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Words from the Sponsors: “No matter what your favorite entertainment is, you’ll always find it on the Maxwell House Showboat.” February 16, 2007

Posted by William Spear in >> Words from the Sponsors.
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One of radio’s first full-hour variety shows, the Maxwell House Showboat reflected General Foods commitment to advertising and radio. Premiering in 1931 on Thursday nights, the show was the most popular program on the networks for many seasons. With its leisurely and musical pace, it contrasted the bleak economy of the Great Depression.

However, the show was launched as a last-ditch effort proposed by advertising agency Benton and Bowles to salvage the struggling Maxwell House brand of coffee. Part of the agency’s desperate strategy included changing the coffee’s blend, cutting its price, and eliminating all advertising – except for radio. The Maxwell House brand managers at General Foods agreed and they went to air.

Showboat started with Production Manager Tiny Ruffner opening each show and immediately intertwining advertiser and  entertainment:

. . .

MUSIC: ESTABLISH THEME AND UNDER TO BED.

TINY RUFFNER: No matter what your favorite entertainment is, you’ll always find it on the Maxwell House Showboat. Your ticket of admission? As always, just your loyalty to Maxwell House coffee.

MUSIC: OUT.

TINY RUFFNER: For tonight’s guests of the Showboat, I’d like to put on a little scene concerning something we’ve been talking about ever since hot weather began. The friendly stimulation of a tall tinkling glass of iced Maxwell House coffee. As our curtain rises, we see a golfer step inside his front door at home.

SFX: DOOR CLOSES.

TINY RUFFNER: His wife calls to him.

WIFE: Well, dear, how was your game? Pretty hot day, wasn’t it?

HUSBAND: Hot is right. And the game just so-so as usual. Oh goodness, Mary, I feel all in. Tired. Those last two holes took everything I had. Even the shower didn’t seem to help much. Mmm, guess I’ll just sit down in the easy chair and rest a bit.

WIFE: I thought you’d be feeling kind of low and played out dear. So I’m repeating the wholesome little ceremony you liked so much last week.

HUSBAND: Yeah? What’s that?

WIFE: Mmm – the most refreshing drink there is. This will buoy you up allright. And afterwards, I’m sure you’ll feel your exercise was well worthwhile. (BEAT) Here you are.

HUSBAND: Well, iced Maxwell House coffee, eh? (SIPS COFFEE) Ahhh, I tell you, Mary, this certainly does hit the spot.

TINY RUFFNER: Curtain. (BEAT) And ladies and gentlemen, in golf and tennis clubs, around swimming pools, in the locker rooms at the baseball parks, at the beaches, wherever people are active this summer, you’ll find a growing custom – people are drinking iced Maxwell House coffee. And you’ll enjoy it, too, whenenver you need refreshment. A cooling drink of iced Maxwell House coffee with its friendly stimulation that buoys you up and never lets you down.

. . .

The show was a great success. And Maxwell House coffee reversed its sagging fortunes to become equally successful. Within two months, sales were up 70 per cent. By the end of the year, sales had increased 85 per cent. Stars stopped by the Showboat to sip coffee and gave the program glamor; the list included “Bob Hope, Robert Benchley, Gloria Swanson, George Jessel, Jackie Coogan, Amelia Earhart, Dale Carnegie, Lillian Gish, and Gertrude Lawrence.”(1)

From the success of Maxwell House Showboat, Benton and Bowles went on to create Fred Allen’s “Town Hall Tonight” and “Palmolive Beauty Box.” By 1934, Benton and Bowles had three of the top four radio programs.

Great success and, by the way, coffee’s on the house. Maxwell House.

(1) “Uncommon Grounds: The history of coffee and how it transformed our world”; By Mark Pendergrast; Published 1999; Basic Books; 522 pages; ISBN 0465054676.

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