BOOTLEG FILES 814: “The Lauren Bacall High Point Coffee Commercials” (a series of television advertisements from the early 1980s).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No commercial reissue value.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Forty years ago, American television viewers were bombarded with a series of commercials for the High Point brand of instant decaffeinated coffee starring Lauren Bacall. While it was hardly unusual to have recognizable stars pitching coffee in 30- and 60-second spots – Bacall and her then-husband Jason Robards co-starred in a Maxwell House ad during the mid-1960s – the High Point commercials represent a somewhat bizarre realm where marketing and camp overlap. These commercials generated giggles back in the day, and today they are treasured by many as small gems of unintentional humor.
In 1982, Bacall’s career gained a new energy thanks to her starring role in the Broadway musical “Woman of the Year,” which earned her a Tony Award. Proctor & Gamble – or, at least, their advertising agency – believed that Bacall’s fame and glamour as Broadway star could help perk up sales on its High Point brand. An earlier ad campaign with the slogan “Decaffeinate the ones you love” and unknown actors went nowhere, so the idea of hitching the High Point wagon to Bacall’s star seemed like a good idea.
But what the High Point team didn’t anticipate was the ferocity that Bacall brought to this assignment. Truth be told, Bacall was never the most subtle performer, but with the right director and the right material her excesses could shaped to create a stunning work of celluloid artifice –Howard Hawks guided her through “To Have or Have Not” and “The Big Sleep” in a manner that resulted in an unreal force of glamour whose audacity blinded viewers to the artifice of the characters she played.
But Howard Hawks did not direct the High Point commercials, and as a result Bacall came across with a ridiculous self-parody of how a big star is supposed to behave. She also carried over her theater work of projecting a performance that reached the last row of the auditorium – which was more than a little unsubtle on the small screen.
The theater permeates several of these commercials. In one spot, Bacall takes a coffee break from a stage rehearsal – she looks at the camera and trumpets: “Around here we don’t like coffee – we LOVE it.” When reminding the viewers of the decaffeinated nature of the beverage, Bacall declares: “I don’t need caffeine – I’m active enough, thank you!” That latter statement is accompanied by a widening of eyes and wiggle of eyebrows to offer ocular evidence of how “active enough” she is.
In another commercial, Bacall is in her theater dressing room and exclaims how High Point has “flavor – flavor that is full of life.” However, Bacall’s line readings are over-the-top – her rapture over the beverage is borderline orgiastic and her Noo Yawk dialect spices her emotionalism over “cawfee” and “flay-vah.” But that barely touches the sheer weirdness of her sniffing the “flay-vah” of the “cawfee” – she places her nose over an open jar and inhales with Hoover vacuum intensity, observing how High Point is “no aw-da-nary cawfee.” Anyone who remembers the cool, calculating line readings by Bacall in “To Have and Have Not” will be baffled how that yesteryear figure morphed into the camp clown in this commercial.
But if you want camp with a capital “C,” you must see the commercial where Bacall emerges from a Manhattan luxury building in a fur coat and a glittery evening dress and walks to an awaiting limousine. “Rushing for an eight o’clock curtain every night means giving up a lot of things,” she tells the viewer. “But cawfee isn’t one of ‘em!” Bacall then ducks into the back of the limousine where she is seated behind a small table with a desk lamp that has a few tiny pastries at its base, a coffee maker and a jar of High Point. Clearly, Procter & Gamble wanted Americans to believe that if a rich and famous actress like Lauren Bacall can go drinking High Point coffee while being taken in a limousine to her Broadway theater, then Mr. and Mrs. Main Street can become elevated into the same stratosphere by spooning some of that instant coffee into their mugs.
Alas for the brand, the Bacall commercials inspired laughs instead of sales. Procter & Gamble eventually realized Bacall’s presence was having the opposite effect that was intended and she was dropped, to be replaced by anonymous actresses playing regular homemakers and office executives – a mirror on the consumer audience. But even this approach, along with a packaging redesign, failed to achieve success and by 1993 the brand was discontinued.
While no one is stirring High Brand into their cups anymore, the Bacall commercials continue to fascinate and entertain both those who recall the initial marketing assault and a new generation who are invigorated with the campy nature of Bacall’s sales pitch. I was reminded of these commercials this week via a Facebook posting by writer David Noh, who observed the anniversary of Bacall’s birth by writing, “Very possibly the birthday girl’s greatest performance – the commitment, authentic sincerity and bravura command are all there … Really, besides her two films with Hawks and her vivid, on-point portrayal of a rapacious lesbian in ‘Young Man with a Horn,’ her finest work which also ranks as the highest of camp.”
So, let’s raise a cup of the cawfee with the finest “flay-vah” to the woman who reminded us how to whistle. They don’t make them like this anymore – thank God!
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