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The Hardest Working Man In Show Business.

james-brownA.K.A. the late James Brown

The new movie about James Brown, Get On Up, recently opened starring Chadwick Boseman, who also starred in the 2013 movie about Jackie Robinson, 42. Glad to see the Godfather of Soul is having an afterlife in film since he was always larger than life.

I loved his music but never saw him perform live. However, I did have an interesting business dealing with him back in the 80s when I was the Management Rep on the Polaroid account at BBDO. As the following earlier Struming (The Godfather of Soul for Polaroid) recaps, we used James Brown for a small cameo appearance in a Polaroid commercial back in 1988 (at my suggestion). Alas we needed to cut him out of the final spot for reasons detailed below. Oh well. It was a good idea (I thought).

No doubt the movie will be as great and he was. Here’s the story:

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 her, “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 Polaroid from its eventual demise.

PS Saw the movie. Great acting (and dancing) by Chadwick Boseman. Reminded me about how his agent referred to him as “Mr. Brown”




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