Under the Influence

How The A&W Root Bear Died Then Came Back to Life

Clients hated the idea, research failed and focus groups booed. Yet, these marketing campaigns went on to become huge successes.
The Great Root Bear. (A&W/J. Walter Thompson )

Some of the most awarded advertising campaigns succeeded beyond everyone's wildest expectations, despite the fact that everything was stacked against them.


"Pull the ad right now"

Back in 1985, the director of marketing for Fiberglas Pink home insulation presented his ad agency with a mission: "I sell the most boring product in the world. People buy it once in their lives, stick it between the walls and forget about it. Make me famous."

Think pink. (Owens Corning Canada/Facebook)

So the agency came up with the idea to run a TV commercial that didn't feature any professional actors.

The idea was simple. Non-actors would discuss what they did with their savings after insulating their homes with Fiberglas. They were awkward and fidgety on camera. But that was the beauty of it.

At 9:01 a.m. the day after the commercial aired, the president of Fiberglas personally called the agency and told them to pull the ad. He hated it and didn't get the humour.

But that Sunday, he was in church when his minister pulled him aside and said: "I saw your new Fiberglas Pink commercial. That might be the funniest thing I've ever seen."

At 9:01 a.m. the following Monday, the president of Fiberglas called the agency again and said: "Put it back on the air."

Fiberglas Pink would go on to become the leading insulation product in the country.

All due to divine intervention.


Buy a Quallofil, save a duck

That same advertising agency had another client: DuPont. One of their products was a fibre-filled pillow called Quallofil. The material was a super-soft, breakthrough technology.

The agency was warned not to compare the new technology to down. Down pillows were too established - they wouldn't win that war.

But the agency didn't listen and just that: Compared Quallofil to down.

The theme was: "Buy a Quallofil pillow, save a duck."

The account director hated it. But the creative director loved it. "I don't care if it's wrong," he said. "We're doing it."

When the commercial hit the air, listeners began calling in to radio stations requesting the commercial. The ads won awards and Quallofil pillow sales doubled.

The same sentiment that saved a duck would also save a bear.


The Great Root Bear almost died in research

In the '70s, McDonalds was taking over the fast food market, leaving A&W in the dust.

So A&W hired a Toronto agency to come up with a campaign to stay relevant.

The agency went away and came back with The Great Root Bear.

The Great Root Bear. (A&W/J. Walter Thompson )

And as is the case for most big campaigns, A&W put the Root Bear idea into research to see how people would respond.

In the meantime, A&W's director of marketing, along with the agency, set out to present The Great Root Bear to franchisees at a big conference outside Vancouver. When just minutes before the meeting, the researcher ran in with the research results. The news was bad - focus groups hated The Root Bear.

In that moment, A&W's director of marketing looked at the researcher and said: "You never made it here, so there is no research. Go back to Toronto."

With that, the stunned researcher picked up his luggage and headed straight back to the airport. They threw the research in the garbage and presented The Great Root Bear to the franchisees.

And the rest is A&W history.

40 years later, the Root Bear and its tuba theme can still be recalled and hummed by people everywhere. But it wouldn't have waddled its way into our collective memories if it hadn't been for the fact the research went missing.


For these stories and more from Under The Influence, click or tap on the "Listen" tab to hear the full episode.

You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.


Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer I've restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So I can record the show wherever I go.

Follow the journey on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and search for the hashtag: #TerStream.

(Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)