A girl stands under a tree, gazing forlornly into the middle-American distance. She wears a crisp blouse, and her strawberry blonde hair lifts gently in the breeze. She clutches a daisy and pulls out the petals one by one . . . he loves me . . . he loves me not . . .
A wholesome, curly-haired youth in a V-neck sweater steps out from behind the tree, holding a bouquet of flowers. The girl does not see him. For a tremulous moment he hesitates, then thrusts the flowers in front of her.
She turns, and they show one another their beautiful teeth. They chastely kiss, and transfer their fond gazes to the flowers. The gazes grow steadily fonder . . .
From out of the Great Beyond comes music, and a melodious voice: "A flower is worth a thousand words. .."
This business is made up of whores, liars and thieves. That's why it's so much fun." Stuart Karu should know. He has been an advertising man for 10 years, and his jocular characterization of the business is familiar to friends, associates and competitors. At 34, Karu owns Washington's old-line ad agency, Henry J. Kaufman and Associates, which is making a flower commercial for television. He sits in the LePark Hotel in Hollywood, wearing horn-rim glasses, a voluminous pink button-down shirt, yellow go-to-hell pants and no socks--a kind of bi-cultural Babar among the avocados. His rented Mercedes 380SL waits outside, top down, in the chablis glow of a California noon.
Karu's agency is making a television commercial in what novelist Nathanael West called "the dream dump." The spot will cost $100,000. It involves dozens of professionals on two coasts, an astounding degree of logistical detail and lots of time, sweat and sushi.
"Our job is simple. We're paid to sell something--a product, a service, an idea or a person, but the principles are the same. We try to differentiate it from the competitors, to move it off center so people will notice and buy it. It's not a question of whether or not we like what we sell."
In this commercial, Karu is selling flowers for the American Florist Marketing Council, his biggest client. "What's the alternative to flowers?" he asks rhetorically. "Nothing!" he answers. "Nothing is our biggest competitor. We could shoot 30 seconds of beautiful flowers, but that wouldn't sell them. We need an emotional give-and- take. Emotion between giver and receiver, or emotion in a person buying for himself. That's the payoff."
Karu, part P. T. Barnum and part Wharton School of Finance, lives in Arlington. His agency served as midwife to Secretaries Week and Grandparents Day, manufactured occasions that have dumped millions of discretionary bucks into florists' laps. This television spot is the climax of an elaborate campaign to make flowers as common in middle-class fists as car keys. The public won't see it for almost a year, when in February it will run nation-wide for three weeks, possibly making people as sick of flowers as they now are of ring around the collar.
Thanks to Karu and his counterparts, visions of consumer goods dance more or less continually in our heads. This type of mind made hemorrhoids respectable and helped put presidents between White House sheets. ("I could get a monkey elected president, if that monkey would give himself to the agency," Karu says.) However, Karu's style is his own. He works at a $10,000 English partner's desk and uses a French porcelain bidet for a planter. Busts of Benjamin Franklin, Karu's early American avatar, stare at him in stony admiration.
Like Franklin, who invented our currency system, Karu has a talent for producing money. At 31, six years out of business school, Karu convinced D.C. National Bank to lend him about $250 thousand with nothing but a piece of his house as collateral. HJK&A's bylaws forebade using the agency's stock as collateral, but Karu told the bankers he would change the bylaw as soon as he bought the company, which he did.
He fired the founder, which caused a lot of animosity in the Washington advertising community. "Kaufman was a true gentleman," says a peer, "maybe the only one in the business. Stuart's a pirate, like the rest of us."
Karu also fired a third of the employes and a lot of the clients. He says he raised HJK&A's billings to $23 million last year, about double what they were when he bought the firm. "We have more billings than any other Washington firm. But whatever figure I put out, somebody else will say they're bigger."
"He's totally wrong," says Jeb Brown, a partner in the rival agency of Earle Palmer Brown Associates. "Our billings are $30 million!"
"We're Number One," insists Alvin Ehrlich, chairman of Ehrlich Manes and Associates. "There's no question about it."
"HJK&A just lost the florists' account," says another competitor, an inside tip that happens to be dead wrong.
HJK&A has represented the flower sellers for years. "The agency wanted to create more occasions to sell flowers," says Karu. "I started looking for weird holidays and found a National Secretaries Association in Kansas City. We created Secretaries Week, focusing on high-level male managerial types, and ran an ad on national television showing a woman standing on a stage being handed a bouquet. It took off like crazy. People got the impression that it was official, when there was nothing official about it at all."
Every year, Karu says, Secretaries Week earns the flower industry . . . get ready . . . "about $250 million."
