Lions and Tigers and Bears

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

Gibson Carey, Procter & Gamble’s VP-advertising worldwide, retired 10 years ago after 38 years with the firm. You’re probably thinking, not unkindly, “I’ll bet that guy never made a wrong move in his entire blessed career.” You’d no doubt be surprised to learn that Carey (“Gibby” to his many friends) was the creator of what is widely acknowledged as the absolute worst promotion in P&G’s marketing history. The most positive thing you could say about that disaster would be that no human lives were lost in its making. It’s a tribute to both Carey and P&G that both rebounded, nay, prospered, after the promotion that has gone down in company legend as “The Oxydol Circus.”

Carey was the newly promoted brand manager of P&G’s Oxydol detergent in 1967 when he was called into a meeting with his peers and the company’s ad manager. P&G’s promotion strategy at the time was heavily dependent on “off-labeling,” a practice whereby manufacturers offered consumers a cents-off savings from the price that was promoted right on the package. The FTC was weighing a ban on this practice in some categories, arguing that no one could tell what the regular price was anymore. In response, the ad manager informed his brand staff that they had to start developing “a creative new promotion device,” hinting at great rewards for the canny brand manager who developed a successful alternative to off-labels.

The gods of fate were afoot that day, for no sooner had he returned to his office than Carey got a call from an impresario from Huntington, WV, a man named J.T. “Call Me Jim” Hetzer. “He was in the circus business, and was calling to explore the idea of P&G sponsoring his circus. Good wholesome family entertainment, which would travel the United States playing all major markets, with admission by box tops from P&G brands,” Carey recalls.

He dismissed Hetzer out of hand. After all, P&G had never sponsored a circus in the past. However, Carey’s assistant brand manager, perhaps sensing opportunity, came back to him with pages of numbers and the rather surprising conclusion that “it’s not entirely impossible that this thing could be a money-making proposition.”

Thanks to the persuasive ABM, Carey invited J.T. “Call Me Jim” to Cincinnati for further discussion. “He proved to be a very impressive guy,” Carey says. “Well over six feet tall, about 250 pounds, in a blue, tailored pinch — waisted suit.” Hetzer had a full head of wavy white hair, heavy gold rings on his fingers, gold caps on his teeth, an enormous smile and a voice so loud (doubtless from years as a ringmaster) that he could nearly be heard from Huntington without the use of a telephone. “He was a showman to the core, and a salesman,” Carey says.

After a brief meeting at P&G’s downtown headquarters, Hetzer invited those in the meeting to attend a circus that happened to be in town — as his guest. He promised, “I’ll show you around, and you’ll start to get the sawdust in your veins.” It was too good an invitation to turn down. After an inside look at how a circus and its acts worked, as well as introductions all around to cast and crew, the gentlemen from Cincinnati had been bitten hard by the show-business bug.

The corporate sales guys absolutely loved the promotion and thought that they could sell multiple truckloads of Oxydol with it. P&G’s corporate comptroller went over the numbers as carefully as he could, but everyone involved agreed that the idea represented a huge leap of faith. With the FTC threat looming over them however, the company agreed to run a one-month test in nearby Indiana.

Once informed of P&G’s decision, Hetzer lost no time forwarding a draft contract. The paperwork was duly sent to P&G’s legal department, a group jokingly referred to as the “sales prevention department,” for their tendency to murder new ideas.

To their credit, the P&G lawyers did the best they could. But they had never before contracted for a circus. They invited Hetzer to the signing. “I remember feeling a little sorry for him as he walked into a conference room bristling with P&G attorneys,” Carey recalls. “‘Mr. Hetzer, are you not represented by counsel?’ they asked him. ‘Nope,’ he answered with his big West Virginia smile, ‘I trust you fellers.’”

The next few weeks were “a pure delight,” according to Carey. “While my fellow brand managers toiled at stupefyingly dull and prosaic business problems, I was putting together a circus!” Hetzer consulted with him before every major purchase. Carey recounts a particularly memorable call from Mobile, AL.

“’Gib,’ [Hetzer] said, ‘If you are a man of decision…if you are ready to act…if you are prepared to seize opportunity at the fleeting moment she is offered to you, I may be able to sign a contract with the world’s only 10-foot-tall ice-skating bear!’ I was transported with delight: I have always loved bears. ‘Do it, Jim! Grab the bear! Don’t let him slip away from you!’” And so it went, with one big act after another signing on for the Oxydol Circus.

About 10 days from the start of the tour, things started their inexorable slide into the abyss. The long-distance operator began:

OPERATOR: “I have a collect call from Mr. J.T. “Call Me Jim” Hetzer from Sarasota, FL. Will you accept the charges?”

CAREY: “Jim, what’s going on, why aren’t you in Indianapolis?”

HETZER: “Well, Gib, we’ve got a little problem down here with our big cats. You remember our big cats?”

CAREY: “Of course I do. Eight fully maned African lions and eight prime Siberian tigers.”

HETZER: “Gib, make that eight dead fully maned African lions and eight dead Siberian tigers. They all got fed some bad hamburger yesterday, and they went to meet that Great Tiger In The Sky.”

Carey sent his new brand assistant, a young Harvard Business School graduate, down to Florida with the job of laying eyes on the bodies of these deceased cats. He reported back that not only were the big cats duly and officially dead, but that in the spirit of the HBS, he proposed selling their carcasses to a local taxidermist, in an effort to cut the brand’s losses. Fortunately, Sarasota had been the winter home to the circus industry for generations, so Hetzer had been able to rent some new big cats from the Ringling organization. Of course, when you must rent exotic animals at the last minute, they don’t come cheap.

