If you’re a Baby Boomer who has not yet seen the new Reebox commercial for their “ZQuick Sneaker,” you’re going to love it. Why? The music playing in the commercial is the theme from “Underdog,” the fictional white pup who was “humble and lovable Shoeshine Boy,” by day, and superhero Underdog when the call went out to save the day.
“There’s no need to fear. Underdog is here!”
As virtually anyone with a television knows, tonight is the broadcast celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America. But it’s also 50 years since “Underdog” began, and ran from 1964-1973. Guess what other pop culture connection between “dear old friend” and “brand new product” has surfaced from favorite running shoe manufacturer, Reebok? Advertisers are wisely using something you already love to make you fall in love with something you don’t know about yet, a basic combination of cloth, leather, and rubber—some natural, some synthetic. But it’s not the first time the cartoon was used to sell a product.
Underdog. That’s right, the hero from your Baby Boomer childhood. Voiced by Wally Cox, the animated program was built around the concept of anyone you meet can look ordinary by day, but when the time comes, they can just as easily transform into a superhero and save the day. What kid doesn’t want to be that hero?
The character was developed actually by advertising executives W. Watts Biggers and Chet Stover, of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample firm, which had the General Mills cereals account and who tried to figure out how to pitch their products. As Biggers’ New York Times obituary notes,
Mr. Biggers and Mr. Stover talked over dozens of ideas, but nothing seemed right. They knew that they would be competing for a morning time slot with Jay Ward and Bill Scott, who had created 'Rocky & Bullwinkle.'
'We were going to be the underdog,' Mr. Biggers recalled saying to Mr. Stover. The idea stuck, giving birth toUnderdog, a humble shoe shiner who would be transformed into a superhero, especially whenever the reporter Sweet Polly Purebred was threatened. It won the slot and made its debut on NBC in 1964.
Television commercials often embed pop culture icons to evoke emotion. When you hear favorite old songs, your mind recalls the great memories of yesteryear, and subliminally, or overtly, you naturally connect images those to a new, unseen product. You’ll love what you’ve never seen, just by linking in to your subconscious of something you loved.
Using animated cartoons featuring characters who became “friends” to every child in the 1960s is a smart move. Adults can likely still remember theme songs perfectly, down to every nuance, even if you have managed to forget the fundamental principles of thermodynamics. Some things are simply worth ingraining in your brain because, well, they’re just more fun. Remember Simon Bar Sinister and Riff Raff? Remember “Go Go Gophers” and “Tennessee Tuxedo”? They were part of the "Underdog" show.
When was the last time you were at a party and someone asked you to recall the four Maxwell relations of thermodynamics? Now, same question about the words to the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island” or “The Brady Bunch.” And yes, show creator, the late Sherwood Schwartz, created both of those sitcoms and also wrote the lyrics to the theme songs. There’s five bonus points at stake if you can answer “Who was the voice of Tennessee Tuxedo?” No Googling; you either know it or you don’t.
Now that the Super Bowl commercials featuring poignant moments between the Budweiser Clydesdales and the puppy are yesterday’s memory, what’s grabbing attention this week, at least in Houston, is the new Reebok spot for the “ZQuicks.” Reebok claims the new shoes are "inspired by high performance ZRated tires."
The spot begins with the gentle chanting strain, “ooh, ah, ooh, ah ooh....” and you instantly know, it’s “Underdog,” even before you see the product. The photo scenes show groups of kids running counter to each other, boarding trains, exiting trains, all wearing their ZQuicks. So, what’s your first reaction to Reebok’s new product? Love it! Plus, yes, they do look cool, and yes, you want them, because you loved them before you ever saw them...you “heard” that you loved them.
It seems for every great commercial you see, it is offset by a clunker. In Houston the leading candidate for “clunker” is hands-down, those two guys in the Sonic commercials series. Someone on Madison Avenue actually convinced the fast food drive-in executives in Oklahoma that “those guys” were “all that” in advertising. Sadly, some genius actually unretired those two actors and brought them back. If Sonic folks were paying attention, they’d bring back Frankie Avalon, if they wanted to actually drive traffic “to” Sonic. Maybe Underdog should rescue Sonic.
Next time you watch the Reebok commercial, or lace up your new pair of ZQuicks, it’s okay to sing along. Here’s some help. Mr. Biggers co-wrote the song, also crediting Chet Stovers, Joe Harris and Treadwell Covington on this timeless classic.
When criminals in this world appear
And break the laws that they should fear
And frighten all who see or hear
The cry goes up both far and near
For Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!
Chorus: Speed of lightning, roar of thunder
Fighting all who rob or plunder
When in this world the headlines read
Of those whose hearts are filled with greed
Who rob and steal from those who need
To right this wrong with blinding speed
Goes Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!
As they used to say on the television show each week, “Savoir Faire is everywhere!”
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