Summer Series - The Most Interesting Adman in the World: The Story of Albert Lasker
*Our Summer Series airs Thursdays and Saturdays at 11:30 on CBC Radio One.*
This week, we tell the story of the most interesting adman in the world - Albert Lasker. Lasker had a hand in influencing professional baseball, Planned Parenthood, North American breakfast and not one, but two presidential elections. And he just happened to change the world of advertising in the process.
Actor Fernando Lamas was born in Argentina in 1915. By the early 40s, he was a movie star in his home country.
Soon Hollywood spotted him and cast Fernando in the lead of several colourful MGM extravaganzas.
Fernando Lamas was handsome, dapper and he cultivated a "Latin Lover" persona.
He became known as the "First of the red hot Lamas."
He was married four times and had numerous affairs with his co-stars.
Once, on the Johnny Carson show, he said it was better to look good, than to feel good. That one line inspired comedian Billy Crystal to create a sketch on Saturday Night Live called… Fernando's Hideaway:
When Fernando Lamas died in 1982, his friend Jonathan Goldsmith scattered his ashes into the ocean.
Jonathan Goldsmith also took an inspiration from his friend. The bearded actor channelled Lamas when he starred in the "the most interesting man in the world" TV campaign for Dos Equis beer:
"The Most Interesting Man In The World" was a breakout campaign for Dos Quis. Sales soared and so from 2009 to 2016, Jonathan Goldsmith was… the most interesting man in the advertising world.
The most interesting man in the real advertising world was named Albert Lasker.
He lived from 1880 until 1952 and brands he helped launch nearly 100 years ago are still with us today.
Lasker also influenced professional baseball, two presidential elections, Planned Parenthood and the American Cancer Society.
Above all, his selling philosophy changed the world of advertising for all time — and he did it all while battling depression and crippling anxiety.
With all due respect to Dos Equis, Albert Lasker was the most interesting man in the world of advertising.
Albert Davis Lasker was born in 1880 and grew up in Galveston, Texas.
When Albert was 18, he dreamed of being a reporter. He thought reporters had the most exciting jobs. But Albert's domineering German father, Morris, didn't share that romantic view. He thought reporters led lives of drunkenness and debauchery.
Albert, wanting to get out from under his father's thumb, announced he was going to enlist in the Army to fight the war in Spain.
Worried about Albert's career choices, his father proposed a compromise. A Chicago advertising agency called Lord & Thomas owed Morris Lasker a big favour. He asked them to hire Albert for three months.
He told his son to try it. If it didn't work, he would give his blessing to go into reporting. So Albert reluctantly boarded a train for Chicago.
Albert Lasker's plan was to work off his three months in Chicago, then head to New York to be a reporter.
When he walked into the offices of ad agency Lord & Thomas, he was introduced to co-founders Daniel Lord and Ambrose Thomas.
Thomas took young Albert under his wing and began teaching him the ad business.
Advertising agencies at that time were simply brokers of media space. They were the middlemen between advertisers and publications.
One day during his apprenticeship, Lord & Thomas received a small advertising request from a company that made knitwear for infants. It was run by a very difficult German man, so the agency sent young Lasker over to convince the clothes-maker to increase his budget.
A nervous Albert Lasker made his pitch, but the owner was insulted the agency had sent over such an inexperienced man, saying, "They think because this is a baby business, they can send children over here!"
Lasker began to fret, but then - on the spot - decided to repeat his entire pitch in German.
The cranky owner was won over by Lasker's chutzpah. Then increased his advertising budget.
That news amazed the folks back at Lord & Thomas.
Soon, another difficult opportunity presented itself.
A liquor company was looking to spend $10,000 on advertising. Lord & Thomas had already sent a man to land the account, but he had failed.
So young Albert Lasker was dispatched.
The liquor client immediately barked at Lasker, saying that Lord & Thomas had already sent over one unimpressive man, why were they now were sending a boy — and threw him out.
Poor Albert was beside himself. But then he summoned the courage to phone the client at home, saying: "Hear me out, and treat me like you would want someone to treat your own son."
The crusty liquor client listened to Albert's pitch, then hired Lord & Thomas. Young Albert Lasker was on a roll.
With his three-month apprenticeship up, Lasker decided to stay on with Lord & Thomas. First, Thomas had given Lasker a well-deserved raise. Second, Lasker was having fun.
