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When Frankie And Annette Saved Chrysler: A True Tale Of Madison Avenue

04/18/2013 02:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2013
  • James A. Kiewel Former advertising/marketing executive and producer of educational materials
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It seems like every generation or so, Italians come to the aid of Chrysler Corporation. Presently, it's Fiat's Sergio Marchionne. Before that it was Lee Iacocca, freshly cashiered by Henry Ford II ("I just don't like you, Lee"). And before that, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello!?!

Well could have, maybe. The year was 1964 and I was a management trainee at BBDO, New York.

"Which of you guys knows anything about cars?" asked our supervisor.

Silence. It was not cool for Ivy Leaguers to know about cars.

Then a response: "I don't, but I have a friend who does."

Being a land-granter, I had no reservations about speaking up -- and in that instant, I found myself in charge of finding ways to make the stodgy old Dodge Division's new Ram Charger appealing to young people.

My first act was to call Joe Gosnell back in Minneapolis. "The Ram Charger..." he mused. He began reeling off statistics about suspension, engine displacement, torque, carboration...

"But is it any good?" I interrupted.

"Good?" he shot back. "It's great!"

What if we could get it into a movie? I thought, but how? "Call Variety," said the supervisor. So I did.

"I'm with the BBDO Marketing Department," I said in my most business-like voice. "Can you tell me if any movies are going into production that might be aimed at the 16- to 25-year-old audience?"

Five minutes later I had a list of half-a-dozen pictures and the personal home phone number of rising starlet Pamela Tiffin. The first studio I called was American International Pictures. When the operator heard the words "BBDO Marketing Department," she put me right through to the president -- Samuel J. Arkoff.

"As a matter of fact, we do have a picture just about to start production," he said. "It stars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, with Mickey Rooney and Celeste Holm. It's one of our Beach Party series."

"What's it about?"

"Surfing. It's big in California. What do you have in mind?"

I explained that we were looking for a way to introduce the Ram Charger to the youth market, and might be interested in some sort of promotional tie-in.

"Tell you what," said Sam, "we were going to start shooting in two weeks, but I'll hold production if you think we might get Dodge to participate. In fact," he warmed to the idea, "I'd be willing to rewrite the script to make the Ram-thing the central character in the story!"

"It's not a character," I corrected, "it's an automobile."

"I know. I know!" He was on a roll. "We could have it stolen or something, and all the kids would get together to find it, and we'd have drag strip songs and..."

Clearly, the Ram Charger was going to be famous. And so was I! Four months in the training program, and I was about to become the Youth Marketing King of Madison Avenue!"

American International set to work rewriting and we got busy on the promotion support plan. It was a natural. There was a Dodge dealer and a movie theater in every town in America. The Ram Charger promotion would be the greatest national grass roots automobile merchandising event ever!

Then one day, the phone rang. It was the account guys from upstairs. They said that the Client had been thinking. They said that so far, Dodge was taking this whole thing on the agency's say-so. They said that neither The Client nor the management supervisor had ever heard of the Beach Party series. And that no one had ever heard of American International Pictures. They said that The Client wanted to see one of these Beach Party movies before things went any further.

"Sure," I replied, "I'll get one and arrange a screening."

Three days later The Client arrive from Detroit. A lowly trainee, I had never before seen a client, let alone The Client. As it turned out, there were four clients, each with some variation of close-cropped hair, heavy-rimmed glasses, plaid sports jacket, sweater-vest and bowtie. None of them smiled.

"Roll 'em," I called in to the projection booth.

The light s dimmed. The movie began. Frankie and Annette sang a lot. Mickey and Celeste were square and befuddled. As always, there was blue sea and golden sand and dozens of girls in (matronly by modern standards) bikini bathing suits. In fact, our movie was to called "Bikini Beach."

I was grooving along on how great all this was, dreaming of becoming the Youth Marketing King of Madison Avenue, when suddenl ...

"Stop this movie! Turn on the lights -- Immediately!"

The very well-endowed Debora Wally had raised her arms over her head to catch a beach ball.

"This is PORNOGRAPHY!'

The Clients stalked out. The account group followed. The phone rang.

"Can I finish the picture?" asked the projectionist.

Needless to say, I did not become The Youth Marketing King of Madison Avenue.
But I did become an account executive, and shortly thereafter, a father, and then a homeowner. And one day on the train in from Chappaqua, I opened my paper to find an article about how collectively, the American International Pictures' "Beach Party" series gross rivaled Gone with the Wind's and was the most potent influence on teen culture extant.

Go figure.

© 2013 by James A. Kiewel. All rights reserved.

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