Branded for Life
In January 2002, a Canadian actor named Andrew Olcott got a call from his agent. She wanted to discuss an unusual opportunity. Would he be willing, she asked, to audition for a TV commercial for a “natural male enhancement” pill?
Olcott thought it over. He was new to the commercial acting business, and though doing a spot for a penis pill was a far cry from doing Shakespeare, it didn’t seem any worse than, say, pitching deodorant. For years, he had worked primarily as a visual artist. He could use the gig. Besides, all auditions are long shots. Even if he got the job, he thought, most TV spots come and go with little fanfare. It seemed likely that nobody would ever notice.
The agent told Olcott what she knew about the audition. You couldn’t show “natural male enhancement” on TV, so the campaign’s creative director, Randy Spear, had dreamed up a character inspired by silent film stars, who would convey the feeling of male enhancement without saying a word. He would just smile.
When he got off the phone, Olcott stared at an old photo of himself as a kid, beaming at the camera, not a care in the world. He tried to channel that feeling. He stood in front of a mirror and practiced, ramping up the grin’s voltage and then holding it. When his wife got home, he showed her the smile. She said it was the stupidest thing she’d ever seen.
On the day of the audition, roughly 30 actors showed up. When it was Olcott’s turn, he flashed his big, ecstatic smile. The director loved it, and Olcott got the job. In February, on a bare-bones budget of roughly $100,000, a first commercial was shot touting the herbal product Enzyte. It boiled down to 30 seconds of campy innuendo. Olcott was shown breezing through life flashing his blissed-out smile at breakfast, at work, and while waving happily to his neighbor, a guy holding a sagging hose. “This is Bob,” went the voice-over. “Bob is doing well. Very well indeed. That’s because not long ago, with just a quick phone call, Bob realized that he could have something better in his life. And what did he get? Why, a big boost of confidence, a little more self-esteem, and a very happy Mrs. at home.” Toward the end of the commercial, viewers were given a telephone number for Enzyte.
A couple months later, Olcott got a phone call from the advertising team in Los Angeles. The commercial was a huge hit in the U.S. The phones at Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, the Cincinnati-based maker of Enzyte, were ringing like crazy. They wanted more ads, more Bob, more smiles. Spear rushed back to Vancouver. By the time they stopped shooting in 2005, Olcott had starred as Smiling Bob in 18 different Enzyte commercials. Ultimately, Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals spent more than $125 million on airtime, the company’s founder would later tell GQ. Smiling Bob was famous.
Along the way, Olcott joined an elite if largely undiscussed club: the handful of actors who play brand characters in ubiquitous, long-running campaigns, the kind that find their way into dinner conversations and office jokes. The current owner of the spokesperson crown is Stephanie Courtney, 42, who since 2008 has starred in dozens of spots for Progressive as a chipper sales clerk named Flo. Prior to landing the role, Courtney was a relatively unknown comedian, performing with the Groundlings, an L.A.-based comedy troupe. Now people dress up to look like her on Halloween.
For a struggling actor, getting cast as the face of a brand can be financially a seismic event. Typically, if the commercial is shot in the U.S., an ad agency will pay the actor a minimum daily session fee of $592.20 to shoot the first spot plus ongoing residual fees for the use of the commercial on TV and the Internet. (Residuals are determined by a schedule set up by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.) If the ads are successful, the brand will order a bunch more. At that point, the actor is in an advantageous negotiating position, and will typically work out an annual deal (with an option to extend) guaranteeing a certain maximum number of work days for the agency. If the agency wants even more, they pay the actor an additional pro-rated amount to keep shooting. A few days of work can generate quite a windfall. The longer a campaign lasts, the more the commercial runs and the more the actor makes. Dan Gilvezan, who played the winsome spokesperson for Jack in the Box for several years in the ’80s, says his initial contract paid him only $12,000 for 12 spots. But thanks to all the extras associated with the campaign—residuals, radio spots, print ads, in-store cutouts—his Jack in the Box income quickly grew to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
“Is it ‘F you, I never need to work again,’ money?” asks Claudia Caplan, the chief marketing officer of the RP3 Agency. “Not typically. But it certainly is ‘I’m going to buy a house for cash,’ money. If you’ve been struggling to make it as an actor, it looks like pretty big bucks.”
While receiving a good-size paycheck, the actor behind a successful brand character enters a state of existential limbo. He is famous yet anonymous. His face is everywhere, yet his name is largely unknown. The job is pleasant. He is fortunate to have it. At the same time, for the rest of his life, he will be saddled with the character and treated in public, at conventions, on the street, in the grocery store, like a windup toy. Pull string, say tag line. More disconcerting is that when the campaign is over, chances are, no other brand will hire him. The overexposure can be nearly impossible to overcome. He will have successfully acted himself right out of acting.
