Do you remember Bert and Harry Piel? In the 1950s, the popular icons were spokescharacters for Piels Beer and given a fictional backstory as the brewery’s animated owners. Ed Graham created that backstory, as well as the mascots, for the Piels campaign while he was a copywriter at Young & Rubicam (now known as Y&R).
Decades after their first introduction into advertising, Bert and Harry Piel remain two of the most iconic, and beloved, characters created for a beer brand. We were fortunate enough to chat with Graham about how he came across the idea of the two brothers simply from looking at the Piels Beer logo, how to tell Bert and Harry apart from one another, and how the agency brought in legendary comedians Bob and Ray (Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding) as their vocal talent.
AW: Ed, what inspired you to create Bert and Harry while you were at Y&R?
EG: I was a 24-year-old copywriter when I first started at Y&R. I was assigned to GE Small Appliances — specifically fans and vacuum cleaners. We had a visit to meet the client and tour the factory in Bridgeport, but it was not a success. [The client] called Y&R and asked that I be fired, because I had been disrespectful and worn a sport jacket instead of a suit. My boss then was Sid Ward, who was a Creative Director. Sid said I would not be fired, but told me, “You are on no escalator here. Why don’t you start looking elsewhere?” I did start looking. However, Sid retired and was replaced by George “Grib” Gribbin, Y&R’s new Creative Director. I had a very positive impression of George and thought he might feel differently about me, but that was unlikely to happen if I continued working on fans and the “Reach Easy-Roll Easy” vacuum cleaners. So, I tried to think of the worst commercials Y&R was doing and suggest another campaign.
Finding a bad campaign at Y&R wasn’t easy. The one for Piels Beer qualified, perhaps because it was a very small client. The budget was 7th among New York’s local breweries. [Local breweries included Rheingold, Schaefer, Ballentine, Narraganset, Knickerbocker, Trommers, Genesee, Schmidt’s, Rupert while national breweries included, Budweiser, Schlitz, Blatz, Old Style, Coors, Miller’s, and Pabst.]
Piels was hardly noticed. If they had left Y&R, a larger brewery probably would have replaced them. Back then, Piels advertising featured a young man and woman singing “Why, Bill? Dry, Jill.” Then an announcer told us that a dry beer had less sugar than other beers, and Piels had less sugar than you could put on the head of a pin. In the TV commercial, Bill, Jill and the head of a pin were shown. As a wrap, Bill and Jill burst into song again. Ugh.
Before getting to work, I examined the Piel logo. It said Piel Brothers. It did not say who the brothers were. Later, I learned they were Gottfried and Wilhelm. Most early American brewers were German American. The names “Bert and Harry” sounded good to me and I decided to write my own biographies about the two.
AW: Can you tell us more about Bert and Harry’s backstories?
EG: I decided to write my own biographies about the pair. The Piels brewery was in Brooklyn, so if they grew up in that borough, they might have attended Samuel Tilden High School.
Harry was known as “the tall brother” at 5 feet, 10 1/2 inches. Bert, at 5’6”, described himself as “average in stature.”
Bert had worked as a salesman for Graham Paige Autos, a company that went bankrupt. Harry was a scientist who had made a reputation for inventing a colloidal suspension. None of my biographical work was actually mentioned in my commercials, only that when they joined together in business, both loved their beer, were proud of it, and wanted you to try it. People described my commercials as “soft sell.” I did not. They pitched their product and pitched it hard.
AW: Who illustrated these characters and how did you and the designer decide on what they would look like?
EG: We had a new art director named Steve Frankfort who had been assigned to work with me. Steve had come from UPA Cartoons. He looked at my scripts and drew two amoebas, one larger than the other, each with small, stick legs, two eyes on the same side and one < for a mouth. I admired much of Steve’s work, but not this one.
In 1953, Jack Sidebotham was the head of Y&R’s TV art department. I showed him my scripts, and my biographies. A few minutes later he popped into my office and showed me sketches of two brothers who looked perfect. Jack’s Bert and Harry were never changed.
AW: Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding provided the vocal talent for the pair. How did you get the pair on board for the campaign and what was it like to work with them?
EG: Like everyone else in our department, I was a very strong Bob & Ray fan. I could hear them playing the brothers, but would they do it? I found that their morning show was broadcast a few blocks from the agency. I gathered my scripts, biographies and Jack Sidebotham’s drawings and slipped in their studio at 7 AM the next morning. No one stopped me. Who was at work at that hour? There, in the studio, a record was playing. Bob was reading The New York Times. A larger man was talking to a technician. Oddly enough, he waved me in. I had always thought of Bob & Ray as two funny guys and two good pals. Yes, they were funny, but they were not exactly pals. They hardly spoke to each other, except when they were on the air. Like most comedy teams, they were two very different guys. They had nothing in common, except for a huge admiration of the other’s humor.
In a biography, Bob said that when we met “something clicked.” That morning the three of us decided that Ray, who was well over 6’, would play 5’6” Bert. Bob, who was about 5’10” would play the taller brother. They liked the idea a lot. I couldn’t wait to get back to Y&R and tell them about it.
AW: What was their reception like with beer consumers? We heard Bert and Harry became so popular, fans stayed home to watch their commercials!
EG: The account executive on Piels thought the idea wasn’t good enough to show his client. Friends in the creative department disagreed. A supervisor went to our Creative Director, George, and told him the idea should be presented. The account executive took it to the brewery in Brooklyn and reported back that his client liked “Why, Bill? Dry, Jill” and did not want to changed — particularly with this campaign.
Here is why Y&R differed from other agencies. George didn’t care if the client was happy. He felt the idea of Bert and Harry was worth a try. He met with the client and asked if they would agree to test Bert and Harry Piel in two test markets, Harrisburg, PA and Schenectady, NY. We produced two 60 second TV commercials and one 20 second spot. They were to run for six months. The sound tracks with Bob & Ray’s voices would also run as radio spots in New York. Sales moved up strongly in the two test markets. The radio campaign was also a success, but nothing like the reception when Jack Sidebotham’s characters appeared on TV. His TV spots were exceptional. Within days, it seemed like everyone was talking about them. My picture was in Time, Life, Newsweek and Fortune. Jack Sidebotham was hardly mentioned and I always thought Jack did not get the credit he reserved.
AW: Was there a particular reason why Bert and Harry were phased out?
EG: The campaign aired in all Piel markets in December 1955. Sales were up for 25 straight months and Piels set a TV record for researchers who kept track of “I tried it because of a commercial.” Piels, with a small brewery in Brooklyn, bought the Trommers brewery on Staten Island. This almost doubled their capacity, but researchers were also showing a very low level of repeat purchases. By 1958, sales started to recline. They did not hit their level of the early ‘50s. Piels switched agencies and the brothers were replaced in 1961 by a new agency. Some fans wore black armbands when they heard about this news.
AW: Do you think Bert and Harry will ever make a comeback?
EG: They tried a revival with a young Bert Jr. and Harry, Jr. but that didn’t work out. Piel’s sold the name and both breweries. Some people said the commercials proved comedy doesn’t work, but I don’t agree. Ultimately, I think a lot depends on what the comedy does (if anything) to make people feel like buying.