Articles by Ben Robinson
by Ben Robinson
Ben Robinson age 4, with Lovable Louie at the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Baily Circus Sideshow at Madison Sq. Garden. Photo: Richard Robinson.
The magician still plays with bubbles wearing his vintage Mr. Bubble shirt.
In 1943, Wonder Bread fashioned a card with a rotating wheel that taught simple tricks and reinforced the nutritious value of their bread. The brand name was a natural tie-in to magic.
I’I grew up as a single child to a single mother. Mom made her living as a copywriter on Madison Avenue, ending her career in 1984 as the creative head of the ad agency Young & Rubicam’s Concepts Department. (She is seen in her prime at right holding our West Highland White Terrier.)
Picking up her skills somewhat by osmosis, I have since been able to understand and give form to client’s advertising wishes, a greater contribution than simply “on camera talent”
When mom came home from work around 7pm, she always half-joked that she had to get to bed and “sleep fast” before returning to her office. Her joke had deeper meaning than is readily observed. My mother was a somnambulist.
She often posed a question to herself by writing that question down on the top of a large legal pad she kept by her bed. She fell asleep and left it to her subconscious to find the answer to such a burning question as what line was needed to create a catch-phrase or “hook”for an ad campaign with which she was involved.
When she wrote “What will sell Oreo cookies?” Her pad was filled the next morning with the line “A kid’ll eat the middle of an Oreo first and save the chocolate cookie outside for last.” The jingle lasted for 25 years on network TV and probably helped Nabisco sell over a billion boxes of cookies.
How did her answer arrive? What facilitated the rhyme? She observed me, her six-year-old son, whom she saw unscrew the famous sandwich cookie, eat the creamy interior before devouring the chocolate wafer exterior. I was my mother’s R & D, that stands for Research and Development.
We were a good team. I enjoyed helping my mommy write TV commercials and loved being paid in cookies! Another cookie I had nothing to do with was the naming of Nutter Butter Peanut Butter Cookies shaped like a peanut. She asked me what I thought of her name for the brand, and I didn’t care for it. I was wrong, it is still on the shelves today by that name. Often new products are the result of the advertiser’s imaginations rather than the company’s creative labs.
The client (product producers) will often ask an ad agency to come up with a catchy idea that will apply to selling bath soap, and then the product will be patterned after the slogan is written. Such was the case with dense bubble bath soap, now a world famous icon, Mr. Bubble.
I can still remember sitting in the tub, probably age 4, playing with the white foamy, yet un-named suds. My mother would look in on me every few minutes to make sure I had not drowned. Her entrance provoked a game with me. Every time she would look in on me I would fashion the soap into a hat or mustache and claim that “Ben is not in the tub, I’m Napoleon” or some other character from my fertile four-year-old brain.
These innocent charades ultimately became the storyboards for the 1960’s black and white TV commercials featuring “Elmer the Little Scamp” who eluded his screaming, bulbous-nosed, apron-wearing mother who shouted “E-L-M-E-R, where are you, you little scamp?!?”And when the mother would stomp off, having only found a great tiger hunter or Abe Lincoln (I had many disguises), Elmer would giggle to the camera, “Shhh! Don’t tell her it’s just me and Mr. Bubble.” Mom made taking a bath fun for little kids for several generations. I like to think I contributed to the cleanliness of children too!
In the 1970’s my mother created the concept of the “Safety Seal” to protect the buyer, company stock, and consumer confidence in McNeil PPC Inc. products when tainted Tylenol was found on grocery shelves. Today the safety seal created by my mom (seen at the very top of the current label) is on nearly every pharmaceutical product. My mother’s somnambulistic skills were not in use for that one. She only had three hours to come up with what the Chairman of the McNeil Company would say on the air after the evening news with Walter Cronkite.
How many times have we heard of “magic cleansers” and “wizardly air freshener?” The concept of magic is the ultimate wish fulfillment.
Companies have invested big money in premiums (such as a toy inside a carton of cereal) having to do with magic. Sometimes the magician is used as a pitchman. Harry Blackstone Jr., for example, was the Jiffy Pop Popcorn magician in the 1970’s.
In the 1920’s, the word “pitchman” had a double meaning for Howard Thurston (1869-1936). He was a pitchman of Good Luck cards bearing his handsome face, that he scaled to the furthest reaches of the balcony. When he became famous for this, as the King of Cards in 1900, Wrigley chewing gum became his sponsor and bought ad space on the obverse of Thurston’s Good Luck card, which every boy or girl was sure to keep as a souvenir of the great magician’s performance.
In the 1930’s two multi-million dollar selling brands also used tie-ins with magic: Life Savers, and Camel Cigarettes. The Life Savers Book-O-Magic for holesome Entertainmint, was a booklet teaching simple tricks and sold for 10 cents, or acquired through the buyer sending in several proof of purchase stickers. Camel cigarettes, unfortunately took a tacky route, and hired the famous magic dealer Max Holden to divulge time-honored secrets of illusion, such as the Sawing a Woman in Half (seen above) in a campaign called “It’s Fun to Be Fooled, But It’s More Fun to Know” in 1933-34. Exposing secrets is never more fun than delighting in true wonder.
Not to be outdone by Wonder Bread, in 1934 the Taystee Bread Company had the premium which brought the purchaser special membership in the Mandrake Magcian Club, and the nifty pin seen at right (enlarged twice its actual size).
In 1986 I performed at the Magic Moment Restaurant in London on Regent Street. Patrons would eat, while prestidigitators performed near their tables. The name of the restaurant was justified by the close-up magic performed. Often the conceit of magic is made plausible by a company message or brand name. In 2001 I consulted to America Works Inc. to get their message across with magic. I trained their sales team to make the slogan I created “America Works Magic!” appear on a letter opener that was left with the prospective buyers of their workforce services. America Works helped people get off welfare by acquiring job skills, then placed these eager and dependable employees in client companies.
Magicians often have to be very good advertisers for themselves; the greatest of course was Houdini. A favorite representation of a magician’s self-advertising I know of comes from the late illustrator-magician Sid Lorraine of Canada. On the right you see his small, square business card heralding his portrait. Below, you see that the artist’s face is actually embedded (if you turn your head sideways to the right, in the larger, folded out picture of a rabbit and hat.
My look as a magician has been cast to represent Levis 501 jeans in national commercials directed by Leslie Dektor (lower right). For a season I appeared on talk shows nationwide (seen below left with Ross Schaffer on FOX’s “Late Show”) providing consumer education against pickpockets and luggage lifters at transport hubs. While exposing the criminal methods, I also, of course, espoused the virtues of my employer, American Express Travelers Cheques.
My hands have also appeared in many commercials, ranging from JVC products and Bonnie Raitt’s Luck of the Draw album to Delmonte canned goods.
The commercial tie-in must always involve a clever combination of product, message and an artful way of selling without seeming to be selling. If the product is magical, it can naturally be advertised by an advertising-minded magician named Ben Robinson! I told you I was good at selling! Recently a Japanese eyewear manufacturer hired me for three days to attract customers and sales leads for their very attractive brands at the International Vision Expo at The Jacob Javits Center. With my design team I created several unique magical presentations of their products. Was the hand quicker than the eye? You’d find an answer at the MITANI USA booth!
Having grown up in this world of finely meshing advertising and abracadabra I’ve had a fun time solving advertising problems with . . . you guessed it . . . magic.
In the 1950’s Allied Chemical produced many fliers heralding the amazing sights to be seen at their Times Square exhibition hall. Of course the flyers also taught simple tricks.