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The Stories Behind 6 Famous Slogans

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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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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images

After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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