George Parker: how P&G and Charmin toilet tissue introduced me to adland’s La Dolce Vita

My first real agency job in the US after escaping England for the second time was with Benton & Bowles, which after many dumb fuck mergers became DMB&B, which was acquired by Publicis and closed down by le frogs in 2002 after it turned to merde.

When I joined what was then a great US agency, I was twenty-four, and was quickly introduced to the sybaritic pleasures of the three martini lunch by my fellow B&B’ers. My immediate boss was a terrific guy by the name of Joe Arleo, who always called me “Kid,” even though he was only four years older than me. Joe was the archetypal Mad Man. He wore knobby-tweed Brooks Brothers suits in the winter, paper-thin, Saks suits in the summer (this was before the days of five thousand dollar Armani’s) and smoked a huge fuming pipe year round.

The first account Joe had me work on was Charmin bathroom tissues for Procter & Gamble. That’s right, “bathroom tissues,” ‘cos P&G was adamant that you never, ever called them toilet rolls, or even got close to hinting that their sole purpose was for wiping your arse. The hero of every spot was – you guessed it – Mr. Whipple!

The actor playing this advertising icon was a delightful Canadian by the name of Dick Wilson, who made the very first Charmin commercial in, appropriately enough, Flushing, NY. Dick starred in over 500 spots from 1964 to 1990 and was brought back for an encore campaign in 1999. Apart from making tons of money from the TV ads, Dick earned a fortune cutting the ribbon at openings of new supermarkets.

On these occasions Dick was mobbed by twittering hordes of little old ladies anxious to have their Charmin squeezed! What few people knew, was that as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940, Dick had served as a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain and been decorated several times for valor. Not a guy to be squeezed lightly!

It’s a sad reflection on the ad industry that when in 2004, P&G decided to dip its toe in the Super Bowl advertising cesspit and blow a few million on a TV spot, they passed on resurrecting Mr. Whipple. Instead, they chose to do a spot featuring a quarterback bending over to grab the snap from the center, only to discover that instead of a towel hanging from the player’s belt, there was toilet paper! The tag line for this awesomely obnoxious example of advertising art was: “Charmin Bathroom Tissues, softer and stronger for your end zone.”

You can’t make this shit up.

Although Dick is no longer with us, the late, great Mr. Whipple must be rolling in his supermarket aisle at such a déclassé effort.

A little known fact about the Whipple campaign is that Dick almost didn’t make it as the nation’s number-one toilet roll shill. Back in 1964 B&B actually had two campaigns for Charmin running in separate test markets. The second one featured an even more obnoxious character than Whipple by the name of “The Shy Salesman.”

This bozo went door to door selling Charmin to little old ladies (P&G had spent millions on market research to prove that female octogenarians were the nation’s number one consumers of toilet paper). During the course of his stumbling sales pitch, “The Shy Salesman” would inadvertently let go of the Charmin, allowing it to float off into the sky. The reason for this startling phenomenon was spelt out in the tag line: “Charmin Bathroom Tissue – Full of puffs of air softness.” See what millions of dollars worth of research can do for you?

Anyway, after conducting numerous focus groups in every state of the Union to test the Granny pulling power of Mr. Whipple versus the Shy Salesmen, Whipple beat out his bashful competitor by something like one tenth of a percentage point, and so The Shy Salesman, played by a long-forgotten character actor who was best-known for bit-parts in such memorable movies as “Ma & Pa Kettle on Broadway,” was quietly shuffled off to commercial actor’s purgatory. This left lucky Dick to enjoy a life of fame, fortune and free toilet rolls – oops, bathroom tissues.

One of my first tasks on the Charmin account was to spend two weeks shooting some “Shy Salesman” TV spots in LA. Back then most TV commercials were produced in Hollywood, because that’s where the bulk of production facilities where, plus the sex, drugs, rock & roll and licentious living that made trips to La-La Land so desirable. But, because my wife, Maureen, was in the later stages of pregnancy, and I didn’t want to be away for two weeks, Joe said he would cover the first week, and then I would take over for the second week.

After arriving at LAX, I got a cab to Joe’s hotel. All I had was “The Bel-Air Hotel in Beverly Hills” on a piece of paper. Having never stayed in anything more elegant than a Best Western, to say that on arrival, I was overwhelmed by Joe’s choice of digs would be the understatement of the year. After being shown to Joe’s five-room, poolside chalet – with the white Cadillac convertible outside – I was informed that Joe wanted to meet me for dinner.

In those days, the Bel-Air’s main restaurant was like something out of a movie set, and why not? It was in the movie capitol of the world for Christ’s sake! Joe was seated at a table covered from edge to edge with champagne buckets. On his left was one of the most beautiful blondes I had ever seen, whilst on his right was the most stunning redhead on the planet. Joe waved his immense, fuming pipe at me as he signaled me to sit.

“So kid, which one do you want?”

I chose the redhead.

As the evening wore on, I gave in to temptation and asked Joe the ultimate question: “How do you get away with it?”

Joe looked at me quizzically. “Get away with what?”

I waved my arms around to signify the sumptuous surroundings, “With the hotel, the car, the expenses . . . The women.”

Carefully laying down his monstrous fuming pipe, Joe offered me the following priceless advice: “Kid, when you’re away from your loved ones, you have to make the bastards pay.”

To this day I have tried to live my life in the fashion Joe recommended.

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