But the more he learned about advertising, the more he believed agencies were leaving a lot of money on the table by not offering copywriting services.
His instincts told him that what the advertising said was more important than just where it was placed.
There was only one thing standing in the way of his success: Lasker wasn't exactly sure what made good advertising work.
He began analyzing all the advertising he could find, looking for an underlying theory. All he saw was advertising that announced new products or new ways to use old products.
Then one day, the answer came to him. In the form of a Canadian.
'Salesmanship in print'
At only 23, Albert Lasker had already earned enough money from salary and bonuses to buy Daniel Lord's shares when Lord retired.
One day, he was sitting in Ambrose Thomas's office and a secretary handed a note to Thomas that said:
"I am downstairs in the saloon. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don't know. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word 'Yes' down with the bellboy. Signed – John E. Kennedy."
Thomas scoffed at the note, but Lasker was intrigued and sent the word 'Yes' down to the saloon.
Kennedy was shown into Lasker's office.
He was a strapping 6-foot tall, ex-Mountie who used to write ads for the Hudson's Bay Company.
When Kennedy asked Lasker if he knew what advertising was, Lasker said, "I think so. It's news."
Kennedy said no, news was just a technique.
The secret to advertising, Kennedy said, can be summed up in just three words:
"Salesmanship in print."
Those three words would change the advertising world forever. "Salesmanship in print" was an epiphany to the advertising world in 1904.
Essentially, Kennedy was saying that advertising had to persuade. It had to give people reasons to buy the product. It had to convince.
Up until then, all advertising was just straight facts. Here's the product, here's what it costs.
Lasker suggested they take Kennedy's concept out for a spin.
He knew of a washing machine maker that was spending $15,000 a year on advertising but wasn't getting much of a response.
So Kennedy wrote a persuasive print ad that gave women reasons why they should buy a new washer.
In the first week alone, the ad pulled in 1,547 inquires. Within four months, the washing machine company doubled its advertising budget. Within 6 months, it was one of the four largest advertisers in the country.
Within a year, its business had tripled and the company had to build a new plant to handle all the orders.
Lasker was convinced. Writing ads was more important than just placing ads. With this newfound insight, Lasker went on a tear.
He was winning accounts. He was hiring more copywriters. He was single-handedly driving Lord & Thomas.
His boss, Ambrose Thomas, told Lasker to slow down. He tried to convince Lasker to take his family on an extended vacation. The firm would pay for it.
Lasker curtly declined.
Thomas warned Lasker that if he kept this pace up, he'd be dead in ten years.
Those would be last words Thomas would ever say to Albert Lasker. At that very moment, he gasped for air, fell onto Lasker's shoulder, and died of a massive heart attack.
Albert was devastated.
At only 26 years old, Albert Lasker was suddenly the leader of the country's second-largest advertising agency.
Not long after, Lasker's wife became ill and permanently bedridden after only two months of marriage.
Feeling the strains of his wife's disability, the death of Ambrose Thomas in his arms, and the sudden burden of leading a large agency, Albert Lasker experienced what was then called a nervous breakdown.
There was no treatment for depression back then, so Lasker took a two-month leave of absence to convalesce.
When Lasker returned, the Quaker cereal company gave him two under-performing cereals to advertise – Wheat Berries and Puffed Rice.
While touring the plant, he and copywriter Claude C. Hopkins noticed that raw grains were placed inside long rifle-like tubes. Hot compressed air was blasted into the tubes, puffing up the grains to eight times their normal size. The kernels shot out with a bang.
Lasker and Hopkins saw a selling idea.
They proposed that Quaker change the name of Wheat Berries to Puffed Wheat so they could advertise Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice together to save money.
Then they created a campaign that sold the cereals as "Food shot from guns!"
The advertising industry ridiculed the campaign. The press said it was "the theory of an imbecile."
Almost immediately, Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice became the two most profitable cereals in the country.
"Food shot from guns" made sales of both breakfast cereals shoot up 300 per cent. .
The year was 1913.
Albert Lasker was just getting started.
A small firm from Milwaukee called the B.J. Johnson Soap Company approached Lord & Thomas with a laundry product.
Lasker felt the laundry category was too crowded and cutthroat. Do you have anything else, he asked? The soap company said yes, they had a bar of soap made from palm and olive oils. It was called Palmolive, but they didn't have much hope for it.
