Remembering Betty White

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‘She was a real softie in a couple of Q-Tips commercials’

Okay. So maybe her work as Sue Ann or Rose is more memorable, but I will always treasure the experience of working with Betty White.

Q-Tips — along with Shake ‘n Bake, another brand blast from the past — was one of my first writerly assignments when I came to Ogilvy in 1979. (Read all about how I got there in “Take A Letter, Miss Henry.”)

70s KC Me, dreaming of a job in the New York Ad Biz

In those days (and probably now, too) you couldn’t write a commercial for Q-Tips that mentioned cleaning your ears — even though that’s what most people did with Q-Tips — without including a rather harshly-worded warning:

An actual Q-Tips Box with the actual warning. Only it’s too small to read, so I’m putting it here, too:

So we did these rather namby-pamby spots with mothers and babies that talked vaguely about “softness” and included cloying scenes of an adoring mother tapping the Q-Tip on, say, a little girl’s nose. I was responsible for at least one of these, called “Still My Baby.” Forgive me; here it is:

Well. After my co-workers and I got through cracking ourselves up with parodies like “Not My Baby,” “No More Baby” and the lovely “It’s Not Really A Baby,” my partner and I decided to break out of the Baby Box and try something new.

Our idea? To make a commercial for Q-Tips that was all about the warning. That way, we could actually mention the reason that people bought the product: ear cleaning.

A gaggle of Ad Girls on a shoot from about this time. We all had very clean ears, but I was the only one who worked on Q-Tips

Well. My fingers are sore from typing “Orson Bean Q-Tips TV Commercial” into the Google search pane. Can’t find the darn thing. But I do remember it well. It featured this minor celebrity at the time (game shows, talk shows, etc.) named Orson Bean. We dressed him in a rumpled bathrobe and gave him these lines:

“Everybody’s always telling you how to clean things: your hair, your nails, your sink. But has anyone ever told you how to clean an ear? First, find an ear. Then take a nice, soft, gentle Q-Tips Swab and go like this. (strokes ear) Careful! Gently…only on the outside. And remember: never put anything inside your ear — except your elbow.”

See? It’s the warning. And it was a big hit. I remember that the Account Guy taped a copy of the script (with its fantastic recall number magic-markered on it) to my boss’ office door.

My boss with me on a Country Time shoot. He was also my art director partner on the Orson Bean spot, my “real” art director having quit unexpectedly. Read more about the inimitable Harvey in “Harvey and the Grilled Half Goat Head”

Everything was hunky-dory, Q-Tips-wise, till we realized: What on earth would we do for an encore? We scoured our brains for another celebrity famous enough to be recognized but not so famous that we couldn’t afford him (or her.) Bonus points if he/she was funny and/or had a bit of an “edge.”

A-hah. Betty White. It was after her run as Sue Ann, but before her turn as Rose. She was busy, but not too busy. (Or too expensive.)

We kept the bathrobe-in-the-empty set setup, only hers wasn’t rumpled. But what to have her say? We couldn’t just recycle the same script — though now, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that might have been a pretty good idea — so we thought of a couple of approaches. One implies ear cleaning (nudge nudge wink wink) without actually mentioning it. (Notice how she stops short on the word “ear.”) And heck, now that I’m watching it again, I rather like the ending.

And here’s another one that’s okay, but well, you know. I suppose I’d rather run out of soft, safe steam by this point. Not Betty’s fault; in fact, the Betty-ness of Betty saves the spot from sheer awfulness.

Incidentally, we had rather a diffy time with the director on these spots. At one point, I went up to consult with him on Betty’s delivery, and he said, “But if she does it that way, it will be funny.” Well, yeah.

Speaking of funny, It’s a funny thing that I didn’t even remember doing these spots until I heard that Betty had died. They were never on my sample reel and I didn’t brag about them to colleagues, since, at the time, working on what was called “packaged goods” was considered sub-par. Everybody wanted to work on cars (Jaguar!) and computers (IMB!) and athletic shoes (ReeBok!) Heck, even working on truck rental (Ryder!) was cooler than working on Q-Tips.

Me, about the time I worked on Q-Tips, wearing a souvenir shirt from a stage in LA, the name of which has slipped my mind. (And no, I don’t have the shirt anymore so I can’t look at the back)

Those spots may have faded from memory — both mine and yours — but working with Betty? She was everything you’ve read or heard: sweet, kind, cooperative, professional. (The polar opposite of Karl Malden. Read about him in “Karl Malden’s Nose.”)

Thank you, Betty, for gracing my Q-Tips spots with your dimples and your charm. RIS (rest in softness).

Amagansett, New York. January 2022