Thirteen years after he appeared in a Dewar’s Profile ad, (“Wildlife conservationist; International Airline Pilot”), David O. Hill said friends still introduce him by saying: “He was a Dewar’s guy.”
Eleven years after his profile ran, Les Payne (“Journalist”) has a copy hanging on his office wall with other memorabilia: a picture of him and Jimmy Carter, his Pulitzer Prize plaque, a picture of Payne on “Meet the Press.” But without exception, said Payne, a Newsday assistant managing editor, “Everyone goes right to the ad and says, “Gee, I didn’t know you were a Dewar’s Profile!”
Twenty years have passed since the first profile ad appeared (Jerry Orbach, “Actor”) and, despite declining Scotch consumption in the United States, the appeal of the campaign is as strong as ever.
Dewar’s became the top-selling brand of Scotch in the United States in 1980, running third until then. It now sells almost twice as much as it closest rival, J&B.; Distributed by Schenley Industries, the brand is supported by an ad budget of about $12 million this year, more than any other brand of distilled spirits, according to Mark Zimmerman, account supervisor at Leo Burnett Chicago, the agency that has handled the campaign since its inception.
As Dewar’s and its agency celebrate the campaign’s 20th anniversary, it now serves as something of a window on two decades of U.S. cultural changes.
“My hair color has certainly changed,” observed Marilyn Michaels (“Entertainer”), profiled in 1973 when her “Last Book Read” was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” “My hair was really long and brown then. Now it’s short and blond.”
Hair color aside, other changes in Michaels’ life style reflect national trends. Her 1973 profile spoke of her satisfaction with work and hopes for a satisfying personal relationship. “I was being the ‘70s single woman,” she remembered.
An Evolving Woman
Michaels got married in 1983 and has a son. “In the early ‘70s, I did Dewar’s. In the late ‘70s, I did a campaign for Diet 7Up--I went from the hard to the soft. Next,” she predicted, “I’ll probably do an ad for McDonald’s--that shows how important Chicken McNuggets have become in my life.”
Since the campaign’s inception, 87 profiles have appeared. Dewar’s was to host a reunion in New York for 23 New Yorkers who have been subjects. Attendance is expected to be high.
A Bittersweet Note
One of those invited is Leroy Neiman, painter and Dewar’s alum circa 1970. Then, his “Quote” read: “Man is most himself in his pleasure, not his work . . . .” Talking about how his profile should read today, a bittersweet note crept into his soft voice. “I never thought I’d be at this point, but now I’m interested in how what you’ve given your life to will be assessed when you’re gone,” said Neiman, now 61. “The work itself becomes more important, and the monkey-shines, like opening a new disco--that puts me to sleep now.”
Although it’s impossible to count the number of times an individual’s profile is seen, Zimmerman, the account supervisor, said 20 million is a conservative estimate. Take Paul Binder--(“Top Hat”), founder of the Big Apple Circus and current profile subject. His profile is running in more than 25 magazines, including Time and People, with nearly 8 million readers among them. Hundreds of thousands of commuters see Binder’s ad near the escalator in Grand Central Station, on their trains and subways, or on billboards near the Lincoln, Brooklyn Battery and Holland Tunnels.
Recognized in Public
“You just don’t realize how many people read these ads,” marveled Mish Tworkowski, profiled in 1986. “I’d be in a store and people would come up and say, ‘Aren’t you the Dewar’s person?’ ” Tworkowski’s profile: “Rock & Roll expert and appraiser, Sotheby’s.”
In contrast to the Dewar’s “Legends,” a campaign that also pitches the brand but targets older drinkers, the profiles are aimed at younger Scotch sippers. Although most profile subjects say the ads didn’t really help their careers, those picked are usually on their way up.
And, yes, said Henry Yaris, Dewar’s U.S. business manager, “Profile people must drink Dewar’s.”
When the campaign first started, that wasn’t a problem. But times have changed. Though jazz musician Henry Threadgill’s 1987 profile claims his drink is “Dewar’s on the rocks, after the music stops,” the reality is a bit different. “People often come up to me in bars and want to buy me a shot of Dewar’s. Frankly, I’m partial to a cup of coffee or some seltzer or some beer,” Threadgill admitted.
Payne said his life style has changed since he was a Dewar’s profile in 1978: “I was a hard-drinking investigative reporter then, but now I’m a Perrier-sipping editor.” Payne, 35 at the time of his profile, had just finished writing a book on the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that abducted Patty Hearst, and thought the ad would help promote it. But, he added, “I was flattered. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.”
Zimmerman said people often send the agency names of people they think should be profiled. Payne, for instance, said he was suggested “by Jackie Robinson’s wife’s brother--he worked at Schenley’s.”
For Hill, a pilot for Federal Express and the founder of RARE, a wildlife conservation group, appearing in the 1976 campaign was the equivalent of taking out a high-powered “personals” ad.
“I almost got married as the result of all this,” he recalled. As he tells it, a wealthy young socialite liked what she saw. Her mother ran a preliminary background check on him, inviting Hill for tea at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. He dated the daughter, but “it didn’t work out,” he said.
Hill is one of the few subjects who didn’t enjoy the experience. He wanted the conservation groups he’s been involved with to be the focus.
Most, however, did enjoy it. It’s been “fantastic fun,” Tworkowski said.
“I’m real proud of it,” admitted Marilyn Michaels. “I wish I could do another one so they could show my new hair.”