Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Lady Pepperell Sheets

I'm becoming intimate with the weekly advertisers for The New Yorker, particularly the ones that tell stories.

It wasn't unusual at the time for each weekly advert to be different, and for the ad to be a thinly disguised "story" about trendy subjects or current events. They always ended with a product pitch. It's fun to see the copy writers contort themselves in order to bring all the elements together.

Here's a typical "story" advertisement from December 17, 1927. How do you write Lady Pepperell sheets, the Lindburgh crossing, and female pilots into a single advert? In case you were wondering, here's how THEY did it:
Nancy Lee had been brought up to fear neither God nor the Devil. Always two jumps ahead of her crowd when it came to trying something new and reckless--she was the first to get a pilot's license. Apparently no stunt was too difficult for her.

Then came the thrilling achievement of that lone youth who courageously crossed the ocean. Nancy couldn't wait to follow in his path of glory.

Up before dawn on the day of her hop-off for Europe, she started to examine her beloved plane. Imagine her surprise when she saw an infant cozily sleeping in the pilot's seat.

Golden fuzz and pink cheeks, just visible in a snowy white bundle, captivated Nancy's heart completely. But naturally she couldn't take the baby so she took for good luck the sheet in which he was wrapped--a Lady Pepperell.

And after the flight--during which she triumphantly established a flying record for women--she found that Lady Pepperells were as conducive to much-needed sleep as to world records.
The poor writer! What's with the baby? Either it's a reference of some kind to Lindburgh's flight, or it's been slipped in there for readers who think Nancy Lee should become a housewife instead of being a dare-devil pilot.

These "story" advertisements were prominent in the world of radio, where it was extremely cheap to keep the audience's attention by re-writing the brief script every week. Some companies did this exceptionally well -- I'm thinking of the "stealth" advertisements of Lever Brothers -- but others made only a minimal effort.

In the latter case are the Odgen's tobacco advertisements from 1944's "The Weird Circle." The scripted connection between the show's plot and their tobacco is always embarassing to listen to. For instance, their adaptation of Frederick Marriot's "The Werewolf" is repeatedly interrupted by this sort of thing: "Werewolves frequently appear in folk literature throughout the ages. Something else you'll frequently see is Odgen's tobacco...easy to roll, delightful to smoke."


Eric Little said...

The same device was used at the dawn of the television era, when tobacco companies especially (who actually owned and produced the series) tried to integrate the commericals seamlessly within the show. Thus a private detective (such as "Martin Kane, Private Eye") would have an impromptu conference with his police counterpart in a tobacco shop, where the proprieter helpfully sold them pipe tobacco made by the American Tobacco Company, extolling its taste or inexpensive cost.

And if the tobacco company made pipe tobacco, no character on the show could smoke a cigarette or cigar.

Some of these shows were filmed live, and my dad used to tell me how Ralph Bellamy, who played "Man Against Crime," would drop his cigarettes, fumble with his matches, or sit there repeatedly trying to ignite a recalcitrant lighter.

In the first season of "Dragnet," Jack Webb himself would do the Chesterfield commercials, touting a medical report that claimed Chesterfields were safer than other cigarettes.

I'm watching DVDs of the first few seasons of "Perry Mason" and "Mission Impossible," and although by then (the late 1950s and 1960s) commercials had been isolated from the shows themselves, the amount of smoking is staggering--the main characters are continually offering each other cigarettes and lighting up.

Oh--and "Ogden's Nut Gone Flake" was the Small Faces album (the group with Steve Marriot, before Rod Stewart) that was released in a circular album jacket, replicating a tin of pipe tobacco.

Adam Thornton said...

Regarding the "stealth" commercials where the product is somehow enmeshed within the program itself, a lot of the early '50s radio shows have a specific character -- sometimes played by the announcer -- who arrives during every episode to pitch the product to the other characters. Usually this person's only role was to sell the product each week.

In the "Archie Andrews" serial, a nosy next door neighbour would always drop by with some lame excuse, starting a conversation that always got around to frankfurters.

Bob Hope had a similar character during his "Jello" sponsorship.

In "The Joan Davis Show," Harry Von Zell would play a normal role, but twice a show he'd start harassing everybody about Swan Soap, usually following a clever (and actually funny) pun. It's notable that the other characters would heckle him..."oh no!" and "not again!"

They began to portray Von Zell as an actual addict, which may have upset the sponsors. During one episode he describes his "Lost Soap End" (playing off the just-released "Lost Weekend," and the fact that you could break Swan soap into two halves). He goes into a crazy withdrawal, unable to find the second half of his soap. The audience gave him lengthy applause and cheers afterward.

Harry said...

M, maybe I'm taking a flyer here (oof...), but could the baby be some kind of uncanny omen of Lindbergh's child, who was later kidnapped?

Eric Little said...

That thought of thinkulous crossed my mind too--an incredibly sad story, and the guilt of Bruno Hauptmann is still being argued, even in the pages of Wikipedia . . .

Adam Thornton said...

An uncanny omen of the Lindbergh baby? Down that road lies insanity!

But I bet the Lady Pepperell people could write some good ad copy about it..."The baby was gone, and the only momento they had were the Lady Pepperell sheets!"

Harry said...

Nice re-write.