WILSHIRE BOULEVARD — Eight words catapulted Howie Cohen and his partner Bob Pasqualina into advertising perpetuity.
It was an honest utterance, stemming from a celebration dinner in London in 1971. Cohen and Pasqualina had just completed a successful campaign with Alka-Seltzer, a company in need of fresh advertising due to a decline in sales. Though the two young men were initially chosen as the back-up to the back-up ad team, they were thrilled to even get a shot at the opportunity.
When both elite teams failed to deliver, Cohen and Pasqualina suggested a simple
slogan — “Try it, you’ll like it!”
It caught on.
That night, Cohen feasted on chicken and lobster, pasta and brandy. At the end of the meal, he inadvertently came up with his next commercial — “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
The success of this phrase granted Cohen instant credibility in his business and set him and Pasqualina apart as people to watch in their field. The New York Times wrote an article about them, and New York Magazine made them the center of their spread.
“That didn’t happen to copywriters and art directors,” Cohen, who is now 69 and works in Santa Monica, said, with a laugh.
More so than “Try it, you’ll like it!,” this new phrase made for instant laughs, and word traveled “the old-fashioned way” — around water coolers in the workplace and at the dinner table, Cohen said.
It took on a life of its own, making its way into the game, Trivial Pursuit, and ending with a place in the Clio Hall of Fame, the epitome of advertising’s awards.
The memorable “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” advertisement got a new life last month as part of Google Project Re:Brief. In an attempt to improve the digital ad experience, Google asked four memorable and industry-changing ads from the past to re-imagine their relevance and role in the present.
They selected from a variety of media and types — Coca Cola’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” Volvo’s “Drive it like you hate it” and Avis’ “We try harder.” After bringing the original copywriters and art directors out of retirement and to New York, Google introduced them to new technology and encouraged them to incorporate more user engagement into revisions of the old ads.
“We wanted to push the conversation about digital ads,” said Andrea Faville, Google spokeswoman. “Television ads appeal to the emotions. People don’t necessarily feel the same way about digital ads.”
After reuniting in the fall, Pasqualina and Cohen were given three days to rethink their former hit. In line with their past successes, the duo decided to go with simplicity and came up with “The day Ralph ate the whole thing,” a 1970s style sitcom that follows the star of the original ad throughout his day to understand how much he ate. The ad was launched on April 12.
What sets this ad apart from other digital ads is the increased personalization, Cohen said. Users can determine the radio music in Ralph’s car, which changes the way he dances in his seat. The scenery outside of the car also changes depending on the location of the user. Even Ralph’s meals and the clocks in his house change based on the time of day the ad is viewed.
“They’re little fun tricks based on technology, but the magic is that it connects to you,” Cohen said. “Alka-Seltzer becomes part of your story and you become part of theirs.”
This push for engagement and awareness is part of the new age of advertising, said Larry Steven Londre, marketing and advertising expert at Londre Marketing Consultants.
“Advertising is far more complicated now,” he said. “You still need a good idea, but there’s far more clutter and far more advertising vehicles. ”
Cohen remembers the days when advertisements only aired on three networks, yet reached a huge percentage of Americans.
But transitioning to different times is not something new for this advertising veteran. During his 47 years in the business, he’s moved from the print medium, to radio and then television.
He currently runs a blog, MadMensch.com, which chronicles his adventures in advertising.
But while the digital era is changing the approach, Cohen said the fundamental basis of the business will not change.
“Emotions will always trump algorithms,” he said. “It’s about endearing yourself to the public — humanity and emotions are at the foundation of what we do.”
After Alka-Seltzer, Cohen worked with Chrysler and created the first car rebates in 1975. In the 1980s, he blew up the Jack in the Box clown as part of the company’s image adjustment.
More recently, he’s established that Petco is “where the pets go,” as well as the “Canswer” tagline for the City of Hope while working at the Phelps Group in Santa Monica.
But Cohen’s not ready to retire, yet.
“I can see winding down, but I can’t see retirement,” he said, laughing. “I think there will always be a need for my creativity.”