An Ad Campaign Don Draper Would Have Loathed (but That Worked)

"Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal!"

Mad Men has given us a picture of what advertising was like before the Don Drapers and Peggy Olsons began pulling it toward what we think of as cool modernity.

Here's an ad that  represents the very opposite of what Don and Peggy believed in, yet which in its time was very successful. The first 30 seconds will give you the idea.

The ads for Cal Worthington's car lots always looked home-made. They always featured the same jingle, they ran so often that they seemed to constitute their own TV channel, and most of them featured the "dog Spot" schtick. "Here's Cal Worthington and his dog Spot" -- which was an anaconda, a bison, a camel, a horse, a pro football player, a killer whale (seriously), or anything but a dog.

The "two free dinners" offer shown at the top of this post, and that appears about 30 seconds into the clip, illustrates the tone I remembered from seeing these things on Saturday morning TV shows. Cal's ads came across as campy and self-mocking even then, in the 1960s. But they were effective because they also had a non-joking aspect. I always thought that their cornpone approach connected with the sensibility of a lot of Californians who, like him, had grown up or farms or amid Dust Bowl devastation on the prairie and had come west during the Okie-era and post-WW II great migrations. 

Cal Worthington died over the weekend, at 92. The NYT and the LAT have nice obituaries. Below is a highlight reel of his ads, including the orca segment and his wing-walker performances (he had been a bomber pilot in WWII). The airplane stunt was in keeping with his slogan, "I will stand upon my head until my ears are turning red to make a deal." This is America.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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