade after Proetz’s death. You can actually still find recordings of her programs today!

This is the sort of thing I love digging up. Start with an adorably retro and delightful recipe book and then find the heart and soul behind it.

I’ll say it again, every ad has a hidden story.

Torches of Freedom – Easter Parades and Cigarettes

Aunt Mary’s good friend and founder of modern Public Relations, Edward Bernays, was approached by cigarette makers who asked for help in expanding their brand to women. At the time it was considered unseemly for woman to smoke but manufacturers desperately wanted to target this untapped market.

Bernays hired the most glamorous and fashionable women to smoke while walking in the 1929 New York Easter Parade. The parade was a huge deal at the time and photos from it where published all over the county. Women, excited to check out the latest fashions from NYC, were also treated to an eyeful of the contemporary glitterati smoking.

Bernays described cigarettes to the press as “Torches of Freedom” the women could carry in order to show their equality to men.

Within months the market share of cigarettes to women exploded.

During this same time, the image of the modern woman had been given a makeover. The 1920’s woman was daring, lighthearted and eager to join in the fun with the boys. Young flappers were looking for a thin and flat chested physique that would allow them to play sports, dance, sneak into speakeasies and be free like never before. They also needed a symbol that would separate them from the generations before.

But, how was all this to be achieved? Well, with a cigarette of course!

Cigarette advertising began encouraging ladies to smoke instead of eat. The fat shaming “Instead of reaching for a sweet, reach for a Lucky Strike” campaign came out.

Kind of gross there, old timey folks.



A Diamond Ad Campaign is Forever

With Valentine’s Day in the recent past the feed of your favorite social media outlet may be crammed full of photos of engagement rings posted by would-be brides who are already scrounging Pinterest for the next big thing in wedding trends (it’s Boho). Obviously love and diamonds go together like a horse and carriage.

Or craft beer and brownies.

Or Adele and singing in your car.

But how did a rock become the symbol of love? Well, Son, you’ve been played.


In the late 1800’s a large cache of diamonds was found in South Africa causing the groups of British mine owners to band together to create De Beers Consolidated Mines. This created a monopoly that controlled all aspects of the diamond trade. Their new mission was to create the supply AND the demand for their products.

The goal was for couples getting engaged to consider a diamond ring part of the matrimony package. But how? How do you brand a product as both wildly needed but also precious and rare? Investigation had found the practical folks who had lived through the Great Depression and then WWII were far more interested in procuring useful items such as household appliances than in jewelry.

diamond ad
     Because of Anti Trust laws, ads could not mention       De Beers or even show jewelry. Instead they featured dreamy artistic images and sentimental copy. 

De Beers hired a fancy New York City ad firm to get the job done. The campaign was handed over to the “Women’s products” copywriter, Frances Gerety.

In a hurry, Gerety scribbled down the only tag line she could think of. She didn’t love it and her cohorts weren’t that impressed, but no one could think of anything better.

The slogan: “A Diamond Is Forever”

Yep, one of the most enduring slogans ever came about because, well…why not.

De Beers began papering ads everywhere and spreading the idea that a diamond not only proved the man’s love, but the amount of his love. A bigger diamond was not only proof of adoration but also showcase the success of the husband-to-be.

At the same time, De Beers began loaning jewelry to celebrities to wear to noteworthy events, such as the Academy Awards, further cementing the idea that diamonds were a sign of success and elegance.

Today, over 75% of American couples, and an increasing portion of the world, consider a diamond ring to be an indispensable part of starting their life together.

How to Look Good in a Sack

Use it Up, Wear It out, Make it due, Or due without

-Depression Era Saying


Around the Great Depression, frugal farm folks realized they had cloth a-plenty in the form of the sacks animal feed and flour came in. At a time when thriftiness was considered a very high virtue, this trove of found cloth was considered a godsend and women began using the material to make everything from dresses to curtains, underwear and quilts.

feed sacks
Sacks in a bevy of patterns and colors, brought to you by this delightful man!

