October 16, 2005

Playing one 3

The story so far: in tracing back the Play One snowclone -- the model for which is "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV" -- I have separated the commercial that seems to have contributed most to its spread (for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup, beginning in 1985, using actors who played doctors on soap operas) from a similar commercial (for Oral-B toothbrushes, beginning in 1982, using an actor who was framed as a dentist) that probably helped.  In updates in my last posting, I suggested that people who recall the line as "I'm not a dentist, but I play one on TV" have probably blended elements from the two ads.

But at least three loose ends remain: several sources suggest the involvement of Robert Young, star of "Marcus Welby, M.D." (which played from 9/69 through 5/76) in the snowclone; several sources recall the commercial as being from the 60s or 70s, not the 80s; and several sources recall a pain reliever, aspirin in particular, as the product being hawked.  I'm now prepared to say that, basically, everybody's right, except for a certain amount of blending of memories.  There were THREE commercials contributing to the snowclone.

Ok, let's start with Robert Young.  A few of my e-mail correspondents recall him as having uttered the line in a television commercial, and several websites agree, for instance this one:

Traditional marketing is all about Impostors - BzzAgent isn't. From the first radio ad that began with a cheery announcer calling you "friend" to the attempt to make every TV spot about people just like you, brands have always relied on two simple facts. You trust people you know and you buy from people you trust. They don't know you so they have made an art form of creating instant trust relationships.

If they use a celebrity you recognize as a spokesperson they reason you feel you already know them - so you will trust them. When Robert Young, then the star of TV's Marcus Welby M.D. said, "I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV" while wearing a lab coat (!!) people bought aspirin. They felt they knew him - he was like their doctor - they would certainly do what their doctor recommended.

and this one:

Remember the old advertisements that featured actor Robert Young from Marcus Welby, when he'd say, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV?" Well, for too long we've had Presidents who weren't fiscal conservatives, but who played one on TV! Together this President and this Congress have shown the American people that old categories and labels don't make much sense anymore--it's actions that count.

But other sources don't claim that Young uttered the line, merely that he was featured, in his Dr. Welby persona, in a commercial, as here:

Sometimes advertisers create lines or scenes so memorable that they're cemented into the culture. Here's one: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." That was Robert Young, who played Marcus Welby, M.D., with such credibility that a drug company hired him to put on a white lab coat and hawk its product in a commercial.

and in e-mail from Lori Levin:

You pointed out that the Wikipedia doesn't provide a reference for the Marcus Welby commercial in the 1970's.  I also can't provide a reference, but I remember it pretty clearly.  My husband does too.  (We are old enough to remember the 1970's.)  Can't remember what the product was, just that it was strange to be asked to believe an actor who played a doctor.

We now have most of the ingredients of a full account, which is clarified here, on "Steve's Primer of Practical Persuasion and Influence" (by Steve Booth-Butterfield, in Communication Studies at West Virginia University):

I am old enough to remember the TV series, "Marcus Welby, M.D." The actor, Robert Young, portrayed a friendly, wise, and incredibly available physician who never lost a patient except when it would increase the show's Nielsen ratings.

Most interesting was the fact that Robert Young parlayed his fame as Dr. Marcus Welby into a very productive sideline. He sold aspirin on TV ads. And he sold aspirin, not as Robert Young, the actor, but as Dr. Marcus Welby.

There were enough lazy thinkers out there that they did not realize that the guy on the ad selling aspirin was merely an actor and not the real thing. It didn't matter. Robert Young looked and acted like an authority. And sales of his brand of aspirin increased.

Eventually the federal authorities got wise to this gimmick and cracked down on it. It is now illegal to use an actor in this way. So what have advertisers done? Their response and its impact is so amazing to me that it stands as the best example of how lazy we can be.

Here's the new trick. The advertisers will still use a popular actor to sell their aspirin and stay legal with their ads. Here's what happens. The famous TV doctor looks at the camera and says, "I'm no doctor, but I play one on TV and here's the aspirin I recommend." And sales of that aspirin increase.

So: apparently Robert Young did make a commercial as Welby, in the 70s (those who recall it as in the 60s are probably just illustrating the old observation that a lot of what we think of as "the 60s" actually happened in the early 70s), and for some brand of aspirin (which brand it was is not particularly important for the story, but Benita Bendon Campbell's hazy recollection that it was Bayer aspirin is probably right, to judge from the snippet of a 1974 article by Dennis Baron in the Journal of Popular Culture that I googled up).  But it seems that he didn't actually say "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV"; instead, he just continued playing a doctor, but now in a commercial instead of a dramatic show.  And some of us have conflated aspects of this commercial with aspects of the later Oral-B and Vicks commercials.

Several sources suggest, in fact, that for Young himself the boundary between Young and Welby was none too sharp, so that he would have found it unnatural to separate himself from his television character.  He later returned to this persona in another commercial, as described by Ronald Pine (in Philosophy at Hawaii Community College) here, on his "Essential Logic" website:

Sometimes the actor being paid has acted previously as an authoritative personality relevant to the product being endorsed. Actor Robert Young was best known for his roles in the TV shows Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D. In both shows, he played the role of a very stable and wise person that people could turn to in times of confusion and agitation. Later, in a Sanka coffee commercial, he seemed to play the same role endorsing the caffeine-free benefits of this product in the commercial.  Although there was no direct reference to him being a doctor, he wore the same clothes and acted the same as he did in Marcus Welby, M.D., endorsing Sanka as a cure for upset people who were about ready to strangle their dogs or kids.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 16, 2005 02:13 PM