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The Godfather of Soul for Polaroid…It happened, Almost.

The late James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul”, “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business”….. in a Polaroid TV commercial? It happened, but you’ve never seen it.

This week’s Wednesday Struming comes from my earlier business life at BBDO in the 80s when I was the Management Supervisor on the Polaroid account. Readers 50 and above know the Polaroid account used to be a really big deal with famous advertising—spots with Sir Laurence Olivier, Garner & Hartley created by Doyle Dane Bernbach.

I was fortunate to be part of the team to win the account at BBDO in late 1985.  It was a good win for BBDO at that time. Polaroid, once a truly great company, was already in the early stages of the “long goodbye” at that point. Instant photography, invented by American genius Edwin Land, was no longer the “magic” it was in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Still, this was the pre-digital photography era and every click/whir of a Polaroid camera cost the photographer about $1 a snap, which provided our new client at Polaroid a healthy margin. Furthermore, as they still were aggressive marketers trying to recapture fading glory, I was thrilled to be the Management Supervisor on our new account.

At that time Polaroid was hawking its Spectra System in 1986 and by 1988 was introducing their new Impulse Camera. That’s where the James Brown story begins….

After months of difficult negotiations, we were able to grab Rosanna Arquette as the lead in a series of spots supporting the new Impulse Cameras, themed “Go With Your Impulse”–A good theme line  for a sporty instant camera line designed for on-the-go instant photography. One of the spots in the campaign had Rosanna Arquette clicking away in a nightclub.

Here’s where I came in. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have James Brown in a cameo in the spot where Arquette quickly spied him in the club and got a photo with him? James Brown’s star was rising again in that era behind his appearance in Rocky IV singing, “Living in America”. Our creative leaders liked the idea. We sold the idea to our clients and we signed up James Brown for the cameo.

Working with “Mr. Brown” wasn’t easy. Despite an agreement which specified the contractual terms of payment, on the day of the shoot his representatives called me demanding cash payment instead. It seemed as if Mr. Brown had IRS troubles and wanted to be paid in a non visible way. We smartly nixed the idea, told his representatives that “Mr. Brown” was required to perform according to the terms of the agreement and his failure to show would result in our canceling the shoot which would result in hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost which they would be liable for. We stood tall, and they flinched. Mr. Brown appeared. Interestingly he had no idea who Rosanne Arquette was. “Rollana”, he asked, “Are you a singer. A dancer?” No James, she was neither. No matter. James Brown grudgingly participated in the shoot, recognizing that his cameo on-camera appearance, with no lines, was only 2 seconds. He merely had to look cool and be James Brown. He complied. We edited the spots, and we all believed it was coup to have James Brown in that spot.

But you’ve never seen the commercial. Here’s why….

As it happened, Mr. Brown had some domestic problems shortly after the filming. In April 1988 he was arrested for assaulting his wife and shooting her car. And alas Mr. Brown did not use an Impulse Camera to shoot her car. Instead he used a rifle. He would subsequently serve jail time for this.

What were we to do? We did the only thing we could….edit out the “Godfather of Soul”. What seemed like a smart idea, didn’t seem so smart after all. Regardless, I still have the original cut of the spot with James Brown, which never aired. I still watch it from time to time.

But even if it would have aired, I suspect a cameo appearance by the Godfather of Soul would not have rescued the Polaroid from its eventual demise.




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4 Comments

  1. Michael Orlando says:

    I was one of the patrons in the night club in that commercial. Always wondered what happened to it. Figured it might be due to Brown’s domestic problems. Well, it was a fun day of pay anyway. I’m glad I stumbled onto your blog.

    M.

    • Lonny Strum says:

      Michael–

      Alas given the late Godfather of Soul’s domestic issues, we had to leave his cameo appearance on the cutting room floor. But glad you had a fun pay day. Those were the days….

      Lonny

  2. Lynette says:

    I was one of the background dancers at the club. I was a lot of fun and I actually met both James Brown and Rosanna Arquette. During a break they allowed us to get autographs. I still remember shaking his hand because he was wearing a glove. If it is possible, I would love to see the commercial. Please. Thank you for posting this. I was actually looking for the this Polaroid commercial!

  3. Elena says:

    I was a dancer in that commercial. I got to meet James Brown (I play his music on my radio show all the time) which was a highlight for me!. I wondered what happened to the commercial but figured, and apparently rightly so, that it had something to do with the domestic violence charges against him. Wow. I’d love to see the original commercial!

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