Smiling Bob and Flo exist because marketers believe that creating a good character helps consumers remember, identify, and differentiate their products. “Brands talk about themselves in human terms all the time,” says James Fox, the CEO of Red Peak Group, a branding consulting firm. “In an increasingly cluttered brand world, it’s really effective to have someone to be the face of your company whom you can imbue with your personality and whom consumers will associate with your brand.”
But it’s not for every company. Creating a wacky character works best for fringe or nascent brands needing attention—and for companies that sell something, such as insurance, that has no physical counterpart. This is why Geico has its Gecko and Progressive has Flo.
Companies pour hundreds of millions of dollars into marketing campaigns trying to either introduce new brand characters or sustain current ones. These characters require saturation. The more airtime you feed them, the more memorable they become. It’s an expensive diet. Last year, Progressive spent $330 million on TV commercials, according to Kantar Media.
Even with a substantial budget, creating an indelible character is challenging. Success happens infrequently enough that when a brand finds itself in possession of a resonant character, it can’t afford to have the actor mess it up. As a result, companies have developed strategies—such as writing a morality clause into an actor’s contract—designed to discourage any extracurricular monkey business. In simple terms, a company wants the real actor to be invisible.
In September, when news broke that Jonathan Goldsmith, the actor who plays the Most Interesting Man in the World for Dos Equis, was throwing a fundraiser for President Barack Obama, you could practically hear the company’s marketing officers gnawing on bottle caps. Reports soon surfaced of outraged Republicans threatening to boycott Dos Equis. Every day the story stayed in the news cycle chipped further away at the character’s well-crafted mystique. “Having a face for your brand can be a double-edged sword,” says Fox. “Because they are human, they all exhibit their humanity at times.”
The most loyal brand actors don’t say much in public other than delivering their catchy tag lines and cheerleading on behalf of the company in the occasional interview. Discipline is rewarded. The actors are paid well to stay on message. As a result, the top brand actors in American life have tended to be often seen on TV but seldom heard away from it.
For years, even as Smiling Bob went multiplatinum, Olcott stayed hidden. There was no mention of his name on the company’s website. He never gave interviews. He was as silent as the character he played on TV. But he was the brand for many people, and this had consequences.
In 2008, Steve Warshak, the founder of Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being found guilty of multiple counts of conspiracy, fraud, and money laundering. (The sentence was subsequently reduced to 10 years.) Many of the news stories published about Warshak’s legal struggles were illustrated with a picture of Smiling Bob. Online, people often directed their disgust at Enzyte’s frontman. “Let’s see if he wipes that smile off his face now,” wrote a chat room commenter in the aftermath of Warshak’s conviction.
The longer Olcott stayed anonymous, the more curiosity he inspired on the Web. Eventually, a conspiracy theory took root: The unknown actor behind Smiling Bob had died in a boat accident in the Caribbean. Something sinister seemed afoot. Hypotheses varied: Perhaps Smiling Bob had been murdered? Or maybe he had faked his own death?
Back in Vancouver, Olcott read the false speculation with amusement. “There’s a certain power in anonymity,” he says. “I wanted to keep it low-key. But honestly, I’m fine either way. By all means, release my name as Smiling Bob.”
In private, Olcott has always embraced the role. “Everybody in my life knows me as Smiling Bob,” says Olcott. “I’m quite open about it. I have a 16-year-old son. His friends love the fact that I’m Smiling Bob. They walk around wearing T-shirts with my face on it.”
Like other former brand actors who opened up for this piece—including Ben Curtis, also known as Steven the Dell Dude; Gilvezan, the Jack in the Box Man; and David Leisure, who was Joe Isuzu—Olcott says he is proud of his work. He says that, in retrospect, the whole Smiling Bob thing seems like a miracle. “Sometimes if I’m alone in a room, I’ll sit in a chair and think, ‘Smiling Bob!’ ” says Olcott. “And I’ll just shake my head, smile, and go, ‘Wow, that really happened.’ ”
As he approached his mid-30s, David Leisure was struggling to make a living as an actor. He had two film roles to his credit: First Krishna in Airplane! and Religious Zealot No. 1 in Airplane II. In between auditions, Leisure waited tables. “At that time, I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to be a commercial actor,’ ” says Leisure. “I want to be an Actor actor. I compartmentalized those two things.”
In 1984, at the suggestion of a girlfriend, Leisure enrolled in a commercial-acting workshop. Most of his classmates were Hollywood housewives, hoping to break into the business. Leisure had been acting since he was 15. “It was a piece of cake,” he says. “I owned the place.” In 1986 he went to an audition for a car commercial. The ad agency, Della Femina, Travisano & Partners, had convinced the Japanese carmaker Isuzu to make a TV spot featuring a sleazy car dealer who makes patently absurd boasts. At first, the agency wanted Jon Lovitz, who was playing a hilarious liar on Saturday Night Live. But it didn’t pan out. At his audition, Leisure decided that Lovitz’s style of lying was too slow for a TV ad anyway. Instead, Leisure smiled and lied fast.
