Monday, May 3, 2010

The Colgate Incident

Illustration for "Great fun on a slippery slide" (May 17, 1915).
 In the Thornton Burgess collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, there is a folder marked "Colgate Incident." I don't know if Burgess tells this story elsewhere (I don't see a reference in his autobiography) or ever refers to it this way. [UPDATE: the incident is central to a 1929 People's Home Journal profile, titled "Why is Thornton W. Burgess]. Nevertheless, it is an amusing story.

Sometime during 1923, Burgess happened to see an advertisement for Colgate Ribbon Toothpaste featuring an illustration of an otter sliding down a river bank. Burgess wrote a letter to Colgate asking why the otter was sliding with its front legs erect. Had anyone ever seen an otter slide like this? The authorities he had consulted made it doubtful. [Note: I wonder if he was worried that Harrison Cady's 1915 illustration--above--had spread false information.]

Burgess received his reply and soon received an invitation to write stories for a series of six Colgate ads (for a significant amount of money). Colgate's agency at the time was Thresher Service Advertising in New York.

The six stories have Peter Rabbit, in his finest Burgess Bird Book for Children form, visiting a series of animal friends and learning how important their teeth are to them. Animals featured included Paddy the Beaver, Billy Mink (needs sharp teeth to catch fish), Reddy Fox (needs sharp teeth to challenge Old Man Coyote), Happy Jack Squirrel, and Prickly Porky. In one story Peter himself is caught in a trap and needs to gnaw his way out. Clearly teeth are important--maybe "the most important thing anyone can have."

What is remarkable about these ads is how masterfully the stories make the persuasive point (you must care for your teeth; Colgate is the best way to do it) while preserving the integrity of the truthful animal story. It is in fact, completely true that these animals wouldn't survive if they lacked sound teeth.

The HGARC offers other examples of Burgess characters and advertising: "The Baby Turtle that Startles Peter Rabbit" written for the Animate Toy Company in 1920; "Wah Wah Taysee" written for Mohawk Ozonate Beverages; "Peter Rabbit Puts on Airs," licensed for use in an advertising booklet for Frozen Mints chewing gum. Unlike the Colgate Incident, however, the archive only provides the manuscripts, not the background information.

Finally, though this is more Harrison Cady than Burgess per se, a famous (among collectors, anyway) ad for Fisk Redtop Tires.

Next: Pauline stories, or, how to get readers to read ads

No comments:

Post a Comment