CLOSE
Original image
Getty Images

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

Original image
Getty Images

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.
*
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.

Original image
Kraft
arrow
#TBT
Jug Life: A History of the Kool-Aid Man
Original image
Kraft

When Robert Skollar joined the General Foods marketing team at Grey Advertising in 1988, it didn’t take him long to realize that there were certain perks that came with the job. As the executive behind the Kool-Aid ad campaign, Skollar inherited the Kool-Aid Man, the anthropomorphic pitcher of sugar water that had been a staple of the brand for more than a decade.

Two stories stand out: The first, Skollar says, is when he was working late one night and decided to try on the Kool-Aid Man’s fiberglass costume for himself. It was like being inside a Christmas ornament. “It’s hard to hear anything in there,” Skollar tells Mental Floss. “You just hope you don’t fall down.”

The second was when Skollar got caught up in the trend of New York professionals putting on elaborate birthday parties for their kids. Skollar asked Richard Berg, the voice of Kool-Aid Man’s “Oh, Yeah!” catchphrase, to actually wear the costume for a personal appearance at his son’s sixth birthday party. (Normally, Berg just recorded the line.) “It was the voice in the costume, which was a first,” Skollar says. “And half the kids were frightened to death.”

Fortunately, that was hardly the typical reaction. Introduced in 1975, Kool-Aid Man became one of the most beloved characters in advertising history, with a recognition factor that sometimes outpaced that of Ronald McDonald. He got his own video game, his own comic book, and his own museum display in Hastings, Nebraska.

Not bad for someone who started out as a disembodied head.

By the time advertising executive Marvin Potts created a sentient pitcher of Kool-Aid in 1954, the powdered soft drink mix had been on shelves for 27 years. Conceived by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, as an alternative to glass bottle drinks—which were expensive to ship—what was then known as “Kool-Ade” became a cheap, popular way to flavor water.

When Perkins sold the brand to General Foods in 1953, their contracted advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding trialed a few different television spots. Potts’s idea—a large, bulbous container of Kool-Aid with an animated mouth and eyes named Pitcher Man—was the most popular. (Company lore says Perkins came up with the idea after watching his kid draw a smiley face on the condensation of a window.)

In the 1960s, Kool-Aid opted for celebrity spokespeople like The Monkees and Bugs Bunny, relegating Pitcher Man to the sidelines. “I think they found out Bugs was overwhelming the whole campaign,” Skollar says. “Kids would remember him but forget the ad was for Kool-Aid.”

That ceased to be a problem in 1975, when Alan Kupchick and Harold Karp at Grey Advertising developed the idea for Kool-Aid Man, an evolution of Pitcher Man. His face stopped moving, but the addition of arms and legs gave the character a more bombastic personality. It also allowed him to commit sensational acts of property destruction.

Skollar recalls that the iconic breaking-through-the-wall sequence wasn’t necessarily planned. “From what I’ve heard, someone on set said that Kool-Aid Man really had to make an entrance, and someone else, maybe a producer, suggested he come through the wall.” Breakaway bricks were set up, and the character's fiberglass shell—“the same material used for a Corvette Stingray,” Skollar says—effectively became a wrecking ball.

Although he was never officially named Kool-Aid Man at the time, the mascot helped propel sales of the drink mix. “It was a phenomenon,” Skollar says. “Here you had this 50-year-old product that’s not really convenient and not particularly healthy, and it’s huge.”

As Kool-Aid Man’s star grew, so did his opportunities to branch out. The property got its own Marvel comic—The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man—as well as an Atari 2600 video game. The latter could be redeemed with 125 points earned from purchasing Kool-Aid, which amounts to about 62.5 gallons of sugar water. (You could also send $10 with 30 points.)

When Skollar was handed control of the campaign in 1988, the advice was pretty clear. “It was basically: Don’t screw it up,” he says, “and make it more contemporary.”

Skollar says he took inspiration from Pee-wee’s Playhouse and the Peter Gabriel music video for "Sledgehammer" to conceive of an entire Kool-Aid Man universe—one bursting with frenetic activity that kids would find exciting and adults would find impenetrable.

“Most kid ads had a storyline at the time,” he says. “This didn’t. It was just surreal.”

This Lynchian Kool-Aid Man was no longer 7 years old, as previous marketing campaigns had implied, but 14 years old—old enough to play guitar and surf. Once naked, he now sported jeans and cool shirts. Skollar believes that the kinetic spots helped usher in a new wave of kid advertising that relied more on visceral, MTV-style cuts.

Not all of Kool-Aid’s efforts were focused on hyperactive kids, however. The drink mix was not without its controversies, having once been associated with the Jonestown massacre in 1978, where cult leader Jim Jones coerced his followers into drinking Kool-Aid and Flavor Ade laced with cyanide. There was also the matter of Kool-Aid suggesting gobs of sugar be added to the drink for flavor.

“We did a campaign targeted to moms, ‘Having Kids Means Having Kool-Aid,’” Skollar says. “And we told them they could control the amount of sugar they used. We also pushed that Kool-Aid had Vitamin C.”