“When we came to the U.S. in 1980 nobody had ever heard of us,” says Leon Rosen, Isuzu’s top marketing executive in the U.S. at the time. “Our ad budget was 10 percent of Toyota’s. We had to have something to break through the clutter.” Rosen says he put the entirety of his marketing budget, roughly $80 million, behind the campaign. Along the way, Rosen had to battle Isuzu dealers, who didn’t like the image Joe Isuzu gave them, and the company’s Japanese executives, who didn’t think it was funny. “The dealers used to insist that we were spending all of our money on developing a character when the hero should be the car,” says Rosen. “I had to fight them tooth and nail until they started seeing all the floor traffic come in.”
Leisure’s Joe Isuzu became one of the most celebrated brand characters in TV history, starring in more than 40 spots. “There I was, saying all these really outrageous things: ‘Hey, if you come in tomorrow, we’ll give you a free house!’ ‘This thing gets 400 miles to the gallon!’ All these exaggerated things,” says Leisure. “Of course, they would put the disclaimer at the bottom: ‘He’s lying.’ ”
For years, the ads ran so often that Leisure couldn’t go anywhere without people going bananas at the sight of Joe Isuzu. “I was on TV, not just once a week,” says Leisure. “I was on every channel, all day long, seven days a week.” Strangers often approached him on the street. “People would come up to me and start talking this gibberish and nonsense,” says Leisure. “And I’d go, ‘Excuse me? I don’t mean to insult you, but what the hell are you talking about?’ Then I realized that they were ‘lying’ to me.”
Decades later, Joe Isuzu lives on in the cerebral cortexes of American consumers, capable upon the slightest provocation of popping back to life and tossing off perfectly preserved tag lines: “You have my word on it.” “It has more seats than the Astrodome.” “If I’m lying, may lightning hit my mother.”
Playing Joe Isuzu was one of the greatest experiences of Leisure’s professional life. Letting the character go was devastating. In 1990, after four years in the part, Leisure picked up his mail one day and found a letter from the company. At the time, he was in negotiations to extend his contract for another year. His services, he read, were no longer needed. “It was chilling,” he says.
He grabbed a bottle of vodka. “Every half hour, I’d take another swig of vodka and read the letter again,” says Leisure. “Really? A letter? I was horribly upset. I’m only human. I was the personification of this vehicle. I could not shed that. I knew I’d be saddled with that for the rest of my life.”
Successful brand actors tend to rave about their time playing the face of a brand. Letting go is another story. For most artists, achieving a huge commercial success, be it a hit song or movie or novel, guarantees another shot at stardom; the opposite is true for most brand actors. Once you’re the face of one major product, no other major product wants you.
Just ask Ben Curtis. From 2000 to 2003, Curtis starred as Steven the Dell Dude in a campaign for Dell computers. When he won the role, Curtis was just 19, an undergraduate studying at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Curtis loved representing Dell, but his sudden success caused friction at school. His close friends were supportive, others less so.
“As it got bigger and bigger and bigger, I think there was a lot of jealousy and resentment,” says Curtis. “It was hard to be a normal kid in school sometimes. I still wanted to be an artist and an actor like everyone else, but I was kind of seen as having already made it.”
Perhaps because he was young, Curtis did not pay enough attention to the commandment that a brand actor shall be invisible. In February 2003, Curtis was arrested while trying to buy a bag of marijuana on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was wearing a kilt at the time.
Ultimately, the charges were dropped, but the media attention surrounding his initial arrest ensured that his days as Steven were over. “I was upset, but I also felt it was a blessing in disguise,” says Curtis. “I wasn’t growing as an actor anymore. At the same time, I was about to sign another huge contract. I was very overwhelmed at that age. It was definitely mixed feelings.”
From 2002 until 2011, Paul Marcarelli earned a reputation in the advertising world as an utterly disciplined pitchman. Constantly seen on television as the Test Man for Verizon—tag line: “Can you hear me now?”—he remained categorically inconspicuous in his daily life. Despite living in New York City, a place crawling with journalists, Marcarelli never gave an interview about his role. Verizon declined to share details about him with curious journalists.
Finally, in 2011, Marcarelli spoke to the Atlantic. The piece reported that Marcarelli’s original five-year contract with the company had prohibited him from doing other commercial work and from speaking about his role as the Test Man. But much of his public silence over the years, Marcarelli explained, had largely been self-imposed in deference to the brand character he played and the sizable income that came with it. Once, he had even decided not to file a police report about teenagers yelling homophobic slurs outside his home out of concern about how it would be perceived publicly if news got out that the actor who played the Test Man was, in fact, gay.
