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Recycling the Pitchmen : Joe Isuzu Is Peddling Root Beer Now, and That’s the Truth

If it isn’t good ol’ Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes. And say, isn’t that Joe Isuzu?

When viewers turn on their TV sets over the next few weeks, they’ll be seeing these very familiar characters in commercials.

But there’s something different this time around.

Those folksy guys who played Bartles & Jaymes aren’t selling wine coolers any more, but under their real names, Dick and Dave, they are peddling subscriptions to Golf Illustrated. And Joe Isuzu isn’t selling cars any longer. He’s pitching A&W; root beer. No lie.

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These days, recycling popular commercial characters in reminiscent roles for otherproducts has hit it big on Madison Avenue. It’s a veritable reunion of 1980s advertising icons.

“People in advertising are celebrities as much as movie stars,” said Michael Weinstein, president of A&W; Brands. By using the slick, fast-talking but familiar car salesman Joe Isuzu to push root beer, “we’re taking a risk, but all break-through advertising is risky.”

Besides Joe Isuzu, the familiar Fruit of the Loom characters will also soon appear in an A&W; ad. Last year, A&W; also aired spots that borrowed Madge the manicurist from Palmolive ads, and Mr. Whipple of Charmin fame, who squeezed a can of A&W; root beer. Several years ago, Prego spaghetti sauce irked the Wendy’s chain when it hired Clara Peller, the elderly woman who asked, “Where’s the beef?” in Wendy’s ads--to find the beef in Prego sauce ads.

Recycling once-popular characters increasingly appeals to advertisers with smaller budgets.

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The trick is to find a character that TV viewers already know and love--and persuade consumers that the actor now represents their own brand. But in the process, marketing experts say, advertisers run a big risk of confusing consumers.

“These characters have taken on lives of their own--mostly due to the heavy ad spending that was behind them,” said Samuel Craig, chairman of the marketing department at New York University. “I suppose Bartles & Jaymes are cheaper than Jack Nicholas or Arnold Palmer, but what do they know about golf? There is no real transition in terms of their credibility.”

Indeed, until a few weeks ago neither of the actors who play Bartles & James had ever played golf--although both of them have been caddies. But the magazine’s resident pro gave them a crash course on golf etiquette before the filming of several TV commercials this week in San Francisco.

“While consumers will probably view these new ads as warm or fuzzy,” said Julie Edell, associate professor of marketing at Duke University, “they will probably not be able to name the products being sold.”

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The actors who play the characters say that’s a lot of hooey.

“We’re just personalities,” said Dick Maugg, a contractor living in Santa Rosa, Calif., who played Ed Jaymes, the tall member of the duo who never spoke in any of the 230 wine cooler commercials filmed over a seven-year period. “If Chuck Yeager can be a spokesman for more than one product, why can’t we?”

Actually, their lucrative contract with Gallo--maker of Bartles & Jaymes--ended in January. Maugg won’t reveal the size of the contract, but he says the money put all five of his children through college “and left me with a couple dollars to play with.”

His partner is even less willing to talk about their past association with Gallo. “That was then and this is now,” said Dave Rufkhar, a cattle rancher in Bend, Ore., who played Frank Bartles, the short, talkative character. “Bartles & Jaymes is the past and Dick and Dave is the future. They figured we still had some commercial value and could sell some magazines. I hope they’re right.”

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They are right about one thing: Consumers know their faces. Researchers from Golf Illustrated spoke to six groups of about a dozen consumers each--who were shown pictures of the Bartles & Jaymes characters without the wine cooler. “Every single person recognized them,” said Merle Makings, marketing vice president at VP International, which owns Golf Illustrated. “And everyone knew their (former) commercial names.”

That might be precisely the problem.

For several years, both Bartles & Jaymes and Joe Isuzu ranked among the Top 10 best-remembered ads, as rated by the New York research firm Video Storyboard Tests. “When people see Joe Isuzu, they’re going to think he’s selling cars,” said Dave Vadehra.

So both the root beer maker and the magazine publisher have taken a series of steps to recast the ad characters as their own.

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The character known as Joe Isuzu (played by actor David Leisure), appears on camera for only a few seconds in the A&W; ad. But even off-camera, he remains the master of hyperbole--at one point even suggesting that an original portrait of Mona Lisa comes with each can.

The former Bartles & Jaymes characters--Maugg and Rufkhar--will go by their real names in the Golf Illustrated ads. And Maugg won’t stand there quietly smiling any more. In fact, in some of the ads he’ll be quite gabby. They’ll both be dressed in conservative golf clothing--with Maugg decked in a pair of knickers.

For Maugg, it’s a new lease on his commercial life. “We had no idea if we had any commercial value any more,” he said. “I did call a couple of agents who weren’t the least bit interested in us. I got a lot of cold water thrown in my face.”

Briefly . . .

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Sega of America will be meeting with ad agencies this week to decide on the future of its $65-million ad business, now handled by the Los Angeles offices of Bozell & Della Femina McNamee. . . . The Los Angeles department store chain Carter Hawley Hale has handed its media buying business to Time Buying Services Inc. of New York. . . . The Miller Group Advertising of Toluca Lake has picked up several new clients, including French Luggage and stove maker Wolf Range Co. . . . Veteran direct response ad executives Gene Williams and Leeann Johnson have formed Power Media Marketing Group in Glendale. . . . The Hispanic Advertising Awards, sponsored by Hispanic Business magazine, is accepting entries through July 6 for its fifth annual competition. . . . An evening course on “Music Marketing in the ‘90s” will be offered by UCLA Extension beginning July 30.


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