Lasker felt differently.
First, he created a campaign around the "beauty appeal" of Palmolive, rather than its cleaning qualities.
Then he sent letters to 50,000 druggists telling them Palmolive was about to launch a massive coupon promotion and to get ready for a stampede of shoppers. The soap company immediately received one thousand orders from retailers.
One year later, the B.J. Johnson Soap Company was redeeming two thousand coupons per month. 99 per cent of drugstores were stocking Palmolive Soap.
By 1916, Palmolive was the best-selling soap in the world.
The B.J. Johnson Soap Company changed its name to the Palmolive Company.
The rest is history.
Next, Lasker was approached by Goodyear Tires.
They had developed a new tire with a patented diamond-pattern anti-skid tread.
Lasker branded the tire as the "All Weather Tread." Sales soared. Goodyear became the nation's leading tire maker.
Then came an opportunity with the California Fruit Growers Exchange. It was a cooperative of orange growers. You may remember this story.
The market for oranges was oversupplied and orange farmers were selling at a loss.
First, Lasker changed their name to Sunkist.
Then he developed a famous print ad that simply said, "Drink an orange." The thinking was brilliant. The ads persuaded people to squeeze oranges and drink the juice at breakfast as a healthy way to start their day.
Before the campaign, the average consumption per serving was half an orange.
But after Lasker's juice campaign, it jumped to two and a half oranges per serving. A 400% increase.
Because of Albert Lasker, orange juice became a staple of North American breakfasts.
With that success, Lasker was approached by the California Associated Raisin Company, or CARC for short. They, too, needed to stimulate sales.
Lasker told CARC they needed a better name, and suggested SunMaid.
Lasker then marketed a five-cent box of SunMaid Raisins in retail stores. It was an instant success, selling sixteen million boxes in the first three months.
He created print ads to showed the public how to use SunMaid Raisins in cereals, sandwiches, salads, cookies and desserts.
In no time, the raisin growers doubled their revenues.
But as the triumphs mounted, so did Lasker's emotional stress. He fell into a second debilitating depression and disappeared for 6 months.
In 1916, a man who had an option to buy the Chicago Cubs needed $150,000 to seal the deal. Albert Lasker was the only baseball fan in Chicago rich enough to produce that kind of cash overnight.
Lasker agreed to invest in the the team, but insisted on approving the board of directors, and wanted client William Wrigley, of Wrigley Gum fame, to be on that board.
The Cubs owner agreed to all terms.
When Wrigley eventually bought out the original owner, Lasker changed the name of Cub Park to Wrigley Field.
It was another wise Lasker marketing move. Wrigley Field greatly increased the awareness of Wrigley's gum.
But then came the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Professional baseball was in danger of total collapse.
Albert Lasker believed that baseball had to regain its integrity, if not for the league's sake, then for the nation's kids who watched as their heroes were shamed.
He called a meeting of all team owners. He suggested the idea of a baseball "commissioner." This commissioner had to be an outside man of impeccable character with no vested interest in baseball.
The teams bristled at the suggestion, but eventually realized that the only way baseball could be saved was to have the game cleaned up by an unbiased commissioner.
And that's why there is a baseball commissioner to this day.
Lasker also helped elect two Presidents. He orchestrated the election marketing for President William Taft pioneering the use of election films in movie theatres.
In 1920, Lasker helped President Warren Harding win a landslide victory by aiming advertising at the 22 million women who had just won the right to vote.
During the First World War, Kimberly Clark had created a cellucotton product as a surgical dressing. When the war ended, the army cancelled a 375-ton order. Kimberly Clark scrambled to find another use for their product.
They discovered army nurses had used cellucotton as sanitary pads.
The company called the new product Kotex, put it in stores, but it didn't sell. So they called Lasker in to solve the problem.
First, he recommended calling the product "sanitary napkins" then wrote candid print ads. But when he went to place the advertisements in a ladies magazine, they were refused.
Lasker then took the ad to the publisher personally. He told the publisher to have his secretary read the ad. If she felt embarrassed, Lasker would walk away. So the publisher called his secretary and in walked a conservative, 60-year old, white-haired woman. Lasker's heart sank. Halfway through reading the ad, she looked up and said, "This is wonderful. Women deserve to be told about this."
