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Remembering Reebok's "Dan and Dave" Campaign 20 Years Later

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Twenty years ago, Reebok introduced us to "Dan and Dave."

Once American sports fans moved beyond their game of word association -- "Who?" -- the two men involved became part of one of the most memorable marketing campaigns in history despite a letdown of Olympic proportions.

In 1992, Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson were given such a great chance to medal in the Olympic decathlon in Barcelona that Reebok launched a $25 million "Clash of the Titans" marketing campaign. The campaign was really about Reebok's clash with a titan, Nike. Reebok hoped to crack Nike's stranglehold on the track-and-field market.

We saw clips of Dan as a little boy taking a bath, Dave as a toddler in a high chair. Dan riding a stick pony in his yard, Dave pedaling his bike. Dan in a Little League uniform. Dave competing at the Goodwill Games. Dan at the World Track and Field championships.

"Battling it out," Reebok reminded us, "for the title of world's greatest athlete."

Meet Dave

Dave Johnson grew up in Missoula, Montana. Not a place you'd associate with street gangs but Johnson was part of the West Side Gang. They broke into houses. They fought other gangs. One story told of how he made his own brass knuckles out of a dog chain. Once, Johnson stole the key to a Budweiser distributorship and the gang stole $5,000 worth of beer.

Johnson would later tell reporters covering his accomplishments in the decathlon, "Running from the police made me fast."

When his father was transferred to Oregon, Johnson got a fresh start. A friend introduced him to Christianity and he straightened out his life.

Attending Azusa Pacific College, Johnson began to blossom as a decathlete. When the United States Olympic Committee identified him as a possible medal winner, it offered him a position through the USOC job opportunity program.

Johnson had to think long and hard because he felt the job clashed with his religious beliefs. Others found it only ironic. The job was with Budweiser.

In 1990 he won the gold medal at the Goodwill Games. Over the next two years, he got endorsement deals with Body Fuel and Oakley. Nothing quite compared to the offer and exposure Reebok came up with for him and Dan O'Brien.

http://youtu.be/yKJkfE1M9wA

Meet Dan

O'Brien grew up in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Born to an African-American father and a Finnish mother, he was adopted at age two by an Irish-American family.

O'Brien attended the University of Idaho. Sort of. He flunked out. After a few legal entanglements, he dedicated himself to returning to school and track and field. By 1991, he was the reigning world decathlon champion. At one point he'd won all eight decathlons he entered. That and his point totals made him the favorite to win Olympic gold.

His impact on American track and field was as quick as it was impressive. Daley Thompson, the great British decathlete who won gold in 1984 with a record 8,847 points, said of O'Brien, "I see him as a 9,500 point man."

O'Brien was 25 years old in 1992, a few years younger than Johnson. The friendly competition they shared fit perfectly in Reebok's plan to launch an eight-month world-wide marketing campaign to grow the company brand leading into Barcelona.

Johnson was 3-2 against O'Brien in head-to-head competition. O'Brien was better in the first-day events (100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters). Johnson was the stronger second-day decathlete (100-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 meters).

Reebok was betting nothing could keep them from a great showdown at the Olympics. Reebok was expensively wrong.

False Start

At the Olympic Trials in New Orleans in June of 1992, while Johnson scored 8,649 in an impressive showing, the unthinkable happened to O'Brien.

He failed to clear any height in the pole vault. He missed all three attempts at 15-9 and was done. Just like that, his Olympic dream was over.

The Reebok ad campaign soldiered on, significantly altered. The company ran some ads of Dan shown cheering for Dave to win Olympic gold.

Except that didn't happen either.

Competing with a stress fracture in his foot, Johnson managed to win the bronze medal in Barcelona -- becoming the first American to medal since Bruce Jenner in 1976.

But a country that needed to be introduced to them in a marketing campaign suddenly knew them best for not winning Olympic gold -- in O'Brien's case for not even making the Olympics.

Not all was lost for Reebok. The winner of the gold medal, Czech Robert Zmelik, was a Reebok client.

The Next Chapter

O'Brien kept compiling world championships, winning two more. Then he won the gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Armed with a sports psychologist and four more years of training, he wisely lowered his opening vault to 15-1 and easily cleared it at the 1996 Olympic Trials.

Johnson enjoyed some endorsement deals in the year after winning bronze at Barcelona. He published his memoir: Aim High: An Olympic Decathlete's Inspiring Story.

Where Are They Now?

Dan O'Brien, 46, lives in Phoenix and owns a health club, Gold Medal Acceleration. He does some work for Yahoo Sports!

In June, he published Clearing Hurdles: The Quest to be the World's Greatest Athlete. He was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame this year.

Little known fact: He broke the Guinness Book of World Records mark for the fastest game of hopscotch in 2009. His time of 1 minute, 21 seconds broke the previous mark by two seconds.
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Dave Johnson, 49, became a motivational speaker and educator after retiring from competition. He was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame (along with Dan O'Brien) in 2005. In 2009, he was named athletic director at Corban University in Salem, Ore.

Best quote after the Reebok campaign got sidetracked at the 1992 Olympic Trials: "We were supposed to be on Johnny Carson. Instead we ended up on Arsenio Hall."

The 2012 Decathlon

Twenty years after Dan and Dave, the talk was again of American domination in this week's decathlon in London. With 2008 Olympic gold medalist Bryan Clay, defending world champ Trey Hardee, and phenom Ashton Eaton, there was talk of a possible American sweep.

They say history repeats itself, but that's not true. It only resembles itself.

At the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., Clay hit a hurdle and then failed on all three attempts in the discus. Like O'Brien, he missed the Olympics.

O'Brien, who was on hand, told reporters the obvious: "This event can claim you."

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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#TBT
The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
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John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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History
Why Lucky the Leprechaun Was Missing From Some Lucky Charms Boxes in 1975
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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to picture a box of Lucky Charms without a smiling leprechaun plastered on the front of it. But cereal fans living in New England in the 1970s may remember a brief period when Lucky was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a forgetful wizard who was barely given a chance to make a blip in cereal mascot history.

As Atlas Obscura shared in a recent story, Waldo the Wizard became the face of Lucky Charms in select stores in 1975. At that point, Lucky had been representing the brand since it was introduced over a decade earlier, but General Mills was toying with going in a different direction with the marketing.

Lucky’s shtick hasn’t changed much since Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964: In commercials, the leprechaun is enjoying his treasured cereal when a group of hungry kids comes along. Instead of offering to share, Lucky plots to keep his Lucky Charms to himself and always fails. It’s not exactly controversial as far as kids' ads go, but in the mid-1970s, executives worried that the mascot's unfriendly attitude towards children would rub consumers the wrong way.

Enter Waldo: a wizard who wore a green cloak spangled with hearts, stars, clovers, and moons, and, like Lucky, adored Lucky Charms. But unlike Lucky, Waldo was always warm with kids and never hesitated to share his breakfast. Instead of running away, his gag was that he was always forgetting where he put his box of Lucky Charms, to which the kids responded by reminding him that he could just conjure some up with magic.

Shoppers responded positively to Waldo during his trial run in New England stores, but after less than a year, General Mills pulled the plug on the experiment. It turned out that having a slightly more innocuous character wasn’t worth abandoning the original mascot after spending so much time and money promoting him.

While he’s undergone a few redesigns in the past 50 years, Lucky is still prominently displayed on every box of Lucky Charms. His cereal-hoarding tendencies have also remained the same, though Lucky was written to be a bit friendlier following Waldo’s short-lived era.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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