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
, 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
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
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
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.
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
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
We now have most of the ingredients of a full account, which is
on "Steve's Primer of Practical Persuasion and Influence" (by Steve
Booth-Butterfield, in Communication Studies at West Virginia
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.
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
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
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 16, 2005 02:13 PM