The Stories Behind 6 Famous Slogans

Though some of the greatest advertising slogans in history seem relatively simple ("Just Do It" is only three words, after all), most of the time, they're anything but. Here's how six of the most enduring taglines came to be.

1. “Just Do It.” The famous Nike slogan came from a rather unlikely source - spree killer Gary Gilmore, who received the death penalty for murdering two people in Utah in July, 1976. Just before a firing squad did their duty, Gilmore was asked if he had any last words. “Let’s do it,” he simply said. When Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy was tapped to create a tagline for Nike a decade later, something about Gilmore’s words just seemed to fit. “Let’s” was changed to “Just” to add a dash of emphasis.

2. “Good to the Last Drop.”

Maxwell House has a pretty neat story for this one. They claim that while Teddy Roosevelt was visiting Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in 1907, he insisted on taking a cup of coffee where Old Hickory once enjoyed his meals, saying, “I must have the privilege of saying that I have eaten at General Jackson's table.” As the story goes, after thoroughly enjoying his joe, Teddy smacked his lips and declared that the stuff was “good to the last drop.” Some years later, the coffee giant decided the slogan was a double win - it was a catchy phrase, but it also provided celebrity endorsement.

That being said, there’s a pretty good chance that the whole tale is just a pretty good bit of PR. The Theodore Roosevelt Association, however, claims they know of a credible witness who verified the whole conversation.

More from mental_floss writer Bill DeMain:
A few tidbits about Maxwell House – A Nashville Banner article from 1907 quoted Teddy Roosevelt as saying of that famous cup of coffee: “This is the kind of stuff I like to drink, by George, when I hunt bears.” Nothing about “good to the last drop.” Though maybe that phrase didn’t sound as quotable back then. Regardless, it was a big deal to have the president enjoying your brand of coffee, and in the days after Roosevelt’s visit, three different coffee companies in Nashville ran ads in the Banner claiming it was their java, not Maxwell House’s, that Teddy liked. Finally, though Maxwell House started using the “good to the last drop” slogan in print ads around 1917, they waited until long after Roosevelt was dead before they started using his name and image in their ads.

3. “A Diamond is Forever.” I wish I was one of those people who went to bed with a problem and woke up with the solution in my head. I’m not, but apparently copywriter Frances Gerety was, because she said the famous De Beers slogan came to her in a dream in 1947. It’s certainly enduring - the tagline has been a De Beers mainstay ever since. Advertising Age even named it the best slogan of the 20th century.

4. “We try harder.” This one is a rare moment of truth in advertising, according to Time magazine. When given the difficult task of making Avis seem appealing - Hertz had a firm lock on the top rental car spot in the U.S. - famed copywriter Bill Bernbach asked company president Robert Townsend why he thought anyone would use his company. “We try harder,” Townsend decided, and a slogan was born.

5. “I People weren’t exactly in a New York state of mind in 1977. Tourism was down, the city was getting a reputation for being dirty, and Deputy Commissioner of the NY State Department of Commerce William Doyle decided to do something about it. He requested a catchy ad campaign to boost tourism, and man, did he get one. Respected designer Milton Glaser created the iconic image thinking it would just be part of a quick, three-month campaign. He had no idea it would still be in use years later, even becoming a rallying cry after 9/11. The kicker: he did the work pro bono.

6. “That was Easy.” It would be nice if real life worked like the Staples ads: when you’re overwhelmed with work, chores, or life in general, all you have to do is push a button and some inventive and humorous solution magically appears to whisk your troubles away. Leslie Sims, a senior VP at advertising agency McCann Erickson, thought the same thing. Staples’ Easy button and “That was easy” line was... well, it wasn’t easy. It took a long time to come up with a concept that could quickly and handily show the abstract idea of “easy.”

I sense another post like this in my future - what slogans do you find intriguing?

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Kars4Kids, YouTube
The Cruel (But Effective) Agony of the Kars4Kids Jingle
Kars4Kids, YouTube
Kars4Kids, YouTube

It can happen suddenly and without warning. Driving in your vehicle, a commercial break comes on. In addition to the standard pleas to use a specific laundry detergent or contemplate debt consolidation, the voice of a preadolescent, out-of-tune child materializes. Your grip on the steering wheel gets tighter. The child begins to warble:

1-877-Kars-4-Kids, K-A-R-S Kars for Kids, 1-EIGHT-SEVEN-SEVEN-Kars-4-Kids, Donate Your Car Today …

An adult breaks in to repeat the lyrics. The two begin to sing in unison:

1-877-Kars-4-Kids, K-A-R-S Kaaaaars for Kiiiids…Donate Your Car Today!

In roughly a minute, it’s over. You go on with your day. But the song’s repetitive melody sticks to your brain like sap. You hear it when preparing dinner. While brushing your teeth. As you put your head on the pillow. When it's finally worked its way out of your brain and you've started to forget, it reappears.

The song is engineered to be obnoxious. And its producers wouldn't have it any other way.

 
 

Since 1999, an untold number of Americans have found themselves reduced to mewling heaps of distress following exposure to the Kars4Kids jingle. The 501(c) nonprofit organization based in Lakewood, New Jersey, spends up to $17 million annually making sure this earwig of a commercial is played across the country. While the purpose is not expressly to annoy you, the fact that the song is irritating is what makes it memorable. And successful. And more than a little controversial.