The next collect call came two days later:

HETZER: “Well, Gib, we’ve got a little problem down here in Mobile with the 10-foot-tall ice skating bear.”

GIBSON: “My God, Jim, don’t tell me he’s dead too!”

HETZER: “No, he’s not dead, but turns out he can’t skate.”

In truth, the 10-foot bear was the roller skating eighth wonder of the modern world, but couldn’t ice skate worth a lick. The bear fell over on his first and only ice skating attempt, gored himself with the skate blade and infuriated, proceeded to attack his trainer and put him in the hospital.

Carey was beside himself. All of his advertising — TV, billboard, print and posters touted a 10-foot ice-skating bear. The ever-inventive Hetzer came up with the answer: “I’ve got a seven-foot bear that’s a whiz on the blades. He skates like Sonja Henie. Now here’s what we’ll do: We’ll hire us up a midget lady, put her on skates and send her out on the ice. Some of them midgets has got great shapes even if they are kind of short, but under the lights you won’t be able to tell she’s only four-foot tall. And then we’ll put the seven-foot bear out under the spotlight right next to her, and that bear will look every bit of 10-foot tall.”

“That’s just what we did,” Carey says. “It was the only way out of a tight corner. I didn’t clear it with the legal division.”

They say bad news comes in threes, and it did for the Oxydol Circus. Howard Morgens, a distinguished white-haired patrician, was P&G’s CEO at the time. Morgens resided on the top floor of the company’s downtown Cincinnati Ivory Tower, and, to borrow from singer John Denver, “talked to God and listened to the casual reply.” Just a few days before the Oxydol Circus’ premiere, he was told that there was a man in the lobby who called himself Grand High Potentate Cecil J. Bradley and who insisted on seeing him.

Understand that the Wizard of Oz held open session compared to Howard Morgens, who kept the man cooling his heels in the lobby until the end of the day.

Potentate Bradley, it turned out, was the head of all Indiana Shriners and was very concerned by the entry of P&G into the circus business. The Shrine Circus was the organization’s top fund-raiser for its hospitals, which were famous for the aid they provided to burn victims. With, as Mark Twain said, “all the conviction of a Christian holding four aces,” Morgens assured Bradley that P&G was not then, nor had they ever been, in the circus business. Imagine his dismay when the Potentate whipped out posters and print ads featuring a 10-foot-tall ice skating bear carrying a huge box of Oxydol.

Within minutes Gibby Carey was standing before the most powerful man in the consumer products industry, explaining why Oxydol was in the circus business in Indiana. “And then he gave me his orders,” Carey reminisces. “‘Mr. Carey, make it go away.’ Those were his exact words.”

On his long walk downstairs, Carey rationalized what “it” he had to make go away — certainly not his beloved circus. “It” must be the Shriners he had to make go away.

And so he made the Shriners an offer they couldn’t refuse: a guarantee on their last year’s receipts plus 5%, a deal that Potentate Bradley readily accepted. Unfortunately, the Potentate left on his vacation without telling his brethren that “the fix is on.”

As Carey ruefully recalls, “Never, ever take on the Shrine. They are everywhere. And they are in positions of influence.” Newspaper ads for the Oxydol Circus ran with the wrong dates and times; TV ads ran upside down; the men at the loading dock delayed the circus interminably; finally, the electricians running the lights literally pulled the plug during the dress rehearsal. Ultimately, Carey mended fences with the Shriners, but they were to be the least of his problems.

A curious thing happened at the Circus’ first public performance: nobody came. Well, a few hundred came, but the Indianapolis Coliseum, built to hold thousands, sure looked empty. No one at P&G had anticipated the public staying away in droves. Its legendary sales force had thrown everything they had into selling this promotion. Grocers had rented tents for holding parking lot sales in many of the cities on the circus’ itinerary, as well as to hold the record shipments of Oxydol they had been sold. Carey tried desperately to boost the gate, but nothing seemed to work, he recalls.

And then it snowed

Lord, how it snowed…“and the detergent in the parking lots started to get damp,” Carey says. Do you know a good secondary use for wet laundry soap? Neither did P&G. It had to take the unprecedented step of buying back thousands of cases of unsold Oxydol as a result of the tent sales that no one came to.

Blissfully for all concerned, the circus closed after its fourth stand in Evansville, IN. “The decision to cancel, rather than go national, was a painfully easy one,” Carey says.

The Circus proved to be the gift that kept on giving; Carey was receiving bills for months afterward for services, the like of which P&G had not seen before or since. The $1,000 charged for elephant manure removal from the Indianapolis Coliseum merely hints at the problem. The brand went so far over budget that it had to cancel the balance of that year’s national advertising.

A couple months later, Carey received a call from the folks at Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey about sponsoring their circus. He was understandably reluctant to even talk to a circus until the man on the phone noted, “Hetzer put on a fine show, but you did violate one of the cardinal rules of show business. We figured that what with you being Procter & Gamble, you knew what you were doing.” The flaw in the plan: “You gave it away. Everybody in show business knows that if the price is too low, people will assume it can’t be very good.” Was he right? They’ll never know.

Rod Taylor is senior VP of promotions for CoActive Marketing. Send your feedback to [email protected].

A postscript from Gibby Carey: “The most remarkable part of this unlikely story is that I kept my job after such a world-class fiasco. Management, who agreed to the test in the first place, stood behind me like champs. I gained a measure of fame (some might call it notoriety) from the affair, which was not all bad. It is better to be known for something in a large company than for nothing at all. P&G moved me out of brand management, and into another line of work where I had no access to circus-sized budgets for a number of years.”

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