Branded for Life
By Felix Gillette
September 27, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
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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....