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Parker Made Its Mark on Summit Before Ink Dried

Times Staff Writer

For Parker Pen, it was the write stuff.

After all, specially made Parker pens were in hand when President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed an agreement last week that would eliminate intermediate-range nuclear weapons. While the pact took more than six years to hammer out, Parker says its marketing coup required only six weeks of planning with the State Department.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Dec. 19, 1987 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 19, 1987 Home Edition Business Part 4 Page 2 Column 1 Financial Desk 2 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Agreements that ended World War II in Europe and U.S. involvement in Vietnam were incorrectly characterized as peace treaties in a story on fountain pens in Friday’s Business section. The story also said the German surrender agreement was signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower. In fact, Eisenhower was present for the signing, but the document was signed by others. The story also misidentified Dan Lammon, who is an A. T. Cross executive.

But Parker didn’t stop there. In an attempt to etch its place in history, the New Haven, Conn.-based pen maker spent $500,000 to place full page advertisements earlier this week in newspapers nationwide. Under the headline, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” the ad showed a photo of Reagan and Gorbachev signing the treaty. “The historic document is signed,” the ad said. “The pen is a Parker.”

All this has left the folks at rivals Cross Co. and Sheaffer Pen Co. with ink on their faces. “Sure I wish we’d done it,” said Joe Biafore, chief executive of Pittsfield, Mass.-based Sheaffer Eaton, parent of Sheaffer. “With the trend back toward more expensive pens, you’ll see more and more of this kind of stuff.” Agreed an envious Dan Lammon, manager of product marketing at Sheaffer: “In all honesty, I thought it was a good ad.”

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Not Reagan’s Style

The marketing ploy required no great lobbying. When news of the proposed summit first leaked out, a Parker sales representative who sells pens to the State Department immediately made some inquiries with officials there. The request was approved, even though Reagan more commonly signs documents with felt tip pens.

But not all advertising experts are impressed with Parker’s efforts. “Sometimes when advertisers search for something new to say, they can really stretch their credibility,” said Nancy Shalek, general manager of the West Coast office of the ad firm W. B. Doner & Co. “This sounds to me like the whim of one marketing person,” said Ben Enis, professor of marketing at USC. “I wonder just how many people will make the connection between the advertisement and Parker.”

Parker executives, nevertheless, are ecstatic. “We put the Parker name in the public eye,” said Owen Jones, director of manufacturing at Parker. “More than an advertisement, this was a statement.”

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Unlike the manufacturers of everything from beer to tennis shoes, pen makers haven’t yet taken to the costly business of paying celebrities to use their products in public. Gorbachev, of course, didn’t collect one ruble for using the sterling silver Parker--although he did get to keep the fountain pen that is valued at about $250. Reagan also kept his, and Parker already has on display two extra pens that were made just in case something went wrong with the originals.

Seeing its product in the right hands at the right time is a pen manufacturer’s dream. But until now, few such dreams had been planned. The Reagan-Gorbachev signing with a Parker represents a new twist on age-old effort by pen makers to keep tabs on the scribes scribbling with their tools.

Parker is quick to boast that in 1896, Giacomo Puccini wrote the opera La Boheme with a Parker pen. And Parker says Dwight D. Eisenhower used a Parker pen in 1945 to sign the peace treaty that ended World War II. In 1972, President Richard Nixon handed over translucent Parker pens--with enclosed bits of lunar dust from the surface of the moon--when he visited with Chinese dignitaries.

Sheaffer counters that its pens were used to sign the peace treaty ending the Vietnam War and, yes, even the Pope has been spotted signing documents with a Sheaffer, Biafore says.

Good Pen Can Be Lifesaver

Cross doesn’t keep such close tabs on who uses its pens. “But just look through the pages of Fortune and Forbes,” said Lammon. “You’ll see that many of the captains of industry have Cross pens in their pockets or on their desks.” And a Cross pen in the pocket can even be a lifesaver. In May of last year, a Denver police officer told newspaper reporters that a Cross pen in his shirt pocket probably saved his life, after a bullet bounced off it and missed his heart.

All this might sound rather comical--were it not such serious business. Between them, the three pen-making giants--Parker, Sheaffer and Cross--hold nearly 90% of the entire market of upscale pens (pens valued at more than $10 each), according to industry estimates. Cross holds an estimated 60% of that market, with Parker and Sheaffer placing a distant second with 15% each. Although these upscale pens account for less than 10% of total sales in the annual $2.3-billion domestic pen and pencil market, it is a growing--and very lucrative--segment.

“This may be the age of the disposable pen,” said Frank L. King, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Writing Instrument Manufacturers Assn., “but nowadays, more and more people like to write with hardware that they can sign with a flourish.”

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To that end, Parker says it will continue to seek ways for its pens to be handled in high places. But, after much discussion, officials at Parker have opted not to make pens to commemorate the recent nuclear weapons treaty signing. “On one hand, we figured it would sell like crazy,” said Jones, “but on the other hand, we thought it might be perceived as distasteful.”


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