“I love New York!”
“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.”
“Flick your Bic.”
Recognize any of these jingles? What about the picture to the right—does it look familiar?
All of these iconic ads were created under the direction of Mary Wells Lawrence. She and her agency brought a burst of fresh color into their day’s bland television advertising scene by breaking commonly accepted rules and taking huge risks. Her advertising didn’t just reinvent a company’s brand; sometimes, it reinvented the company itself!
Mary enjoyed using her background in theater in her television commercials. Her advertising philosophy was to sell dreams. She looked beyond the products’ face value and found new, exhilarating reasons for customers to buy them, then presented them in a theatrical way on screen. Selling dreams and making commercials more entertaining and dramatic were new, edgy ideas at the time, introduced largely by Mary.
She began gaining national attention for her copywriting at the growing agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. There she became good friends with legendary Bill Bernbach and had a hand in some of their most memorable advertising. From there, she went on to join Jack Tinker & Partners, a think tank ready to become an advertising agency and hoping Mary could make it happen. Jack Tinkers & Partners’ first account was Alka-Seltzer. The majority of Alka-Seltzer’s customer base was growing older, and to everyone else, their image was tied to hangovers and gluttony. No one wanted to be seen taking it, and young people felt it was only for older people.
At the time, drug advertising was almost as painful to watch as the symptoms you were feeling. The ads usually focused on the pain and discomfort that the drugs would ease, making them less than pleasant to watch. Mary and her team decided to entertain with their ads, in an effort to hold people’s attention long enough for them to realize Alka-Seltzer was a truly helpful, modern product.
The creative team experimented with Alka-Seltzer in all kinds of ways—they drank it in all sorts of drinks and with all sorts of chasers, tried to soothe all kinds of problems with it, and asked the lab to test the drug for all sorts of claims they wanted to make about it.
They decided to run a series of 16 entertaining commercials, each presenting a different reason to take Alka-Seltzer. They kicked the campaign off with the charmingly funny opening commercial, “No Matter What Shape Your Stomach’s In.” This ad flew in the face of the traditional drug advertising—it didn’t feature anyone in pain, it used peppy music, and it capitalized on the new trend of self-deprecating humor.
Later, Mary and her team discovered that Alka-Seltzer works better when two are taken at the same time. They immediately changed their ads to show two tablets beings used and created packaging to hold two tablets at a time. Alka-Seltzer’s sales doubled, and the jingle “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” was born.
The Alka-Seltzer advertising garnered a lot of attention for Jack Tinker & Partners, and inquiries from companies needing an advertising agency poured in.
One of their biggest successes was with Braniff Airlines. The airline had good routes, but hardly anyone knew about it, and the new president of the company, Bob Harding (who Mary would eventually marry), was looking to make it a major airline quickly.
Mary made it happen. She visited airport after airport to learn about them and noted that they were all drab, the planes were plain, and the stewardesses looked like nurses. So she decided to make Braniff stand out by infusing it with color.
The team chose seven bright colors, and all of Braniff’s planes were painted in one of them. They hired designer Alexander Girard to design the painted planes and redesign Braniff’s waiting areas, clubs inside the terminal, and necessary equipment. He made everything vibrant with Mexican art, bright colors, and multi-colored seats.
The team also hired the fashion designer Emilio Pucci to create new uniforms for the stewardesses, whom they decided to call “hostesses.” He created a smart-looking uniform that allowed for pieces of it to be removed throughout the flight without ever becoming indecent. This antic was named “The Air Strip.” An entire Superbowl commercial was made out of The Air Strip alone, and it became such a hit that people flew Braniff just to see the uniforms.
This advertising literally changed the face of airline advertising. Other airlines were forced to change in order to compete. Businessmen everywhere were flying Braniff, and some people went so far as to choose their route based on the color of the plane they wanted to fly.
Not too long after her huge success with Braniff, Mary resigned from Jack Tinker & Partners after being told she deserved to be president (as promised originally), but the world wasn’t ready for a woman to be president of a company. She left and and with two others, she began her own agency, Wells Rich Greene, of which she was the president.
It took off right away, and Mary quickly decided that she was in the business of creating miracles. Companies began coming to her when they were about to hit rock bottom, desperate for a breakthrough. They were so scared by their imminent bankruptcy and so impressed by Mary’s previous advertising, that they allowed her to take the reigns and run with her unorthodox ideas. Rarely did the results ever disappoint.
For Benson & Hedges, her crew created clever and entertaining commercials that promoted the extra long length of their cigarettes (and the extra puffs they provided) by showing funny scenarios of people adjusting to the extra length in ordinary situations.
American Motors sought Mary out when they were looking at possible bankruptcy.Everyone thought they were going out of business, dealers were leaving them, and they had very little brand recognition with the younger generation. Their new president came to Mary looking for a miracle such as Braniff’s.
He asked her to focus on their new car, the Javelin, similar to the Ford Mustang at the time. While test driving the Javelin, Mary realized she needed to position the car in terms of cars the public already knew. However, the automobile advertising of the day never compared their cars with other brands. To do so, she would be breaking a traditional advertising rule. But she did it anyways.
They printed spreads that featured the Javelin and Mustang side by side with a description of all the ways the Javelin was just a bit better. They went on to replicate this with every American Motors car and its competitor. American Motors allowed this strategy because they knew Mary’s unorthodox work brought major results, and because she promised not to compare them with cars that were obviously inferior or make any derogatory comparisons.
Wells Rich Greene created several wildly successful TV ads for American Motors, one of which showed a Mustang being beaten apart and turned into a Javelin (although they actually smashed a dummy car, not an actual Mustang, to appease the TV networks). Despite some people’s fear of showing violence on TV, the commercial went live and played for months. Brand awareness skyrocketed in every generation.
The most award-winning commercial of this American Motors campaign showed their Rebel model being used by a driving instructor and several inexperienced student drivers. This charmingly funny vignette emphasized the Rebel’s durability.
Mary went on to win many more huge accounts and make many more advertising miracles. She recreated the packaging for Love’s Cosmetics and turned their company around with her agency’s advertising. She and her team created the “I Love New York” campaign to turn around the Big Apple’s image, encourage tourism, and save the city from sinking further than it already had. By bringing in talent like Frank Sinatra and Beverly Sills, they created memorable commercials showcasing all the reasons to love New York, such as Broadway.
Mary left the advertising scene very differently than she found it. She revolutionized drug advertising, automobile advertising, airline advertising, and television advertising in general. She started a business from the ground up and made it into a smashing success. She shot through glass ceiling after glass ceiling and paved the way for women to shine in a male-dominated industry.
Her advertising philosophy was risky, daring, and constantly growing, but more than anything, it was inspiring. And it still is today. To grasp the full scope of Mary’s story, read her fascinating autobiography of her career, A Big Life in Advertising. You’ll be glad you did!
If you enjoyed reading about Mary’s campaigns, you’d like reading about Bill Bernbach’s too. See some of his creative ads here (Mary even had a hand in some of them!).