Defying Gravity and other short stories from a long career in advertising
Leave a Burp at the Beep
The sound of gas escaping through one’s esophagus after chugging twenty ounces of carbonated cola can be very impressive. The resulting sound, properly executed, can also be very rewarding. Such was the case for a few of the thirty customers who happened to look up and see the colorful ads posted just above the store’s freezer case.
The ads for a new line of soft drinks encouraged consumers to call an 800-number printed on the label of the drink. This they would do, presumably after ingesting the contents of one of the oversized, 20-ounce beverages. A recorded message would invite them to “leave a burp at the beep” along with their name and phone number. Three lucky winners-the authors of the three best burps-would win, among other prizes, a weekend for two at the Inn Gate Farm in (I swear to God) Belchertown, Massachusetts.
Now, this may all sound like fun and games, but I assure you it was serious business. When I presented the idea to a conference room full of grown men in suits and ties, they weren’t laughing. Anyone who dared laugh at such a ridiculous notion in front of his boss would appear even more ridiculous than the idea itself. It wasn’t until Bob Gordon leaned back, clasped his hands behind his head, and cracked a smile, that the other nervous executives dared follow suit.
As president and owner of the chain of convenience stores known as Store 24, Bob had amassed over a hundred stores in New York City and the Boston area. Most were open all night, and catered largely to a young, urban clientele. He had hired my company to do all the advertising for the stores which were, for all intents and purposes, no different than any other convenience stores. At the risk of being laughed at, or worse, not being laughed at, we quickly learned to cater Bob’s quirky side and penchant for the irreverent. Bob was small in stature, but forceful in a quiet way. If he liked an idea, he’d find a way to fund it. He had learned early on, the value of publicity when he saw sales increase as a result of something that came to be known as “the condom affair”.
It began innocently enough. We had produced a TV commercial to demonstrate the broad range of cravings that people satisfy at Store 24. In the fast-paced spot, dozens of real people on the street were asked simply what they buy there. In the litany of “Cocoa Puffs, Chunky Monkey, lottery, and junk food,” one word stood out. “Condoms.” That was all Channel Five needed to hear. The ABC affiliate refused to run the spot unless the offending word was removed.
When asked how he’d like to handle the “situation”, Bob said calmly, “We sell condoms. In fact, we sell more condoms than any convenience store chain in the country. The word stays in.”
That night, it was the lead story in Channel Two’s Ten O’clock News. They ran nearly the entire commercial in their news story, so parts of it twice. The next day, the story was all over talk radio. Store 24 increased the number of times the spot was to run on the other TV stations, but received more free air time than they actually bought. Awareness, and thus sales, increased noticeably.
But that was only the beginning. For the next several years it was part of my job to come up with unusual, off-the-wall publicity ideas for the sole purpose of getting people to talk about them. If we were lucky, maybe they’d come into the store and buy something while they were laughing.
I remember one promotion that involved a little three-dollar ring they were trying to sell as a novelty. You know, one of those impulse items placed right at the checkout counter. We did an ad that said, “Genuine Engagement Rings. Only $2.99.” The ad offered an all-expense-paid honeymoon trip to anyone who would actually propose using one of these rings, and then have their wedding in one of our stores. Couples would get to choose which aisle they walked down, and guests would receive free Minute Rice to throw at them. By the end of the first week, forty-two couples had declared their intentions and every TV station in the city vied for exclusive coverage of the weddings.