Maxell’s “Chair Man” He’ll Blow You Away (part 1)

You don't have to be an animal lover to remember Tony the Tiger, Elsie the Cow, Morris the Cat, Nipper the Dog, Charlie the Tuna, Smoky the Bear or even Joe Camel, Bucky Beaver or Spuds McKenzie. (Just a "couch potato”).

Most of you can probably rattle off the products or messages associated with these and many other notable advertising icons and mascots.

If you don't remember at least five of them, or have never heard of Mr. Whipple, perhaps you've spent too much time studying and not enough watching television.

Sometimes, advertising characters and images are so memorable that they endure for generations and help to craft a particular image or brand message that is unforgettable.

Sometimes, over the years, that image must evolve to adapt to cultural shifts. The Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker images were adjusted to reflect societal changes; in this case, how African Americans and women were viewed.

Sometimes, a memorable image can become a marketing nightmare. The OJ Simpson Hertz commercial immediately comes to mind, as does the Joe Camel cartoon image, which was withdrawn after it was argued that it allegedly promoted the sale of cigarettes to children. The Old Milwaukee Beer Swedish Bikini Team was decried as "unfair, misleading and irresponsible” for the sexist image it conveyed.

Sometimes mascots just fade away, such as the Esso (Exxon) Tiger. Save the Tiger!

And, sometimes, advertising images endure simply as art, regardless of technological changes and cultural shifts.

One image that fits this last category is Maxell’s "Chair Man" .

The Chair Man is one of the most dramatic advertising images ever produced. An icon of the 1970s, he is still just as popular today (perhaps even more so) then he was over 26 years ago when the ad was first created.

It doesn’t matter that most people today never listen to music in the way depicted by the Maxell ad; the image – a simple black and white shot of a "cool" guy sitting in a chair in a Spartan room with the volume cranked up to deafening levels – still conjures up a powerful message.

The ad created a powerful visual message for an end product that is, after all, invisible (audio).

If, as the Rod Stewart song goes, "Every picture tells a story don't it,” and if a picture is worth a thousand words, then this picture's story is surely worth two thousand words - or more.

Back in the early 1970s, the leading manufacturer and supplier of blank audio cassettes in the United States was Memorex.

The Memorex advertising campaign was extraordinary. Starring all-time great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, Memorex created the memorable "breaking glass" ad and tagged it with their famous slogan, "Is it live or is it Memorex?”

The ads and Ella may have been great, but the quality of the Memorex tapes was really quite poor. As I recall, at that time Memorex marketed its audio cassettes primarily through mass merchant bargain retail outlets, such as Kmart, and packaged them in what we in the industry despairingly referred to as ”3 in a bag".

Maxell, on the other hand, chose a different marketing strategy: building high fidelity audio cassettes which were sold at higher prices to high-end audio electronics retailers. Their slogan was "Maxell, It’s worth it."

The demographic Maxell was targeting in the early 70s was older, more affluent consumers who were interested in high fidelity sound quality. These consumers typically owned component audio rack systems, which often included preamps, amps, cassette decks, tuners and turntables equipped with an expensive diamond stylus.

Such consumers were known as “audiophiles”, and Maxell initially marketed its UD and UDXL audio cassettes with the audiophile specifically in mind.

The audio cassette market grew rapidly in the 70s with the advent of car stereos and boom boxes, and the 1979 introduction of the Sony Walkman forever changed the way consumers listened to music.

These changes in the market meant that Maxell needed to broaden its appeal to take in a younger, less affluent audience that was still interested in high fidelity audio. Maxell still opted not to sell to mass merchants, preferring instead such high end retailers as Tech HiFi, Sound Advice and Stereo Advantage. I can recall Maxell’s feisty, brilliant Vice President of Sales and Marketing at the time, Gene Labrie, refusing to sell to Kmart and tearing up a $1 million purchase order right in front of the buyer.

Gene Labrie may have been shortsighted about selling to Kmart, but he showed great genius in crafting a quality image that the company enjoys to this very day.

Gene Labrie and Maxell's advertising manager at the time, Paul Miller, approached Maxell's advertising agency Scali McCabe Sloaves (Sam Scali, Ed McCabe, Marvin Sloaves) to devise a campaign which would resonate with a younger and less affluent audience yet maintain Maxell's high-end quality image. This was not an easy task.

Scali was a top-notch New York agency whose clients included Hertz, Volvo and Nikon. It was Scali which created Perdue’s "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" and Fram Oil Filters’ "Pay me now or pay me later" (Pay A Little More Now…Or Pay A Lot Later) campaigns.

Scali, or Scallywags, as they were affectionately called, had a talented young Art Director on staff named Lars Anderson.

Anderson was given the task of illustrating Maxell’s ”It's worth it" slogan, and of targeting it to a younger audience. Focusing on the concept that young people love cranking up the volume, Anderson developed a concept about a young man mixing a martini while his girlfriend's hair and dress were being blown about by the sound emanating from a powerful speaker (sort of reminiscent of the old Marilyn Monroe-over-the subway-grate movie scene).

This concept proved difficult to photograph, however, and some thought the image was a bit too risqué.

Still, the idea of the powerful sound that could be played back from a Maxell tape was the angle the company wanted to pursue; after all, the breaking glass had worked well for Memorex.

Anderson, together with photographer Steve Steigman, eliminated the girlfriend (darn) and used just the man, the martini and the speaker.

Finding the right long-haired male model was not easy, so Steigman convinced his make-up man, "Jack”, to shave off his moustache and pose in the chair (as I recall, Jack was a hairdresser as well). The chair was part of Scali's office furniture, and after testing several pairs of sunglasses, a 14' wall was erected in Steigman's loft studio and a high-powered fan was brought in. But the fan barely made a ripple in Jack's shoelaces, so some improvisation was necessary. The lampshade was tied back, Jack's long hair was loaded with hairspray to give it a fly-away look (some strands were actually tied to the ceiling with wire), and his tie was positioned using stiff wire, as well.

But what were they going to do about the martini? Easy: it was photographed separately and stripped into the final print.

The ad and poster that resulted were a tremendous success, and an iconic figure that symbolized the late 70s and early 80s was born.

The official name of the campaign was “500 plays,” meaning that “even after 500 plays, (UDXL) still delivers high fidelity". The campaign communicated more than just high fidelity - it catapulted Maxell to dominance in the blank audio tape industry and created a company image that has carried forward to this very day.

However, success sometimes has its consequences. Ego, power and envy can creep in, and what do you do for an encore? In other words, how does da Vinci follow up the Mona Lisa?

Miller and Labrie left Maxell a little more than a year after the ad was created, hoping to form a new blank tape company called MiLab. This endeavor never got off the ground, because Gene Labrie passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in May of 1981, at the age of 58. A few years later, Lars Anderson, a young man, had a severe stroke and became partially disabled. Paul Miller passed away, and I recently read that Steve Stiegman, the photographer, also passed away in 2004 “after suffering from depression.”

I am told that “Jack”, the original Chair Man, also passed away several years ago, but this remains unconfirmed.

But, as "Tony the Tiger" would have described them all…

They're Grrreat!
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