Bittersweet Memories


Cantankerously Yours

Bittersweet Memories

By Wendell Abern

Dear Readers,

Last month, I wrote a column detailing how my art director/partner Paul and I had created my favorite commercial. When a friend read my column, he said, “Okay, but what was your most successful one?”

Beautiful, painful memories.

My most successful idea was the biggest disappointment of my 50-year career.

The year was 1969. My advertising agency, Leo Burnett (Chicago), had just bought an agency in Detroit with one big account. Oldsmobile.

Creative teams in Detroit and Chicago were turned loose. We had one month to create an advertising campaign introducing the 1970 Oldsmobiles. We were all told to concentrate on Oldsmobile’s Cutlass, then the third-best-selling car in the country (Chevy and Ford held the 1-2 spots).

For two weeks, Paul and I struggled with ideas that elicited snide remarks from both of us: “It’s been done.” “Trite.” And the most frequent comment: “!*%#&!+!”

Then one day, I had to drive to work.

I turned on the radio and listened to music on the way. After a few songs, the disc jockey played Sammy Davis Jrs.’ recording of “If My Friends Could See Me No,” a big hit from the musical, “Sweet Charity,” which had opened the previous year.

I was lucky I didn’t get a speeding ticket on the way to the agency.

“It’s a great way to describe how you feel when you buy a car!” I said to Paul excitedly when I finally arrived.

“Yeah, but it’s going to cost to buy that song.”

“Not our problem. Let the production staff worry about money. And look how the song ends: ‘What a step-up, holy cow!’ A great selling line for a car!”

We debated several scenarios before settling on one featuring a young fireman showing off his new Cutlass to his cohorts at the fire station. With the fire chief lip-synching the line, “Holy cow!”

The next day, I had a brainstorm: Why not have Sammy Davis Jr. sing our jingle?

“It’ll cost a fortune!” Paul said.

“What are you, my wife?”

“Hey, I’m only saying what the suits’ll say.” (Suits:  account executives; frequently, the enemy.)

As it turns out, the suits loved the idea. And while Paul and I prepared storyboards and a recorded soundtrack, the suits contacted our production department to start negotiations with Sammy Davis’s agent.

In those days, celebrities were insisting on high six-figure fees (which later grew into millions). Sammy Davis, it turns out, was delighted to become the first African-American spokesperson for a major advertiser. He was asking for “only” $250,000. “And that’s over my objections!” his agent told our production staff.

It was mid-March. In those days, all new car models were introduced in the Fall. In order to make September air dates, commercials had to be shot in June in order to go through what was then a lengthy film production process. Meaning we had about two months to finish creating campaigns and getting approvals.


Oldsmobile annually sponsored the Miss America Pageant. They bought five minutes of air time to introduce their new models: one minute each for the Toronado, Olds 98, Olds 88, Cutlass and Olds Omega.

By the time Paul and I were ready for our presentation to the Creative Review Committee, I had written a five-minute parodic lyric to “If My Friends … “ incorporating all five models. “The idea,” I explained to the committee, “is for Sammy Davis Jr. to sing the song while dancing from one car to another. We’ll let him choreograph the dance and introduce all the new models. Then, for the rest of the year, we use the song for Cutlass only.”

The committee, after listening to hundreds (literally, hundreds) of ideas for two full weeks, selected ten for pre-testing before going to Oldsmobile. “Friends” was one of them, and out-tested every other concept.

The presentation to Oldsmobile, in mid-April, went superbly. They loved the idea. They loved the song. They loved the fireman commercial. They loved everything.

What happened subsequently was told to me by our suits.

Oldsmobile sat down with General Motors management, who loved the idea of the song, and the basic concept. Apparently, however, they questioned the agency’s assessment that the use of Sammy Davis would not be risky, even though 37% of all Oldsmobiles were sold in the Southeast.

GM prepared a questionnaire for their Southeastern dealerships; each dealership was to send the questionnaire to its best customers, asking about the use of Sammy Davis as a spokesperson. The responses had to be in GM’s hands by June First.

I was on good terms with Craig, one of our “suits,” whose connections with a few lower management types at Oldsmobile made him privy to the responses.

He read them at Oldsmobile, but could not make copies of them.

“You wouldn’t want to read them anyway,” he told us. “Nothing but hatred. The kinds of ugly, racist comments someone would make only if he wanted to remain anonymous. But they all signed their names! All of them. And only three of them thought Sammy Davis would be okay.”

This would never happen today, with African-American spokespeople commonplace. But it was a different world in 1969.

I have never blamed General Motors or Oldsmobile for dropping Sammy Davis Jr. After all, they made a decision based on economic reasons, not racial ones. But I have never forgiven the bigots who responded to the survey.

The five-minute introductory commercial was scrapped. But the fireman commercial ran on the Miss American broadcast, and for the rest of 1970. Paul and I created three more “Friends” commercials, and helped produce them. We used a very successful singer by the name of Dick Noel, and, though he was no Sammy Davis Jr., he was excellent.

By the end of 1971, Cutlass was the best-selling car in the country, and the campaign ran until 1973, when the gas crisis hit.

Oldsmobile. My most successful effort ever. And my biggest disappointment.

 Cantankerously Yours,

Wendell Abern