Contributed Column

The Ad Game

By Charles Burch, Burch & Company Inc.

October 2003


I was sitting still, waiting for a light to change, heading north on Shelburne Road opposite the new Shaw's. I happened to look in the rearview mirror and saw a car approaching behind me without a driver. No, that was wrong, there was a driver, straightening up in his seat after having dropped his cell phone, which he was examining to see if it was okay, now raising it to his ear and only now noticing he was about to hit me. I had two thoughts. 1: How well would I handle life as a quadriplegic? 2: Amazing how it takes no time at all for the sour smell of fear to get from your underarms to your nostrils. But by the time the guy slammed on his brakes and hit me, it was only a hard bump, no damage.

Pulling away, smelling worse than if I'd just carried a refrigerator up a long flight of stairs, I was reminded of an old TV campaign I had worked on at the Leo Burnett agency in Chicago, for Procter & Gamble's Secret Deodorant. The long-running Katie Winters series.

The rigid formula was typical of P&G's market research–driven "slice-of-life" campaigns.

Katie is getting ready for a party, or her husband calls to say he's bringing the boss home for dinner, or old school chums are on their way over for a nostalgic bash, and disaster strikes.

Writing names on place cards at the last minute, she spills ink on her best party gown. Or her little girl, trying to be helpful, dumps the Cornish game hens onto the kitchen floor. Or Katie has just finished a flower arrangement in Grandmother's priceless heirloom vase on the table in the foyer, and the cat, chased by the dog, knocks it off and it smashes just as the doorbell rings.

Add to this a further problem, and a worse one. Katie instantly catches a whiff of her own underarm odor, and this is not the smell of ordinary perspiration. It's the sharp and objectionable odor of a special kind of sweat produced by a special set of glands in the armpits that fire up in emergencies. Useful in prehistoric times, perhaps, for frightening off enemies, but a total liability in today's world, and at this moment. An anatomical diagram is superimposed on the screen, illustrating the offending glands.

"Oh, dear, what am I gonna do?" poor Katie wails.

So much for the problem part. Now for the solution.

"I'll get the door, Katie. Here, try this," somebody says, the maid or a female family member or friend, and slips her the little container of guess what?

Next shot, product in use. Katie, having ducked into the bathroom or bedroom, is watching herself in a mirror, applying the product from the convenient roll-top bottle. Deodorizing, drying, delightfully cool-feeling. "LASTS FOR HOURS" flashes on the screen, raising the unanswered question, Why didn't she apply it hours ago, seeing as how her life is composed of these endless contretemps.

Final sequence: "Wonderful party," somebody says.

"Yes, isn't it?" Katie agrees with an assured, charming smile. Then, turning to her confidante, the one who slipped her the product, she adds, sotto voce, "Thanks to New, Ice-Blue Secret!"

For some reason, Katie Winters (winters: cold, or cool, get it?), victim that she was, never learned a thing from her harrowing experiences. Did she have a memory problem? Was she sneaking nips out of her favorite bottle while setting up for her famous parties, and in an alcoholic blackout when each social emergency occurred? At any rate, Katie was always unprepared for the next disaster, ever at a loss until the indispensable companion showed up with the answer. The focus group respondents, enjoying their coffee and donuts and grateful for their little fees, never wondered why.

If you've never had the job of advertising packaged goods or OTC (over-the-counter) health products, a task that can best be described as the invention, out of whole cloth, of non-parity among parity items, you may not appreciate the brilliance of the person, whoever it was at Burnett or P&G, who thought up the original strategy, i.e. exploiting the difference between the smell of work-induced or heat-induced perspiration and the pungent reek of fear. Experiencing this curious but rarely discussed phenomenon in his or her own life, or being reminded of it somehow, and considering it as the basis of a competitive positioning, he or she must either have researched the science of perspiration painstakingly enough to find out about those special sweat glands or daringly made them up (after all, who would question it?). Experience leads me to doubt that Secret had the ability to suppress specific body odors that other deodorants did not. And the commercials, while of course implying that this was the case, avoided, as far as I recall, any such direct claim.

Secret was the last account I worked on in Chicago before moving to New York City. It was in New York that I happened to catch the then-young George Carlin, live, doing a routine about advertising. One of the bits was a dialogue, George playing both parts, along the following lines:

"Want to go to a party?"

"Sure, where's it at?"

"Katie Winters's place."

"Oh. Uh, no, sorry man, I don't think so, not this time"

"How come?"

"No, no way, see you later"

"What do you mean? What's the matter?"

"You're talking about Katie Winters, right?"


"Ever get close to her, man?"

"Well, I can't say I"

"Phew! Phewwwie! It's like being in the lion house at the zoo!"

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