Kars4Kids began in 1995 as a way to capitalize on the trend of automotive owners donating their unwanted cars in exchange for a tax deduction. Owners who donate their vehicles are able to get an IRS write-off—though typically for only a percentage of the current value—if they declare it a charitable donation. Kars4Kids arranges for the vehicle to be towed away and sold at auction, with proceeds going to afterschool and summer programs for students.

According to the organization, business was slow until one of their volunteers had an idea to craft a commercial song. The melody was purchased from a singer and songwriter named Country Yossi, and Kars4Kids enlisted a child to perform it at an in-house recording session. It debuted in the New York market in 1999, and spread like the plague to the West Coast by 2005 and nationally by 2007.

Aside from Yossi, however, the company has repeatedly declined to identify anyone else involved with creating the song. The reason? Death threats. The tune has apparently enraged people to the point of contemplating murder. Speaking to SanFranciscoGate.com in 2016, music cognition expert Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis said that the combination of repetitive structure and the overly simplistic message was engineered to grate the listener's nerves.

“This simple melodic line is also probably responsible for some of the annoyance,” she said. “These kinds of three and four note lines are often the ones specially crafted for kids learning how to play instruments ... It probably conjures up associations of painful practice sessions.”

 
 

The line between irritating and memorable is often blurry. Kars4Kids has repeatedly pointed to the song as being effective in driving telephone traffic to their number. When they debuted a television commercial in 2014—complete with lip-syncing kids who subsequently got bullied for their participation in the spot—donations went up by 50 percent. To date, the company has received 450,000 cars. In 2017, contributions totaled $39 million.

Surprisingly, people have reserved animosity for something other than the commercial. In 2017, Minnesota's attorney general chastised Kars4Kids for not making it clear to donors that many of the children who benefit from the fundraising are located in the northeast: Kids in Minnesota received just $12,000 of the $3 million raised in that state. Other times, the organization has been criticized for leaving information out of their solicitations. In 2009, both Pennsylvania and Oregon fined the charity for failing to disclose a religious affiliation. (Most of the funds raised go toward Orthodox Jewish groups.) Oregon’s Department of Justice said that Kars4Kids needed to disclose such information in its ads.

Those speed bumps aside, the jingle shows no signs of leaving the airwaves any time soon. Rather than run from the negative response, Kars4Kids marinates in it, sharing hateful diatribes from others on social media.

“Newer people join the [media] team and when they are first exposed to the level of hatred on Twitter they'll be like, 'Are you sure you think this is a good idea that we should keep on playing this?,'" Wendy Kirwan, Kars4Kids’s director of public relations, told Billboard in 2016. “And we've looked at that time and again, and we've come to the conclusion that it's definitely worth sticking with.”

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Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
How Frozen Peas Made Orson Welles Lose It
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (Getty Images) (iStock)

Orson Welles would have turned 103 years old today. While the talented actor/director/writer leaves behind a staggering body of work—including Citizen Kane, long regarded as the best film of all time—the YouTube generation may know him best for what happened when a couple of voiceover directors decided to challenge him while recording an ad for Findus frozen foods in 1970.

The tempestuous Welles is having none of it. You’d do yourself a favor to listen to the whole thing, but here are some choice excerpts.

After he was asked for one more take from the audio engineer:

"Look, I’m not used to having more than one person in there. One more word out of you and you go! Is that clear? I take directions from one person, under protest … Who the hell are you, anyway?"

After it was explained to him that the second take was requested because of a “slight gonk”:

"What is a 'gonk'? Do you mind telling me what that is?"

After the director asks him to emphasize the “in” while saying “In July”:

"Why? That doesn't make any sense. Sorry. There's no known way of saying an English sentence in which you begin a sentence with 'in' and emphasize it. … That's just stupid. 'In July?' I'd love to know how you emphasize 'in' in 'in July.' Impossible! Meaningless!"

When the session moved from frozen peas to ads for fish fingers and beef burgers, the now-sheepish directors attempt to stammer out some instructions. Welles's reply:

"You are such pests! ... In your depths of your ignorance, what is it you want?"

Why would the legendary director agree to shill for a frozen food company in the first place? According to author Josh Karp, whose book Orson Welles’s Last Movie chronicles the director’s odyssey to make a “comeback” film in the 1970s, Welles acknowledged the ad spots were mercenary in nature: He could demand upwards of $15,000 a day for sessions, which he could use, in part, to fund his feature projects.

“Why he dressed down the man, I can't say for sure,” Karp says. “But I know that he was a perfectionist and didn't suffer fools, in some cases to the extreme. He used to take a great interest in the ads he made, even when they weren't of his creation.”

The Findus session was leaked decades ago, popping up on radio and in private collections before hitting YouTube. Voiceover actor Maurice LaMarche, who voiced the erudite Brain in Pinky and the Brain, based the character on Welles and would recite his rant whenever he got the chance.

Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70 from a heart attack, his last film unfinished. While some saw the pea endorsement as beneath his formidable talents, he was actually ahead of the curve: By the 1980s, many A-list stars were supplementing their income with advertising or voiceover work.

“He was a brilliant, funny guy,” Karp says. “There's a good chance he'd think the pea commercial was hilarious.” If not, he’d obviously have no problem saying as much.

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