The feed manufactures soon got wise and began making the fabric in fashionable prints and colors, vying for the business of ladies looking to spice up their wardrobe and home. Taking a page from Aunt Mary’s personal friend, Edward Bernays, businesses held feed sack dress competitions and dress pattern makers sold patterns especially designed for the sacks.

A world of wonder comes from inside a feed sack!

Many women forged enterprising side businesses collecting and selling the sacks to people looking for a certain print.

While it is obvious the feed and flour manufacturers used the prints as a clever marketing device, I also choose to believe it was also a small kindness to brighten the lives of folks struggling during a dark time.

Feed sack frocks remained popular through World War II when cloth was in short supply.

Check out this incredibly charming ad from the era.

house frock
This ad makes me cheerful!

Halloween Ad Grab Bag

I was unable to settle on just one ad, or really get my teeth into any one story this week so let’s just spoil our dinner on a buffet of awesome retro commercials! Like a good trick or treat bag, Halloween ads are varied and plenty.

When door-to-door trick or treating became an actual thing in the first half of the 20th century, manufacturers tussled to get a piece of the Halloween action. For a while cereal companies tried to strong arm their way in by advertising that individual cereal boxes were perfect to hand out to the ghouls at the door. How cool would that be to crack open a box of trick or treat on the morning of November 1st?

Keep the sugar rush going 'round the clock!
Keep the sugar rush going ’round the clock!

When it became apparent that this whole trick or treating thing was going to stick, the candy gods figured they could take a hold of the market by selling bulk, mini treats as a convenient answer to the homemade sweets many families handed out..

This is Just For Halloween, ya hear.
This is Just For Halloween, ya hear. The kids in this ad seem a little nervous. 

I like this ad just because it says “tricks or treats” on the kids’ bags just like from Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I’m also glad the kid from A Christmas Story found a use for his pajama bunny suit present.

Full sized candy bars! What are we, rich?
Full sized candy bars! What are we, rich?

Our final Halloween tribute ad is a gem from the 2000 Olympic Games and reported to have been banned. Staring a smokin’ hot Olympiad and a Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees type, the take away message here is Nike shoes will save your life. Also if you have plans to be a crazed serial killer it might be good to include some cardio in your prep.

Happy Halloween!

How to (tooth) Pick Your Target Market

Let us consider the humble toothpick. Transporter of cheese cubes. Martini olive anchors.  Tester of brownie doneness. Surely these three inch soldiers keeping guard over restaurant hostess stands have long been a staple of the hospitality industry.

But no!

While people have been using toothpicks since cavemen had to dig mammoth meat from their maws, it took Charles Foster of Boston to put a disposable toothpick in the mouths of Americans.  In the 1870’s Foster acquired the patent on technology for toothpick making. His factory could manufacture millions of toothpicks each day, but he found no market for his wares, so he went out and made a market, dang gum it.

Fine gentlemen enjoying a fine toothpick
Fine gentlemen enjoying a fine toothpick

Foster hired students from Harvard University to have dinner at the best restaurants in town. After the meal they would ask for toothpicks and would make a stink when told the restaurant didn’t have any.

This is how I see the grift happening:

Student: “Garson! We require toothpicks! Fetch us some post haste!”

Waiter: “But sir, we have no toothpicks!”

Student: “No toothpicks! I thought this was an establishment of quality and refinement. We were obviously mistaken. Perhaps we should take our business to Applebee’s! Good day!”

A few days later, Foster would stop into the same establishment selling the hottest item for the most fashionable restaurants…wooden toothpicks! Nice, but this is what tips his plan into ad story material; soon after the sale the same shill students would again dine at the same restaurant and praise them for getting with the times. Smooth man!

ideal_toothpickBefore long, folks began walking around with wooden toothpicks between their lips as a sign that they were rich enough to dine at the fanciest of restaurants. It even got to the point where young men would hang around in the vicinity of the expensive eateries with toothpicks in their mouths to give the appearance of largess, even if they were far too poor to have actually dined there.