Volume XI, Issue 30 ~ July 24-30, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

In the GaGa-Land of Commercials,
It Ain’t Necessarily So

American Beer, it’s as sparkling and refreshing as the Great Outdoors.
— Tag line from American Brewery commercial, early 1970s

When a brew comes so highly touted, it can take a bit of doing to make it live up to its reputation. That is not always as easy as it might seem to the viewer of a TV commercial.

Covered recently in this space (No. 28: July 10) was the account of one of the first commercials promoting ATMs and how in production the automated teller failed to work once the cameras were rolling — until a veep of Equitable Bank secreted himself behind the machine and dished the money out to me through the slot by hand.

No one among the subsequent boob-tube viewers ever knew the difference, and we all know how popular ATMs have become across the country. We also know how much they have enriched the financial community at the expense of its depositors. Customer service baloney; by nature banks are bottom-line thinkers.

In the GaGa-Land of commercials, savvy viewers are suspicious of ones too slick and smooth to resemble reality. They’re right. As suspected, truth in advertising does not necessarily apply to commercials, whether the products being touted are banks, automobiles, window replacements, vitamin supplements or beer. Yes, even the beverage always shown with fizzing foam atop a frosty mug or maybe in a bottle under a chilled mist.

Takes and Retakes
From my experience doing commercials over a stretch of 20 years or so, I can testify that no commercial is (or at least was) as easy as it looks. To put it more accurately, briefly and to the point, no TV commercial is easy. Rare indeed is the occasion when on the first try the cameras roll, the talent performs, the producer, director, account manager or representative of the sponsor exclaims “it’s a take!” and they fold up the show.

Retakes after retakes are inherent in the commercial game. After all, the filming/taping crews have to make it appear they’re earning their moola, as do the ad agency account execs, as do about everyone else involved other than the talent, whose views usually are along the lines of let’s get this over with. Repetition can be a pain in the you-know-what.

The more talent and theatrics involved in a commercial, the more retakes, and pity the poor performer who goofs more than once. His or her popularity at the moment is akin to that of John Barleycorn at a temperance meeting. The other performers want to wrap up the session and go home.

But when a commercial involves only one person, and things continually go wrong, the talent can blame no one else. Then the only satisfaction to be had is getting back at the crew, agency and sponsor by keeping them around even longer than they want to be. Paybacks can be satisfying, even when hell.

Putting a commercial together these days is easier, thanks to technology. Back 30 years ago, if the slightest thing wasn’t up to snuff, the whole shebang had to be repeated.

Now, if something doesn’t go precisely as wanted, the rest of the commercial can be saved and the tidbit that wasn’t up to snuff corrected, for all is assembled piecemeal. But it wasn’t always like that.

Like in 1970 when I was doing a beer commercial for American Brewery, which sponsored my outdoor radio shows on WBAL, Baltimore. The beermeisters decided a half-hour outdoor special featuring me on television might sell more suds. I was to do the commercials solo, sitting in my office/den combo, talking about the flavor of American beer. Then I’d pour myself a foamy mug.

But, as I said, those who produce commercials don’t like the easy route. They’ve got to make it look like they earn their dough via their creativity and the amount they can spend on a one-minute sales pitch. So why make things easy?

It Wasn’t Easy
The first thing they did was move my fish and game taxidermy mounts and furniture from my combination office/den only a mile or two from WMAR-TV in Baltimore to the studio for the taping. It would have been too simple and easy to do it at my home.

So a security truck with bonded crew arrived. As soon as one member of the crew set my rare, signed Lem Ward brant decoy down for a moment, my Norwegian elkhound Wolf of Northbourne chewed off a half-inch of the decoy’s bill. Considering the value of a Ward original, that’s a bit like punching a hole in a van Gogh.

It happened in my home and was done by my dog, so I was told I was responsible. Twenty years later, when I sold the decoy, repaired by Lem and Steve Ward before they passed away, it’s value was several thousand dollars less than had Wolf not taken his bite.

So my office/den was recreated at the studio, and I had rehearsed my lines well and timed the spiel to exactly one minute (one can’t be a second off). If you think all went well, think again.

It was a nighttime shoot. The cameras rolled and all went well — until the last several seconds when the beer was poured. It didn’t foam right. So it all had to be done again. This time the frosty mist wasn’t right, and no golden drop was rolling down the side of the mug.

So it was again and again. The hour was getting late, and the beer wouldn’t cooperate: The foam wouldn’t peak perfectly or the new and freshly frosted mug didn’t have the right frost or the droplets down the its side. The clock was ticking, production costs were mounting, fatigue was setting in.

It was concluded that I, not being a beer-drinking regular, simply couldn’t pour a beer right. So Jerry from the ad agency sneaked behind a sofa and tried to do the job. But like all ad men of the time, he was a scotch drinker.

We were running out of properly chilled beer — and time — when a gofer in the crew declared himself a regular with the suds and volunteered. He slipped behind the sofa as I pretended to pour. After a few more takes we had the commercial in the can, and I presented him with all the brews left over.

Nearly three hours of filming, and I had my commercial.

60 Seconds of Fame
A few months later, on January 17, 1971, the Baltimore Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys 16 to 13 in Super Bowl V. That year, one local TV station had the rights to the Colts games, and the network of another station had the national rights, so both carried the big game. But the local station had more local commercial time allotted, and American Brewery wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass of a perfect head of beer promoting its product while the big national breweries were doing their thing on the network, same time, same game. So there I was on the tube, my nicked Ward decoy visible close by and the perfect head of beer on the end table next to me.

Sadly, the old brewery went out of business a few years later, but I had had my 60 seconds of fame, though I didn’t pour the beer that stole the show.

And that’s how it goes behind the scenes in commercials, which is maybe why one doesn’t see me watching TV these days. Enough said …



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Last updated July 24, 2003 @ 12:45am