It cannot be denied that Dom DeLuise was a huge star, an immense talent. He not only filled the doorway, he filled the hallway. Holy moly, he was roly-poly. He was a bulky, bulging, bovine butterball. His mirth was surpassed only by his girth. He made Michael Moore look like Twiggy. Get out your thesaurus. He was corpulent. Elephantine. Fleshy. Porcine. Portly. He was the Lord of the Onion Rings, Jabba the Gut. He looked like a vanilla whale. A dump truck with ears. A fire hydrant with hair. A blimp with feet. Oh, the humanity.
I promise you that this is a story worth waiting for. And wait you must because I feel compelled to give a brief Advertising 101 lecture in order to set the story up property.
The subject of today’s lecture is ”Advertising Celebrity Spokespeople.”
I have a simple theory about using celebrities in TV commercials. There should be a logical tie-in between the company (or product or service) and the celebrity who is endorsing it. And there are a number of different ways to make a celebrity spokesperson work effectively:
First, the celebrity’s personality must fit perfectly with the client/product/service. For example, John Wayne was an absolutely brilliant choice as spokesman for Great Western Savings. You look at this commercial and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing it.
Second, even if there’s no real life tie-in, a commercial can be written with a celebrity in mind. In a commercial for U.S. Savings and Loan Association, retired actor John Carradine said something like, ”I’ve made a lot of money over the years, but I’ve also spent a lot of money. I wish I’d put more of it aside in a safe place like U.S. Life Savings and Loan. Even though I’m an actor I’m not acting right now. I’m glad U.S. Life Savings hired me for this commercial. I need the money.” Brilliant. There’s zero logical link between Carradine and U.S. Life Savings, but the commercial works because it was written specifically for Carradine. I suppose any older actor might have worked, but Carradine was perfect casting and his delivery made him perfectly believable. It’s one of my all-time favorite commercials.
Third, a celebrity spokesperson could also be tied to a product as a result of a role for which they are well known. For example, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin played beleaguered secretaries in the movie ”9 to 5.” It would have been perfect if they had recreated those characters in commercials for someone like Office Depot.
And then there is a completely different category — celebrities who were hired just because they are celebrities and who were then shoehorned into commercials that were not written around their well-known personalities nor for any of the roles for which they were famous.
And that brings us to the subject of the biggest celebrity I ever worked with.
NCR, National Cash Register, had been the world’s leading manufacturer of cash registers for one hundred years when they decided to expand their product line and get into the personal computer business. Our little southern California ad agency had been doing great work for a small division of the company, so along with a number of huge Madison Avenue ad agencies, we were invited to pitch the PC account.
Against all odds and all logic, we were awarded the business. It was larger than the rest of our agency put together.
Unfortunately, just a matter of weeks after we landed the account, NCR hired a big name New York marketing executive who was horrified when he learned that he was being saddled with a small California ad agency he had never heard of. “Why,” he asked, ”do we have a little ad agency in California handling the most important piece of business in this corporation’s history?”
What he meant was, ”Lunches at Tavern on the Green will look very suspicious on my expense account if I don’t have a New York ad agency.”
The fact that we had bested half a dozen big name Madison Avenue agencies to win the account mattered not to this guy. Without any discussion with us and with no reason to think it would somehow work with the campaign that had already been approved, this genius decided to hire a celebrity corporate spokesperson. He agreed to pay overweight, over-the-hill comedian Dom DeLuise $1,000,000 per year to appear in NCR’s ads and commercials. And that was back when $1,000,000 was a lot of money.
Unfortunately, DeLuise fell into that final category of celebrity spokespeople — the ones who were hired just because they are celebrities and who were then stuck in commercials that were not written around their well-known personalities nor any roles for which they were famous.
Unlike John Wayne and Great Western Savings, DeLuise had no logical connection to NCR or to personal computers. Unlike Dolly Parton or Lily Tomlin, he’d never played a role that connected him to business or computers. Unlike John Carradine, there were no scripts written with him in mind.
Maybe we could have made it work if we’d been given the option of going back and creating a campaign that told the story of a fat, lovable schlub who didn’t understand computers yet they had somehow helped him solve all his problems. Maybe. But that was not an option. We were simply ordered to shoehorn DeLuise into an existing campaign aimed at small business people.
Now let’s get back to that $1,000,000 contract. If you paid me $1,000,000 a year I would do anything you asked. I would wash your car. I would trim your toenails. I would jump through flaming hoops. I would perform whatever bizarre sexual favors you might request, no matter how personally offensive I might find them.
