Friday, July 30, 2010

Eyewitness Report: "Mad Men" wrong, Jantzen NOT prudish, apology demanded

By Barry Johnson

A lunch with Byron Ferris, godfather of graphic design in Portland, and I had the goods. And I'm not talking about the Dill Pickle soup and Swiss Chicken at Otto and Anita's Schnitzel House, either, though I could be.

Oh no, I had testimony from someone who was there, working for the Jantzen Swimwear company in the 1960s as the graphic designer, that last Sunday's episode of "Mad Men" had the Jantzen guys all wrong. No, Don Draper, Jantzen was not run by a bunch of prudes.

I took exception to that characterization on Sunday, though I didn't have direct evidence to the contrary. It just didn't make sense. Jantzen had become popular in the 1920s because its unique double stitch made the old "bathing suit" much more functional, made it, in fact, into a swim suit rather than a bathing suit, turning the old bathing costumes into relics.   Jantzen's famous Diving Girl in the red one-piece was not an image of Prude America. She was the image of Active America. And she was cute, too!

I had a more recent example than that: In 1960 Jantzen started its "Wear Nothing But a Smile" campaign. We all understand the implications of that one!  How could a bunch of prudes populate a company with a slogan like that? It just didn't make sense.

So, I put it directly to Mr. Ferris, who is definitely NOT a prude. What were the Jantzen people really like?

"They were good normal guys," Ferris said. They looked at the advertising from the whole field of sportswear and made decisions about what would sell swimsuits accordingly. Ferris said that the pin-up girls during World War II -- Betty Grable! -- had changed the culture's mind about what sorts of images of women were allowable, and Jantzen had a long relationship with the famous inventor of The Petty Girl, George Petty himself, to create the image they wanted.  That image wasn't modest.

A Petty Girl, 1956, Esquire magazine
Who came up with "Just Wear a Smile"? Ferris said it was the very famous Mary Wells, who would have been working for the firm Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1960, and later went on to help found Wells Rich Greene in 1966, become the highest paid executive in the advertising business, marry the head of Braniff Airlines and contribute regularly to the website wowOwow, where you can still read her words of wisdom!  I think my favorite slogan to come out of the Wells agency was "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" for Alka-Seltzer, which became a punchline in its own right.

My only point is that Jantzen in 1964, the date of the "Mad Men" episode, was actually pretty sophisticated about marketing and advertising and the value of sex appeal.  You could argue even that they participated in the rampant sexism of the time a bit TOO robustly, if you were so inclined. But Don Draper got it wrong, and he owes Byron Ferris and Homer Groening (Matt's father, who also worked on Jantzen advertising) and all the folks at Jantzen an apology.  Say you're sorry, Don!

My thanks to graphic designer/historian/instigator Eric Hillerns for allowing me to tag along with him to meet Byron Ferris! And for the tip on the Dill Pickle Soup.

A good gallery of Petty Girls, including the image above, can be found a (Warning: the site is far from prudish itself.)

The top image comes from a Glamoursplash post on Jantzen Advertising Beach Towels, which is excellent!


Michael said...

This is great, but as a Philistine and a newcomer, I have to say that the only Jantzen I'd ever heard of until 10 minutes ago was Beach. So this company was like the godfather of Columbia and Wieden *and* Kennedy or something? I'm intrigued. Just a link would do it!

Barry Johnson said...

Jantzen still exists in Portland, though the company isn't independent anymore. Back in the days we're talking about, they typically used both an advertising agency and had in-house help. Ferris later formed an agency that was bought by McCann Erickson. I did link to Jantzen in my first post on the subject, but stupidly failed to do the same here. Sorry!

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