With the new season of AMC’s critical darling Mad Men underway, it’s high time to pay respect to the golden era of advertising that inspired Mad Men – and one of the most famous commercials produced during this time, “Three Brothers”, better known as “Mikey Likes It.”
Often duplicated, never replicated, “Mikey” redefined the worn out slice-of-life TV commercial formula and propelled Quaker Oats and its Life Cereal brand into the hearts and minds of America thanks to one of Madison Avenue’s most endearing, mimicked and parodied catch-phrases ever: “He likes it! Hey Mikey!”
As a result, Mikey remained on the air for more than a decade, was inducted into the TV Commercial Hall of Fame and earned its creators Clio awards – the advertising industry’s version of The Oscars. It probably goes without saying that Mikey also helped sell a few boxes of Life cereal for Quaker Oats, now owned by PepsiCo.
So how did this little-commercial-that-could become an industry game-changer, a money-maker and a crown jewel of pop culture? Before we get to this incredible behind-the-scenes story, I need to come clean:
I was the inspiration for Mikey.
Legend has it, my two older sisters tried to get me to try some kind of healthy cereal one fateful morning. I ate it, I liked it and my sisters couldn’t believe it. This very same scenario became the primary blueprint for the commercial, according to my father, Dave Clark, one of the creative mad men who made Mikey.
(Since I don’t have the luxury to say, “I swear it’s true!” a million times please see Exhibit A)
I recently caught up with my father to learn more. What did it take to get Mikey made? This is his story… and he’s sticking to it.
The First Gig
Once my father got his first portfolio together (circa 1962), he didn’t head directly into New York City where the hot agencies were at the time. He instead took a part time job after school at a small agency in Livingston, New Jersey working on trade ads for Sheridan Book Binding Equipment and Pettit Marine Paints. One of the Pettit labels he redesigned ran for 40 years. But New York beckoned and to the dismay of his parents, he ended up quitting his very first job in the advertising industry. After making some alterations to his portfolio – “who wants to see Sheridan book binder ads?” – he landed at a travel agency called Kale, Landis & Landis in the “bullpen” taking care of paste-ups and mechanicals for finished ads by setting the type. “I literally sent these mechanicals out to an engraver to be engraved and then the ad would wind up in a magazine.”
The Second Gig
Realizing Kale, Landis & Landis was a dead end, my father attended New York’s School of Visual Arts, “the place to go if you wanted to get a good job in advertising.” A few courses later, my father completely changed his portfolio which nabbed him a few important interviews – including Doyle, Dane Bernbach (DDB) the hottest agency in New York City at the time. “I was not going to be denied. I took a pay cut and went back into the bullpen.” The atmosphere at DDB was just what my father was looking for. He was now working for some of the best art directors in the world. “They used to lean over my shoulder and tell me how to fix type and how to pick photographs.”
At DDB my father had the opportunity to work with Helmut Krone, one of the most famous advertising art directors that ever lived, responsible for creating the Volkswagon ads cited in Mad Men that became the gold standard in advertising at that time. Working with Krone sometimes meant burning the midnight oil. “I remember working all night, cutting type apart with a razor blade for a new product from Unilever called Phase 3, which was two bars of soap in one. The visual was a bolt going through these different bars of soap. Big elegant type face was used and it had to be spaced so perfectly.”
The First Big Account
Soon after he was promoted to assistant art director, my father was assigned his first DDB account, Stroh’s Beer, and was teamed up with a talented copy writer, Bob Coburn. Thankfully, they understood the beer drinker pretty well because they were both “really good beer drinkers.” Based in Detroit at the time, Stroh’s was not a national brand. They came to DDB because of the innovative advertising the firm was doing with Rheingold beer. Stroh’s wanted to go national which meant the beer guzzlers Clark and Coburn were free to create some “really wild stuff.”
One of the wild commercials was called “Lost Patrol” which finds a group of British and American soldiers moving behind enemy lines in the desert of North Africa. When they stop for a rest, they pass an imaginary can of Stroh’s around for refreshment. Slogan (supered): “From one beer lover to another. Stroh’s.”
To this day, it is not permitted to show people drinking alcohol on national TV ads. The imaginary can of Stroh’s beer allowed my father, “to get as close as possible to people drinking beer on camera.”
“Lost Patrol” cleaned up at the Cannes Film Festival, winning Gold and Silver lions (pictured). In addition to being critically acclaimed, “Lost Patrol” had a tremendous impact on Stroh’s business. During a random trip to Detroit for a client meeting at the brewery, my father noticed one of the buildings had a big hole blasted through one side. He asked what was going on and the client said, “Boys, we’re doubling our capacity, that’s going to be a big, huge tank of beer.” My father said he’ll never forget that moment because “it was a great example of the advertising really doing something for the company. They didn’t change the product or the label – they just changed the advertising.”After four years at DDB, Stroh’s went from 15th to the fifth most popular beer in the U.S.
What is the connection between Stroh’s and Mikey? Watch this space for part two of “Mad Men, Money and Mikey: How a TV Commercial Icon Was Born.”