But that big, round number was just the beginning of DeLuise’s fat contract. I couldn’t swear to this in court, but as I recall, he was only required to work twelve days a year to earn his money. Twelve days. That’s $83,333.33 per day. On top of that NCR also agreed to provide him with a limosine and chauffeur to deliver him to and from any TV shoots or recording sessions scheduled on those twelve days.
We tried to make the best of a bad situation. We scheduled a recording session in Hollywood to produce a series of radio commercials. We showed up with scripts in hand, ready to go.
Much to our surprise, two more well-known comedians were waiting at the studio when we arrived — David Steinberg, a stand-up comic and frequent guest on late night TV talk shows, and Pat Harrington, Jr, a regular on the One Day at a Time sitcom. We had no idea why they were there. Perhaps just to cheer on their corpulent compadre.
Then the doors burst open and The Big Star entered the studio. He was wearing a cape. I think it was the only time in my life I’ve ever seen anyone other than Superman clad in a cape.
After a few minutes of forced joviality, with us nervously watching precious minutes tick off the clock, DeLuise demonstrated that he was not only morbidly obese, but morbidly obtuse. He announced that he had decided not to record the scripts that had been approved by the marketing director who hired him.
Instead, he decreed, he and his two friends would ad lib commercials. We’re talking improv, baby. Because they were, of course, Professional Comedians. To give DeLuise the benefit of the doubt, he may have realized that he had been force fit into the scripts and that it really made no sense. Perhaps he thought that ad libbing was the only way out.
I think it would be fair to say that the three Professional Comedians approached the client-approved scripts as nothing more than a starting point. They were quickly discarded as the three laugh meisters began ad libbing their own concept of what the commercials should be. They went off on flights of fancy that had absolutely nothing to do with small business and nothing to do with personal computers. They laughed hysterically at their own clever ad libs. They squealed with delight at their spontaneous bon mots. They roared in approval of their own wittiness.
We, on the other hand, sat horrified in the control room. It was like watching a slow motion car wreck. They thought they were mining gold, but we thought they were creating self-congratulatory bullshit. The commercials were painfully unfunny. And even worse, they did nothing to sell the client’s products.
But it was what it was. The big time marketing director had foisted DeLuise upon us and he was getting exactly what he deserved.
This is where the story really goes off the rails.
Because Dom’s time was a limited commodity and the clock was ticking on his twelve days, we did something very unusual. We scheduled a photo session right there in the studio immediately after the recording session. While we had him, we thought, let’s kill two birds with one stone, recording radio commercials and also shooting photography for some print ads.
We had to cater to DeLuise by catering the production. Craft services, the people who usually cater TV productions, were on hand to provide food for this radio production and photo session. I’d never seen craft services at any previous radio production nor at any print ad shoot. So, yeah, this was probably another big, fat freebie written into DeLuise’s contract.
DeLuise was drawn to food like Jeffrey Epstein to underage girls. He stuffed as much sugary, starchy sustenance as possible into his gaping craw. Cookies, brownies, cake, candy, you name it. The higher the caloric content, the higher the likelihood that he would consume it.
While DeLuise was busy stuffing his face, others were busy getting ready for the photo shoot.
“Dom, I need you over here for lighting,” the photographer said.
Our star, caught in mid-munch, had no interest in helping out with something as mundane as getting the lighting right. He looked around the room, spotted my business partner Dan, and said, ”Dan. We’re about the same size. Can you stand in for me while I finish eating?”
DeLuise was about 5’ 10” and probably weighed 325 pounds. Dan, a fitness fanatic, was 6’ 1” and may have tipped the scales at 170. They were the same size like Laurel & Hardy were the same size.
Dan was amazed and amused, but did as DeLuise requested. DeLuise, meanwhile, continued sucking sugar down his craw.
Sometime later, photo shoot completed, craft services began cleaning up, putting away the left overs when Dom rushed over and said, ”Do you mind if I take a little something home to my wife?”
“No problem,” the craft services manager answered. ”What would you like.”
”Do you have any baggies?”
The craft services manager probably assumed the same thing we did — that DeLuise was going to take home a couple cookies.
“We have some around here somewhere,” he continued. ”Let me find them.” He returned moments later with a box of plastic sandwich bags.
DeLuise began stuffing leftovers into the plastic bags and then stuffed the stuffed bags into his pockets. Not just a cookie here and a brownie there. No, DeLuise stuffed each bag full as he could. Cookies, brownies, sandwiches, candy bars. He would have stripped the table bare had his pockets been bigger. It was so awkward that onlookers had to divert their eyes.
Plastic bags and pockets finally filled, DeLuise once again donned his cape, waddled out to parking lot, climbed into the awaiting limousine, and returned home with his bountiful booty. Well, in all honesty, I doubt there was much booty left by the time he got home.
It was probably the single most embarrassing thing I ever witnessed in my advertising career.