Under Skollar, Kool-Aid sales shot to third place in the soft drink category—behind only Coke and Pepsi.

Kool-Aid Man makes an appearance at the NASDAQ
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Skollar stayed on the Kool-Aid campaign through 1994, at which point the account was passed to Ogilvy & Mather. Eventually, the fiberglass costume became nylon and computer effects began to enhance his features.

CG was something Skollar had already started to experiment with, but eventually discarded it for the analog outfit. “There was something about that rawness, that awkward-looking pitcher breaking through walls,” he says.

One of the original costumes from 1975 sits in the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Hastings, Nebraska, a testament to the character’s enduring appeal. Skollar says he once had research data supporting the fact that over 90 percent of kids could recognize Kool-Aid Man on sight.

The same wasn’t necessarily true of adults. “I remember one time we were shooting an ad where Kool-Aid Man was walking over a hill at sunset, holding hands with a little girl,” he says. “And a junior brand executive taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘We can’t see his face. How will we know who he is?’”

Original image
Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, YouTube
arrow
#TBT
The Most Famous Anti-Drug Ad Turns 30. Any Questions?
Original image
Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, YouTube

Without realizing it, Paul Keye had made the American Egg Board very unhappy. A creative director at the ad agency Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, Keye (it rhymes with “high”) had been partly responsible for a public service announcement in tandem with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. In it, actor John Roselius expertly cracked an egg into a searing hot frying pan, watched it sizzle, and proclaimed the scene a metaphor for what happens to your neurons when you use illegal narcotics.

“This is your brain,” Roselius intoned. “This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs.” Then, rhetorically: “Any questions?”

The spot premiered in 1987 and was lauded for its simple, direct, and effective approach to communicating the dangers of street drugs to teenagers. It’s been parodied, revisited, and credited with an actual decline in drug use. But spokespeople for the Egg Board complained that their protein-filled product was being unfairly connected with dangerous and addictive substances.

“Had I heard that,” Keye tells Mental Floss, “I would’ve told the guy to get a good night’s sleep.”

According to Keye, the spot was born out of the advertising world’s desire to “un-sell” something. “The ad world has a guild, the American Association of Ad Agencies,” he says. “One of the board members, Phil Joanou, went to a meeting and said, ‘I think we should put together some kind of effort [against] hard drugs.’”

Everyone at the table nodded. This was the 1980s, when Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign was in full force and crack cocaine was becoming an epidemic. Under the volunteer ad coalition named the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Joanou and the agencies got together and convinced television and radio stations to donate airtime to public service messages. The value of the spots was in excess of $300 million.

The problem was that no one was creating any content to fill those empty spaces. “Big ad agencies move very slowly,” Keye says. Eventually, Joanou came to Keye and asked if his firm could come up with a concept before that valuable airtime was taken away by impatient station operators.

Keye agreed. At the time, the drug being targeted by the Partnership was cocaine. “It was the new, 'wonderful,' no-problem drug,” Keye says. “All up, no down. We knew we didn’t want to feature addicts, but put it out there for young adults and teenagers. The message was, there could be irreversible damage.”

At Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, copywriter Larre Johnson and art director Scot Fletcher came up with the fried egg scenario; Keye got an agreement from director Joe Pytka (who later directed the 1996 Michael Jordan movie Space Jam) to film it at no cost. Actor John Roselius was paid $360 to practice cracking an egg with one hand so the yolk wouldn’t break.

“He doesn’t say it, but you get the impression he’s talking to his younger brother or his son,” Keye says of the simple dialogue. “We got razzed a little about it, like it was almost Victorian, or not very hip.”

Once it was edited, Keye brought the tape over to the Partnership’s newly-opened New York City offices. “They didn’t have a playback machine,” Keye says, “so we went into an electronics store and asked the salesman to play it.” Across a dozen or so televisions, Roselius cracked the egg, let it fry, and delivered his line. The Partnership had no questions. “The client was very pleased.”

The ad began airing in 1987 in both 30- and 10-second versions—heavy repetition, Keye says, was responsible for the ad’s longevity. “It ran all day long for three or four months. The Partnership didn’t have [another commercial] ready. In advertising, it’s about repetition.”

And it worked, or at least it appeared to. In 1990, the Partnership announced that market research indicated 88 percent of teenagers believed even occasional use of cocaine was dangerous, up from 78 percent before the ads began airing. (At one point, it was believed 92 percent of teens had seen some version of the ad, and so had a lot of dealers. “Let’s go fry an egg” became slang for using.)

While Keye/Donna/Pearlstein benefited indirectly from the ad’s success—it helped them land a lucrative California anti-smoking campaign two years later—they didn’t own the ads. “The Partnership owned it, and they did another one 10 years later” about heroin, Keye says. A newer spot, which began circulating online in 2016, follows up the “Any Questions?” tag with child actors asking lots of questions.

Last year, the face of the campaign—Roselius, now 72 years old—told Rooster Magazine that passersby will still refer to him as “Egg Guy.” He garnered some ironic press when he voted to legalize recreational marijuana in California and made a curious admission: He had tried cocaine a couple of times in the ‘80s.

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios