April 1998
s m u g
by Dan Reines

TV Science

You probably think you know nothing about science. If you're anything like me, you haven't taken a science class since you were run out of high school for holding lizards over the bunson burners, and you consider that a point of pride. When pressed, you might even say that science is for skinny losers with bad skin, the guys you snicker at on the subway.

You're so wrong. Okay, you're a little bit right. But it wasn't always that way.

Think about it: You know plenty about science, you just won't admit it.

You know Pepto-Bismol coats your stomach from the inside, preventing indigestion from catching a good footing. You know Tums cuts through gas so well it ought to be used to put out filling station fires. You know little, yellow, and different invariably means better. Sure, you hated school - so what? The fact is, all you really need to know about science, you learned from watching television.

 tv science at work

Yet with all this fantastic knowledge dropping from the airwaves, most people can't name even a single advertising scientist. Who do you thank for Pepto-Bismol's thirty-second seminars? That, you don't know - few do.

I wanted to know, so I did some research. I spent three days at the National Foundation for Advertising Science (NFAS), digging through stacks of journals, records, and photographs. What I found was a history vastly different from today's reality. Sure, you laugh at the science kids now, but twenty years ago? Whole different ballgame, no joke. Here - just read. What follows is the incredible story of Advertising Science, and of the proud men and women who pioneered it:

Although the records are spotty and largely unreliable, it's widely agreed that the field of advertising science was born on the night of March 20, 1954, during an episode of CBS's "General Electric Theater," hosted by Ronald Reagan. During the show, Mobil Oil presented two advertisements, the second of which urged viewers to "Put a tiger in your tank" with Mobil. The implication, of course, was that the company's gasoline was of such a high grade that it could turn an ordinary automobile engine into the very incarnation of a fierce, purring, jungle cat.

The ad world scoffed. Even by the standards of the day, "Put a tiger in your tank" seemed hokey - silly, even (though some Midwestern customers actually avoided Mobil stations, reportedly believing that the gasoline contained live tigers). Nevertheless, the campaign represented a revolutionary shift in TV advertising. For the first time, an advertiser was attempting to appeal to the consumer's mind, rather than his heart, by touting the scientific value of its product. The campaign is credited with elevating the advertising discourse above Chevy's jingo-istic "See the USA in a Chevrolet" and Lucky Strike's mindless, if amusing, dancing cigarettes.

The Tiger ads also launched an industry superstar in Chester Alan Richards, the junior marketing exec who created them for Mobil. Within months, Richards left Mobil to start Richards and Co., the first ad firm on Madison Avenue devoted exclusively to television. Founded on the belief that an increasingly well-educated America demanded a more intelligent sales approach, R-Co became the leader in science-based advertising, eventually earning the nickname "The Lab" because of the cadre of young chemists, biologists, and botanists Richards brought aboard.

 plop plop fizz fizz

The Lab churned out spot after memorable spot, each one more scientifically dazzling than its predecessor. There was Anacin in 1955, in which screen diagrams graphically depicted an actual tension headache. There was Alka-Seltzer ("plop, plop, fizz, fizz") in '57 and Colgate (with the green fluoride shown penetrating a piece of broken chalk) in '63. And 1965 saw R-Co's biggest success yet: a Clio award for splitting a sink pipe lengthwise in "Drano vs. Ball of Hair."

But when the 1970s hit, R-Co exploded. Graduates of the finest science programs in the nation lined up for the opportunity to join the Lab, and the exceptional few who did find spots in the firm became instant celebrities, both within and without the scientific and advertising communities. Book deals, sitcom guest spots, and regular appearances alongside Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas became de rigueur for the telegenic Labbies. Even the stodgy New York Times printed breathless reports of every star-studded Lab blowout. Brad Simmons, the Yale-educated wunderkind who conceived and oversaw the legendary "split-scalp experiment" spots for Head & Shoulders, remembers the scene:

"Life at the Lab was just - crazy," Simmons says. "All that money, and the sex, and the drugs - we made our own drugs, acid and speed, mostly. It was nuts, really. I remember Foghat stayed at the Lab when they played Madison Square Garden in 1975, and they had to cancel one of their shows because the lead singer lost his voice, because he stayed up for three days on a dare with Ronny [Phelps, the hard-partying chem genius who pioneered the use of blue 'periods' in tampon commercials]."

Simmons' recollection is by no means isolated; stories abounded, mostly true, of almost nonstop parties at the Lab. As often as three times a week, police were summoned to hush a drunken collective of rockers, starlets, and biochemists singing commercial jingles or holding impromptu drum circles in the hallway outside R-Co offices. All the while, the Lab continued to rack up the accolades, and continued to be a lighthouse for aspiring young scientists. As Richards told the Lincoln Center audience at the 1979 NSAF awards gala, after being presented with a lifetime achievement statuette by Lee and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, "It is undoubtedly my proudest legacy that Richards and Co. has made chemistry and biology the premiere glamour professions of our time. I'm certain that, if Marie Curie or Albert Einstein were alive today, they would be giants in the world of advertising - and in all of America."

Alas, R-Co's reign was about to end. Riding on past glory, the firm had already begun to produce poor copies of its earlier work, reaching a nadir in 1980 with the Calgon Water Softener campaign ("Ancient Chinese secret, huh?") which, though a commercial success, was widely derided within the ad-sci community as pseudo-scientific hokum. The Iran hostage crisis and the recession of the early 1980s sent American consumers searching for emotionally appealing advertising to lift their spirits ("Reach out and touch someone"). And the AIDS epidemic scared the top young scientists away from the wild world of ad-sci and into the more stable, if less exciting, fields of academic and pharmaceutical research.

Phelps' March, 1985, heroin overdose - three years to the day after John Belushi died - shocked the ad-sci world and drove the final nail into R-Co's coffin. In 1986, after more than three decades of success (and excess), the Lab closed its doors for good. One year later, Chester Richards suffered a heart attack and died. Always a pioneer, Richards' last memoirs contain the blueprints to what would become the modern infomercial.

Of course, ad science still exists, and recent years have produced groundbreaking work ranging from automobile ads (Cadillac's vaguely Messianic "Northstar" system), to fungus medicine (Tenactin's "flaming foot" series), to breath mints (ever hear of Retsyn?), not to mention the aforementioned slew of infomercials. Simmons, now retired and living with his wife and three daughters in rural Connecticut, created a sensation with his final project, the multicolored digital x-ray lens used to demonstrate how Gatorade replenishes an athlete's body with essential (blue and green) nutrients. In a sly nod to the heady '70s, Tom Snyder hosted Brad Simmons and Gene Simmons (no relation) on the same "Late Late Show" panel soon after the Gatorade campaign launched.

Brad Simmons is a rare exception; aside from him, Bill Nye, and perhaps C. Everett Koop, celebrity scientists are virtually nonexistent nowadays, particularly within the world of advertising. Ironically, just two decades after the Labbies were on the cover of Rolling Stone beneath the caption "Oh, Chem! Hunter S. Thompson Enters the Lab," most college science majors would be hard-pressed to pick Brad Simmons out of a line-up. And the situation doesn't appear likely to improve any time soon; with the top minds staying away from ad science in droves, Richards' claim that Albert Einstein would be a "giant" in the industry seems, well, almost ludicrous today.

"Einstein? No way," Simmons says. "He'd be working in some anonymous NASA or JPL job or something like that, I'm sure. It'd kill Chet Richards all over to hear me say that, but it's true. If Einstein were alive today, he'd be holed up in some musty office, crunching numbers. It's absurd to think about, but Albert Einstein would laugh at ad science."

Sincerest thanks go to the staff at the NFAS for their patience, diligence, and guidance, without which this article would not have been possible.

write to gordito@smug.com

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