Commentary

RIP: Marketing Innovators Cal Worthington, Robert R. Taylor

Two marketing innovators passed away in California in recent days. Cal Worthington, who sold about a million new and used cars though TV ads featuring “my dog Spot” -– a creature that actually might be anything from a gorilla to a penguin –- died Sunday at 92 while watching football at his ranch north of Sacramento.

And news about the August 29 death of Robert R. Taylor in Newport Beach hit this morning’s papers. His major head-smacking idea in a lifetime of creating and marketing innovative products was to bottle soap in a plastic container and calling it Softsoap. He was 77 and succumbed to cancer.

Worthington’s motto was “I'll stand on my head to beat anybody's deal” and his “manic” advertising sometimes proved the point in over-the-top -- and under-the-fuselage -- detail. A picture running atop his obituary in the New York Times shows him hanging from the winds of a biplane (You can see the spot here for yourself; a cut-and-paste of some of his more memorable spots is here.)

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“The exuberant cheesiness of Mr. Worthington’s ads made him a folk hero, as much a part of California popular culture as Woodies with surfboards on the roof or Orange Julius stands,” William Grimes reported in that paper. “He was a frequent guest on ‘The Tonight Show,’ where Johnny Carson performed ad parodies.”

“And,” as a disappointingly anemic 1997 website collection of his ads, “My Dog Spot, The Cal Worthington Archives,” asks: “Who could ever forget that jingle..."Go See Cal, Go See Cal, Go See Cal!" Some typical lyrics, lifted from a grateful appreciation of a “smart businessman” who “wanted people to remember who he was, and what he was selling…before word-of-mouth” by writer Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons:

If your axle is a-saggin’, go see Cal

Maybe you need a station wagon, go see Cal.

If your wife has started naggin’, and your tail pipe is a-draggin’

Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.

He “was a marketing and advertising genius,” marketing consultant and teacher Larry Londre tells the Los Angeles Times’ Martin Miller and Elaine Woo. “He created what you would call a unique selling proposition. Instead of selling cars he sold a personality.”

Using humor was a novel idea when Worthington came along with his spots in the 1950s and ’60s, advertising consultant Laura Danforth Shute observes in the same article.  “It wasn't necessarily the comical appeals, the silliness, people making fun of themselves," she says. “Cal Worthington allowed people a little bit of entertainment before the hard sell. He had an old-boy persona that imparted trust and showed a fun, playful personality.”

Taylor, meanwhile, “built and sold 14 consumer products businesses during a long career, starting in 1964 with Village Bath Products, a company he founded with $3,000 to sell scented, hand-rolled soap balls through gift shops,” John Schwartz writes in the New York Times. “Working initially out of his garage, he was soon selling more than 100 products through department stores.”

His “famously bold gamble on Softsoap… still is the stuff of business schoolcase studies,” reports Steve Chawkins in the Los Angeles Times. In 1980, his tiny, Minnesota-based Minnetonka, the successor to Village Bath, launched Softsoap with a $7-million ad campaign that Chawkins contrasts to the $8.5 budget for Dial, the category leader at the time.

“With one stroke,” he writes, Taylor “made a fortune, changed the way America washed up and doomed the bathroom soap dish to virtual obsolescence.”

If that last statement might be a bit of a stretch, so, too, were the claims for Obsession, the perfume he launched in 1985 under the Calvin Klein brand he had acquired in 1980, with the tagline “Between love and madness lies Obsession.”

The oft-parodied and sometimes-lambasted television spots –- “She was a fever from which I will never recover” begins this 1987 execution -- “were mini-movies, a kind of existentialist noir, all shadow and strings and word salad,” Schwartz observes.

Huffington Post is running a collection of the print ads, which it calls “some of the most memorable advertisements of all time,” including those featuring the “sultry” Kate Moss “in which she went barefaced and topless while just a teen.”

Taylor had a hearty sense of humor himself, as might befit a man who made and lost several fortunes, according to his daughter, Lori Lawrence. He peddled his early soaps “by jokingly fashioning himself as the ‘Prof. Taylor’ on the soaps' old-time labels and driving to department stores in a vintage Ford truck,” Chawkins relates.



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