Testimonials help make a name for products, services – and self

'Victor Kiam, the entrepreneur known for commercials in which he said he liked Remington shavers so much he 'bought the company,' died yesterday at the age of 74.'...

‘Victor Kiam, the entrepreneur known for commercials in which he said he liked Remington shavers so much he ‘bought the company,’ died yesterday at the age of 74.’

- from a recent issue of the Globe and Mail

This is a pretty powerful business we’re in. A guy lives 74 years, makes a few tons of money, owns the New England Patriots football team, presumably is nice to dogs and old ladies at least once in a while, and how does his obituary lead off? By reminding us that he made a memorable TV spot.

(Give old Victor this: He came off a little better than the copywriter whose New York Times obit was headed, ‘INVENTED B.O.’ Yes, the gentleman’s crowning earthbound moment had been to abbreviate Body Odour on behalf of Lifebuoy Soap.)

Victor’s dubious achievement is a good example of the strength of testimonial advertising. Stand up and shill for a product, and you may well make yourself famous. And you might do the product a bit of good, too.

Victor Kiam is just one of many success stories in the CEO division of testimonial advertising. When Chrysler Corporation was headed for disaster, Lee Iacocca came out said ‘Trust me, I’ll fix it;’ people did, and he did. (Doesn’t seem to be working for Robert Milton.)

Dave Nichol built such a public following for himself by flogging President’s Choice that he can now play the same game for weird drinks brewed in the backroom at Molson’s. Dave Thomas turned Wendy’s around by being warm, fuzzy and oafish on camera, though people say he is none of the above in real life. (If SCTV were still going, would Dave Thomas do Dave Thomas? I sure hope so.)

And yet there are just as many, probably more, corporate spokesmen who vanish without a trace. I’d give you a dozen great examples, except that’s just the point: they don’t stick in the mind. Okay, here’s one. There’s a guy on my favourite radio station who promotes his window company with such an annoying voice and manner that I immediately switch stations.

It’s funny. Most creative people I know don’t like testimonials. They’re somehow not ‘creative’ enough, not inventive enough, not worthy of an exalted place as the Picassos and Steinbecks of our industry. But as in everything else, the difference between what works and what doesn’t is usually the presence or absence of an idea.

The Miller Lite beer campaign of 20 years ago made an entire category legitimate. Before then, macho men – meaning all of us, publicly – wouldn’t be caught dead ordering a light beer. But Miller took big-name retired jocks, put them in bars that felt like bars – no ferns – scripted them cleverly into arguments over ‘Tastes great’ or ‘Less filling,’ and gradually made their product acceptable and comfortable to MEN. In today’s U.S., light beer is everywhere. Bud Light sells more beer than Budweiser.

I’m particularly partial to one campaign that will probably never win any big awards but, in my eyes, amounts to a testimonial with an idea. State Farm Insurance has hired a couple of men with really strange, edgy occupations: an alligator wrangler and a beekeeper. They show these guys for 15 seconds or so, enough to establish that their job is dangerous. (There’s a particularly great shot of the beekeeper covered from head to foot in what has to be 10,000 bees.)

Then, having set up that these guys will take chances, the spots segué to what they won’t do: buy insurance without a State Farm rep. (‘What do you think, I’m stupid?’) Strong. Relevant. Memorable. Good.

Testimonials work. Of course, they, like most things, are limited by budget considerations. American Express can afford Jerry Seinfeld, and Pepsi can buy Britney Spears, but not everybody can. For example, I’ve seen a new testimonial campaign for a low-overhead company called John Burghardt Consulting, and it has had to use Barry Base.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.