With that, the barrier to advertising Kotex vanished.
Another Kimberly Clark invention was an ultra thin tissue to be used inside gas masks. With the war over, the product sat there unused – until a chemist suggested the tissues could be used for make-up removal.
Lasker recommended the name Kleenex. But when the product hits the shelves, they discovered more people were using Kleenex to blow their noses than to take off make-up.
Lasker immediately changed the product name to Kleenex Disposable Hankerchiefs.
Kotex and Kleenex were so successful that Kimberly Clark invited Lasker to become a stockholder in the private company. It would bring him untold millions.
Even with these triumphs, another bout of depression followed.
While Albert convalesced, a new medium called radio was gaining momentum.
A few years later, a radio show created by two bricklayers hit the air. It was called Amos 'n Andy.
Lord & Thomas took a chance on this new show by placing client Pepsodent as the main sponsor.
The show became a phenomenon. At its peak in the 1940s, over 40 million people tuned in every evening. Pepsodent sales went up 100%. Lasker was paid in stock and became the second largest shareholder in Pepsodent.
In 1940, Albert Lasker married his third wife, Mary.
Mary Lasker was heavily involved in the Birth Control Federation, and asked Albert for help.
The worthwhile cause was suffering from a lot of public pushback. Lasker looked at the problem through his wise marketing eyes and said the name was the problem.
Instead, he recommended Planned Parenthood — because it sounded more constructive and would meet with less opposition.
He was right. The name stuck.
One day in 1941, Lasker abruptly decided he wanted to leave the advertising business.
He called a meeting with his three top vice presidents – Emerson Foote, Fairfax Cone and Don Belding. He sold his Lord & Thomas shares to them – with the stipulation they change the agency name to Foote Cone and Belding.
By that time, Albert had made over $45 million, so he and Mary started the Lasker Foundation to fund medical research.
The foundation became involved in the American Society for the Control of Cancer. It was struggling to generate donations. The Laskers felt the name was weak and didn't promote the search for a cure. So they recommended a new name: The American Cancer Society.
Even though he had a morbid fear of cancer, Albert Lasker used his substantial influence to get popular radio show Fibber McGee and Molly to do a dramatic episode on cancer.
It was 1945. The show was precedent-setting.
The American Cancer Society later told the Laskers they didn't know how to handle the amount of donations that poured in.
As fate would have it, in 1951, Albert began experiencing abdominal pains and underwent exploratory surgery. It was discovered he was suffering from terminal cancer.
Mary kept the diagnosis from him.
On May 30th, 1952, at the age of 72, Albert Davis Lasker passed away.
The most interesting man in the advertising world was gone.
Albert Lasker was a fascinating and complicated human being. He could be demanding on his staff. He suffered many bouts of depression. Even after he had built the nation's largest advertising agency and amassed millions, he still shook with anxiety before meeting a new client.
But in spite of it all, Albert Lasker had an incredible influence on the world.
So many brands he launched nearly 100 years ago are still with us.
All Weather tires.
Orange juice for breakfast.
Add to that the commissioner of baseball.
The American Cancer Society.
He helped elect two Presidents.
His agency, now known as FCB — is still a major force today.
And he also happened to change modern advertising forever when he championed John E. Kennedy's "Salesmanship in print" philosophy.
No other agency had grasped that insight. And probably no other successful advertising owner would have agreed to meet with someone who sent them a note up from a saloon.
But, that was Albert Lasker's greatest trait.
He always heard when opportunity knocked. And he definitely had us…
…under the influence.
I read a lot of fascinating books during my research for this episode. See the list below:
Adventures in Advertising - John Orr Young
They Laughed When I Sat Down - Frank Rowsome Jr.
Twenty Ads that Shook the World - James B. Twitchell
Ogilvy on Advertising - David Ogilvy
The Lives of William Benton - Sidney Hyman
With All Its Faults - Fairfax M. Cone
The Man Who Sold America - Cruikshank & Schultz
My Life in Advertising - Claude C. Hopkins
The Lasker Story As He Told It - Albert D. Lasker
Taken at the Flood - John Gunther
I also acquired some goodies...
Here is a Lord & Thomas envelope from 1895:
And here is Judicious Advertising and Advertising Experience published by Lord & Thomas in June 1906. I can't believe the condition. Amazing: