Bill Cosby in advertising

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Bill Cosby in advertising
Bill Cosby (2010).jpg
Cosby speaking at Riverside Church, New York City, in 2010.
Born William Henry Cosby Jr.
(1937-07-12) July 12, 1937 (age 77)
Notable work(s)

White Owl
Texas Instruments
E. F. Hutton & Co.
1990 United States Census


American comedian Bill Cosby was a much-desired spokesperson for advertising, beginning in the 1960s, before his first starring television role, to early 2000s. Chronologically, he appeared on behalf of White Owl cigars, Jell-O pudding and gelatin, Coca-Cola (including New Coke), Texas Instruments, E. F. Hutton & Co., Kodak, and the 1990 United States Census. As of 2002, the record for the longest continuous celebrity spokesperson for a product was said to be Cosby with Jell-O. In 2011, he was the first winner of the President's Award for Contributions to Advertising, from the Advertising Hall of Fame. Long-dormant allegations of sexual assault, both resurfacing and surfacing anew in 2014, significantly hurt Cosby's public perception. Polling on trust and effectiveness, Cosby placed in the bottom sixth of three-thousand personalities.

One of the first black people to appear in the United States as a spokesperson, he is noted for crossover appeal in an industry that was "afraid of the dark."[1] In spite of contradicting soft drink pitches and endorsing a disgraced financial company, he was considered very believable. In the 1980s, studies found Cosby the "most familiar" and "most persuasive" spokesperson, and the comedian himself noted his contracts had made him financially set for life.


First of all and lastly, I'm good—that's all—I'm good. I don't rewrite their material. I take it and I make it.

Cosby attributing his success in the field, 1984[2]

Anthony Tortorici, director of public relations at Coca-Cola, suggested to Black Enterprise in 1981 that the "three most believable personalities are God, Walter Cronkite, and Bill Cosby."[3] As of the mid-1980s, Cosby's Q Score deemed him the "most familiar" and "most persuasive" endorser.[4] At its peak, Cosby had a Q Score of 70, which meant 70% of 1000 United States respondents surveyed thought highly of the actor, a feat that remains an all-time high.[5] Industry publication Advertising Age notes that Cosby held the top spot for 14 years, suggesting that the "only person" to surpass him in that period was the Pope.[6] Actor Tom Hanks was the Q Score leader in 2014, with a score of 39.[5] The separate Celebrity DBI index listed Cosby as 2nd in 2012, on a list of celebrities that people pay attention to when they're on television, beaten only by Morgan Freeman.[7]

Coca-Cola ad director John Bergin found the actor "inconceivably arrogant", and noted "blow-ups" on the set. Professionally, he considered Cosby the company's "greatest weapon", suggesting that "magic happens when the camera starts."[8]

One biographer of Cosby, Linda Etkin, suggested that in his advertisements, "Cosby comes across as a father figure, a teacher, and a friend."[9] William Turner, in 1982 the marketing manager for Texas Instruments' consumer products group, said: "He represents comfort, and people trust him."[10] In 2014, one commenter remembered Cosby as having been a "black male authority figure, one of those people who folks that don’t live on the edges of the country think of as a good black guy; they trust that guy".[11] In 1988, a representative for Kodak suggested that Cosby had become "synonymous with quality products and quality services."[12] Ebony agreed, suggesting Cosby has the advantage of being able to be selective. Cosby suggested that his belief in their product is an attribute, stating that "if I presented a Bill Cosby who didn't care, their sales would stop right there on the screen. Obviously, I could never do that. Once I believe in the product I aim to sell it, and that's what I think I do better than anybody."[13]

An article in Black Enterprise magazine suggested that part "of the Cosby mystique is that he can endorse a number of products and still retain credibility in each individual sell."[3] Shortly after being signed by Coca-Cola, Cosby appeared at a bottlers' convention. He refused to drink the bottle of Coke he carried on stage, saying, "I'm waiting for all the Jell-O pudding I ate to settle."[3] In childhood, Cosby would have self-described "periods of addiction" to the drink, consuming fifteen bottles by 2 pm.[14]

Career in advertising[edit]


Nat King Cole plays the piano, 1946, a photo pre-dating his television series.

The advertising field was initially reluctant to use black spokespeople, for fear of angering white customers.[2] The first national television series to be hosted by an African American, The Nat King Cole Show never found a national sponsor; Cole would quip after cancellation that "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."[1][15]

Cosby's first ad was for White Owl cigars. He liked their slogan, "We're going to get you", so he had agent Norman Brokaw of William Morris Agency inquire about being their spokesperson. Cosby had appeared on the late-night talk program The Tonight Show multiple times, a signifier of success in American comedy, but the series I Spy had yet to debut. Cosby would later comment that there were not commercials "with a black person holding something, buying a product, so the absence of pictures, in retrospect, said a lot." Despite the stigma amongst advertisers in using a Black spokesperson, sales rose.[13] According to an entry in Ad Age Encyclopedia, the public acceptance of Cosby and Robert Culp appearing as equals on I Spy made it possible for advertisers to show blacks and whites together in their commercials.[16]

Debuting in 1968,[17] The Bill Cosby Radio Program, was sponsored by The Coca-Cola Company.[14][17] The series was syndicated to over 200 radio stations by McCann Erickson, Coca-Cola's ad agency.[17]


In 1974, Cosby began promoting Jell-O pudding for General Foods.[2][18] Cosby has claimed that comedian Jack Benny, whose program the brand sponsored, was the only previous spokesman for Jell-O,[19] but Kate Smith, Lucille Ball, and Andy Griffith have also pitched the brand.[20] As with campaigns since the brand's launch in 1902, it was targeted towards parents, as opposed to children, a practice the company finally strayed from in 2001.[21] Early commercials were unscripted, but later spots were written by comedy writers. Cosby had a significant disagreement with the writers who wanted to say the food was for when you were "hungry"; the actor felt there was not enough substance to satisfy hunger, and wanted the word "appetite".[19] Children used in the commercials included a young Lindsay Lohan, in 1996.[22]

Pudding Pops were introduced in 1979, General Foods' first entry into frozen desserts. With Cosby as spokesperson, they had sales of $100 million its first year. Introducing Gelatin Pops and frozen Fruit Bars, the company reached $300 million sales in the category. Margins on sales were not strong, though, so the company eventually discontinued the line; the products were still around long enough to reinvigorate the Jell-O brand as a fun food.[23] Their actual Jell-O gelatin line still lagged in the mid-1980s, newly appointed General Foods VP of marketing Dana Gioia introduced a recipe for holdable Jell-O called "Jigglers". Cosby was brought on board as part of the company's advertising campaign.[24] Sales increased 7% during the first year of the promotion.[18] In 1999, Advertising Age magazine named Cosby's 1975 Jell-O commercials, which they called "Bill Cosby with kids", the 92nd best ad campaign of all time.[25][26][note 1]

My approach from the beginning has been, I want to make the program interrupt the commercial.

Cosby to Ad Age, 1978.[13]

Advertising Age named Cosby the top advertising personality of 1978.[13]

Cosby appeared in commercials for Coca-Cola's 1979 campaign "Coke and a Smile," and made a guest appearance at the Great Get-Together,[14] a major convention for their bottler's that year.[27]


In 1981, Black Enterprise published an article discussing African Americans who were hired as advertising spokespeople. The article suggested that there were "very few blacks who can command the fees being paid at the top end of the scale," Cosby being one of them, and one of the few to appear in a campaign, as opposed to a one-off ad. His agents told the magazine that he had at least $3 million in current advertising contracts, amounting to a fifth of his income, the rest coming from live performances.[3]

For the "Coke Is It" campaign[14] in 1982, Cosby returned for a series of commercials mocking the Pepsi Challenge.[14] One ad did what author Mark Pendergrast called "unthinkable," showing a Pepsi vending machine, albeit in order to mock the brand, while another noted how Pepsi Challenge ads were misleading, never showing anyone choosing Coke.[14] John Bergin, who directed the series of commercials, personally disliked Cosby, but suggested his presence in Coca-Cola advertising ended the first Challenge ad campaign in 1983.[14]

Now see, if you were another cola, number 2 or number 29, you'd do taste tests and challenges and stuff and try to compare yourself to this, wouldn't you? Sure, don't shake your head, you would too, you sneaky devil.

Cosby in a Coca-Cola ad, c. 1982.[14]

In mid-1982, Cosby was hired by Texas Instruments[28] to do television advertisements for the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A, already out on the market for a year by that point. He was to be paid $1 million a year for the campaign.[29] The company touted Cosby's education and rapport with both adults and children.[30] The campaign was focused at parents, as opposed to the Commodore 64's kids-oriented ads, and did little to explain the advantage of 16-bits over 8.[29] Other computer pitchmen of the era include Mason Adams, Alan Alda, Isaac Asimov, Dick Cavett, Mike Love, Roger Moore, Peter Nero, and William Shatner.[30] Cosby was the face of a mystery rebate program, offering anywhere from $3 to $1000 back.[31] J. Fred Bucy took charge of the home computer operation at TI in 1983, scrapping Cosby to focus on their product's educational value, much as Commodore 64's advertising did.[29] Of the whole trend, Radio Shack vice-president of marketing David Beckerman said, "A celebrity draws attention to the product. Even if we had President Reagan on our ads, we wouldn't sell any more computers. A product sells itself. A celebrity causes indirect sales."[30]

Spots with Cosby calling Pepsi too sweet were ill-advised, given the introduction of the similar tasting "New Coke".

Entrepreneur James Bruce Llewellyn, Cosby, and others bought stock in a Philadelphia Coca-Cola bottler in 1983, as part of the company's push to increase African American participation in the company, due in part to pressure by Jesse Jackson's PUSH.[8][32][33] At the height of the Cola Wars, marketer Sergio Zyman convinced Coca-Cola executives to create and air commercials with Cosby praising Coke for being less sweet than Pepsi,[34] aired strictly in areas where Pepsi sales dominated.[34] One example from the series features Cosby "rubberfacing an icky frown," describing Pepsi as "gooey."[35] Beginning to air in October 1984, the company's independently owned bottlers demanded the ads run in their markets as well.[34][35]

Coca-Cola was simultaneously testing possible new variations of their soft drink, and deciding that their product would sell best if it used a sweeter formula. Ike Herbert, McCann-Erickson account supervisor for Coca-Cola, told author Thomas Oliver: "It got away from us. We never intended it to be a national campaign. The campaign got out of hand, and bit us in the ass."[34] Zyman notes that, despite the upcoming contradiction, the ads were the first boost to Coke's image "in years."[34] Once New Coke was launched, Pepsi prepared their public relations plan to reply to the change; among their talking points for journalists writing about the product was to "Ask them about those Bill Cosby ads."[36] A series of new advertisements,[37] included one where Cosby is dressed in a toga, were described as unconvincing.[4] Coca-Cola faced widespread public backlash, internal dissent, and ultimately the original drink recipe returned as "Coca-Cola Classic."[38][39] One editorial cartoon in the days following featured Cosby pouring a can of Pepsi into a can of Coke.[40] Marcio Moreira, a McCann Erickson creative executive behind the New Coke introduction, reflected in 2011 on his time on the campaign. He suggested that the idea to hire Cosby was not made until other spots were already in the editing room.[41]

The Cosby Show debuted in 1984, becoming "TV's biggest hit in the 1980s," "almost single-handedly" reviving both the sitcom and NBC.[42] Before the series premiere, Cosby told reporters that his income from Coke, Ford, and Jell-O commercials, plus Las Vegas shows, had him set for life, financially.[43]

At some point before 1985, Cosby was a pitchman for Bird's Eye frozen foods.[44]

In 1986, Cosby's only contract was with Jell-O, but added two more endorsements by year's end.[45] By August, Cosby began promoting E. F. Hutton & Co.[43] with a series of print, television ads, and comedy concerts.[46] The company had been accused of fraud, and needed a spokesperson who was well-liked.[47][43][48] Soon after Cosby's ads, the firm merged.[49] In late December, he added J. Walter Thompson agency account Kodak Colorwatch System photo processing system to his list. The estimated $10 million contract included ads with Cosby ran in print, on television, as point of sale, and in promotional programs.[45][50]

After Coca-Cola purchased Columbia Pictures in 1982, the studio produced some successful films, but many unsuccessful pictures like Fast Forward[51] and Ishtar.[52] Columbia Pictures felt that spy comedy Leonard Part 6 (1987) would offset their losses on Ishtar, and leadership at parent company Coca-Cola is said to have "hardly [been able to] contain their joy over the co-promotional opportunities."[52] Leading up to release, the company announced it would spend $12 million on "synergies" with the film; given the success of Cosby's television series and his record sales for his parenting book, Fatherhood. Promotions included posters, tiny spy cameras, point of sale standees of Cosby, and a contest to win Porsche cars.[52][53][54] Cosby was initially supportive of the film,[53] but distanced himself from it closer to the release date.[55] The film failed, with a net loss of $33 million.[53]

Cosby's popularity extended to other The Cosby Show actors: Phylicia Rashad, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and Keshia Knight Pulliam endorsed Walt Disney World in a television spot, aired in 1988.[12][56] Business publication Black Enterprise considered the ad rare, for targeting a general audience with a black family.[56]

Cosby has used his celebrity for public service announcements as well. To increase black participation in the 1990 United States Census, the bureau recruited Cosby, Magic Johnson, Alfre Woodard, and Miss America Debbye Turner as spokespeople.[57]

1990s to 2010s[edit]

Cosby prepares to film a public service announcement for Partnership for a Drug-Free America. He is seen with a production assistant and Ginna Marston, an advertising executive who produced the spot This Is Your Brain on Drugs. Cosby also created a 1971 album, entitled Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs.

Cosby continued to be a Jell-O spokesman through the 1990s. He was present for the lighting of the brand's first billboard in New York's Times Square in 1998.[58] In 1999, the 25th year as spokesman for Jell-O and the final year he appeared in their advertising, the company distributed 120,000 of his Little Bill picture books into American public libraries.[59] Despite the transitions of advertising agencies[note 2] and the 1989 merger of General Foods into Kraft, Cosby remained with Jell-O.[60] He appeared at the Utah State Senate in 2001 to designate Jell-O the official state snack,[61][62] and made a promotional visit to the Jell-O Gallery in 2004.[20] In 2010, Cosby returned to Jell-O as the executive producer for the "Hello Jell-O" campaign. In return, the brand sponsored his weekly web show OBKB, a children's interview series like Kids Say the Darndest Things.[63] As of 2002, Cosby's time with Jell-O was considered the longest-standing celebrity endorsement in American advertising history.[64]

At the Advertising Hall of Fame induction ceremonies on March 30, 2011, Cosby was the first winner of the American Advertising Federation's President's Award for Contributions to Advertising, for special achievements in the field.[13]

Sexual assault and rape allegations, and their effect on image[edit]

A stand up comedy routine by Hannibal Buress, addressing allegations of rape against Cosby, went viral on YouTube.[65] On November 10, Cosby went to Twitter, requesting meme images, using a hashtag of #CosbyMeme. Many of the images posted in response related to the allegations, fresh in internet users' minds.[66] Numerous women came forward as victims of Cosby's alleged actions, a television special and a series in development were cancelled,[67][68][69] while Cosby refused to address the situation, his lawyer saying such actions would dignify "decade-old, discredited" allegations.[70][71] Many media outlets commented about how such actions deeply clashed with his image as "America's Dad".[72][73][74]

His role as pitchman was also addressed; Joan Tarshis, among the alleged victims, felt no one would believe her claims at the time of the incident, as Cosby was "Mr America; Mr Jello, as I called him."[75]

Omnicom Group company The Marketing Arm produces the Celebrity DBI, a rating to monitor public perceptions of roughly 3500 personalities. As of March 2013, Cosby had a 76.3 rating, placing him as the third most trusted celebrity, behind Morgan Freeman and Dr. Mehmet Oz; this fell to a score of 57.1 by November 19, placing him at either the 2,626th spot[5] or 2615th,[76] depending on the source. A separate ranking by the company on who consumers view as a "effective product spokesperson" saw Cosby drop to 2746th spot; at one point, he was 5th.[76] Awareness of Cosby increased from 63rd to 51st.[5]

The Marketing Arm itself cautions people from over-interpreting the plummet, noting that 900 celebrities fall within the margin of error for Cosby's rating.[5] E-Poll Market Research has yet to update its scores since the issues surfaced, and a Q Score for Cosby isn't expected until 2015.[5] The executive vice-president of Q Scores Co. suggested that polling in the midst of a scandal would likely overstate scores' longterm effect.[5] All three companies scores are updated on a rolling basis, meaning that they are not directly comparable.[5]

Jell-O was said to be relatively unaffected on social media by Cosby's situation. The brand was mentioned in 1% of posts about Cosby, which was considered low.[76]


In 1973, The Village Voice writer Terry Guerin suggested the actor was past his prime. Among the reasons, "making spokesman commercials for such established heels as White Owl cigars and Pan American airlines. He has evolved into a kind of self-parodying sap, the kind of flagrant, perpetual parader Sammy Davis has always been."[77]

"The Noble Cos," a 1986 satirical editorial by Edward Sorel for The Nation, was written as if told by Cosby himself. It echoed the suggestions of other authors that Cosby has become out-of-touch with lower-class African Americans.[78] Cosby said "So this buddy says, 'I didn't mind your commercials for Jello, Del Monte, Ford cars ... Ideal Toys, or Coca-Cola, although Coke does do business in South Africa ... But, Bill, why do commercials for those crooks at E. F. Hutton?' My buddy didn't understand my commercials improve race relations. Y'see, by showing that a black man can be just as money-hungry as a white man ... I'm proving that all men are brothers."[79]

To magazine Black Enterprise in 1981, Cosby has defended his numerous endorsements thusly:


  1. ^ The campaign was introduced by Curvin O'Reilly at Y&R; after launching such a successful campaign featuring Cosby, O'Reilly ironically was in charge of replacing Cosby at Coca-Cola with Max Headroom, after the unsuccessful launch of New Coke; see Messner, 2012.
  2. ^ Young & Rubicam Advertising had the Jell-O account since 1926, but lost it to FCB in 2000.[1]

Works cited[edit]

  • Greising, David (1998). I'd Like the World to Buy a Coke: The Life and Leadership of Roberto Goizueta. New York: Wiley. ISBN 978-0471345947. 
  • Oliver, Thomas (1986). The Real Coke, The Real Story. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-55273-3. 
  • Pendergrast, Mark (2000). For God, County, and Coca-Cola: the Unauthorized History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. New York NY: MacMillan Publishing Company. ISBN 0-684-19347-7. 


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  35. ^ a b Greising, David. "I'd Like the World to Buy a Coke: The Life and Leadership of Roberto Goizueta". p. 122. 
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  53. ^ a b c Pendergrast, p. 387
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