In the wake of the Atlantic story, Marcarelli was bombarded with interview requests from the likes of Matt Lauer and Ellen DeGeneres. Instead of joining the talk show circuit, Marcarelli wrote a piece on the Huffington Post, noting that the “tempest” which the story had created “was nothing short of mortifying.” Afterward, he largely retreated from the public eye, returning to his roots in the world of New York theater and independent film. Last year, he wrote and produced an indie movie called The Green. He declined to comment for this article.
From 1981 to 1984, Gilvezan starred in roughly 50 ads, personifying Jack in the Box’s David to McDonald’s Goliath. “We had a great time shooting those spots,” says Gilvezan. “They dressed me in scuba gear, a chicken outfit. I dressed up as a giant bunny. It was a lot of fun.”
Eventually, like all brand actors, he lost the role when the campaign ended. “It’s like a great party, and then the party ends,” says Gilvezan. “It’s not necessarily a sense of bitterness. But there’s a sadness that it’s over.”
Last year, Gilvezan wrote a novel, Drowned in the Grenadine, dramatizing the desultory afterlife of a former pitchman. For years, Gilvezan struggled to get back in front of the camera. “I couldn’t book another commercial,” says Gilvezan. “Nobody wanted the Jack in the Box Man selling whatever their product was. I was totally overexposed.”
Some brand actors luck into a second act. One day during his run as Joe Isuzu, Leisure bumped into Brandon Tartikoff, the powerful NBC entertainment chief, in a bowling alley in L.A. Tartikoff turned out to be a fan. “He put me in all these little pilots,” says Leisure. “Finally, one stuck. I was on a show called Empty Nest. We followed The Golden Girls.” For seven seasons, Leisure played Charley Dietz, an obnoxious, smarmy, mooching next-door neighbor. “That helped me get over Joe Isuzu,” says Leisure.
In 1999, nearly a decade after the company broke up with him via the U.S. Postal Service, Leisure got a phone call from his agent saying that Isuzu wanted to revive the old campaign. “I said to my agent, ‘Are you sure it’s not just some guy up in Sacramento who wants me to come up to the car dealership and hang out for the day?’ ” recalls Leisure. “He said, ‘Well, let me double-check, because you could be right.’ He called back and said, ‘No, they want to do the whole campaign again.’ ” The good times didn’t last long. The company was struggling, and Joe Isuzu’s retail magic was mostly used up.
Andrew Olcott says that twice in recent years he won callbacks for commercial roles—only to see his chances thwarted when the director learned that he had played Smiling Bob. “I’ve kind of had to step back from commercials,” he says. These days, Olcott makes a living with an advertising business he co-founded in Vancouver. Painting provides him with a creative outlet. He’s still interested in acting, he says, but he would be happy to spend the rest of his days doing indie productions.
“Was I upset when Bob ended?” asks Olcott. “Yeah, of course. Financially, would I like it back? Of course. Do I lament it? A little. But I’m not losing any sleep over it. I’ve moved on to other things. All I can do is be really happy that I had the opportunity. I feel blessed that I was able to do that.”
In 2008 an investment group led by Cincinnati businessman Chuck Kubicki bought Berkeley’s assets out of bankruptcy, including Enzyte. Shortly afterwards, the brand’s new managers flew Olcott to Las Vegas for a trade show. It had been years since Olcott had filmed his last Smiling Bob TV commercial. In Vancouver, he could walk the streets unrecognized. Inside the industry, however, Smiling Bob’s fame had not faded. At the trade booth, fans lined up to pose for pictures with him. “One guy said, ‘I’ve got a picture of me with President Obama. And now I’m going to have a picture hanging right next to it of me and Smiling Bob,’ ” recalls Olcott. He believes that Smiling Bob will rise again someday. “I know in my heart of hearts something else will manifest from it,” says Olcott. “That’s the way Bob is, actually.”
A decade after his Dell gig fell apart, Ben Curtis says all the computer money is gone. “Most of my money went to paying off college,” he says. “I didn’t make millions of dollars from Dell. Not at all. I was young. I spent a lot of it. And I invested the rest in college.”
He says that he has since struggled to get commercial work. He’s been waiting tables and acting in theater and independent films. Most recently he starred opposite Richard Chamberlain in a 2011 indie feature called We Are the Hartmans. “The problem is that I’m just not the new, hot guy anymore,” says Curtis, 31. “A lot of people feel like they’ve seen my best work, which isn’t true at all.”
Curtis says he’s surprised Dell hasn’t asked him back to rekindle the flame. “If they brought me back, I think it would probably boost their sales all over again,” he says. “If you hear from Dell or any of their ad agencies, let me know. I’m ready for my comeback.”