Karu then heard about Grandparents Day. The AFMC, along with Hallmark and Sears, financed a lobbying effort that helped make Grandparents Day official in 1980. Next, HJK&A created something called Friday Flowers, "a good creative hook for merchandising." But he longed for the ultimate selling line, an open-ended notion that would wreath the American subconscious and "make people buy flowers for no reason at all!"
"We had to get out of the Friday mode and into the anytime mode," says Roger Vilsack, 40, HJK&A's creative director, and an old man in a profession strewn with the lately pubescent. His Washington office contains an elephant's footstool, a zebra skin and a gumball machine.
An art director at the agency, Kathy Burleson, produced what Vilsack, Karu and others consider the Piet,a of creative hooks: "A flower is worth a thousand words."
"We realized," Karu says, "that for the first time we had come up with a theme that applied to everything: sales, dealership level, Secretaries Week, Grandparents Day, Easter, Mothers Day. The creatives"--copywriters and art directors--"saw immediately what they could do with it. It'll replace 'Say it with flowers.'"
A story board was made up, composed of four "vignettes" to be sandwiched into one 30-second commercial. The vignettes included a little boy giving flowers to his mother in apology for breaking a window, a college student giving flowers to his neglected girlfriend, a father giving flowers to his daughter in the dentist's office, and a male mime giving flowers to an angry female mime. In each case there was to be a change of mood and a smile--the emotional payoff that reads "cash."
A willowy copywriter named Jan Franks wrote the lyrics. The jingles were done by a local musician: "Sorry is sweeter with flowers .. ."
"At first it was too ballady for TV," Franks says. "We made it more up- tempo until it had a slick, finished feel that echoed the visuals."
"You're special, don't be blue. Thanks a lot, I love you .. ."
Karu, Vilsack and the account supervisor flew to Miami for a multimedia presentation in the Fontainebleau Hotel attended by representatives of AFMC, which has 14,500 members among flower growers, wholesalers and retailers.
"They loved it," says Vilsack, but they wanted something to encourage "self-purchase." So HJK&A added yet another vignette: a librarian who had bought flowers for herself: "There's nothing like a big bouquet, to say the things you want to say .. ."
They decided to film in Hollywood, for the good weather. Story boards went out to six production companies for bids. The agency picked a small outfit called Livingston 5, which had produced commercials for Secretaries Week and Grandparents Day. Livingston 5 compiled lists of casting directors, stylists and set designers. "We wanted each vignette to register deeper than just seeing it," says Vilsack. "We wanted it to exude the Main Street, home-town atmosphere."
Livingston 5 took Polaroid photos of locations and sent them to Vilsack, along with artists' renditions of the sets. They obtained permits for filming, rented equipment and lined up "talent" --actors and actresses in Hollywood. A casting agency "cattle call" brought together the talent, and the director, Lee Livingston, taped the most promising people. The tapes were sent to Washington for HJK&A's perusal.
Vilsack again: "Casting is a gut thing. We avoided ethnic types because we wanted mass appeal. We wanted everybody to look like they came from Warren, Ohio. The little girls especially had to be cute and middle American."
In early March, Karu, Vilsack and Franks flew to the West Coast.
Livingston, Karu, Vilsack and Franks all sit around a table in the offices of Livingston 5, a Spanish-modern stucco house half a block off Sunset Strip. Prostitutes working the corner sometimes end up in Livingston 5's flower bed, to the detriment of the California succulents growing there. The florists' representatives who have come to California to watch the commercial being made are David Weaver, AFMC executive director, and a couple from Pittsburgh who own "13 acres of roses under glass."
The group has already discussed such minutiae as the wallpaper to be used in the dentist's office, and the lettering for the "Quiet" sign to be placed on the librarian's desk. They have watched talent try out for the role of the coed, and Livingston's choice is the strawberry blond who is due to appear in a McDonald's spot being filmed later in the week.
Vilsack agrees: "She's Iowa."
The stylist brings in clothes she bought at Neiman-Marcus and I. Magnin, some of which will be used in the spot. The unused clothes will be returned to the stores and the money refunded, an arrangement that does not thrill the store managers. The flowers-- the real stars of the spot--are of such monumental importance that a special floral consultant is flown in that afternoon.
The choice of librarians comes next. The casting director has brought together a room full of mostly middle- aged women in stage glasses and face powder. Extras appearing in the commercial will receive $150 a day, but the talent receive residuals--payments each time the spot is shown on national television. Each will eventually receive about $8,000.
The first woman to try out is nervous, but determined. She must cross the floor carrying a bunch of flowers, place the flowers in a vase, sit and smile, all under the scrutiny of the assembled judges.
Livingston tells her, "The secret here is to go in and out of a dignified air."
"We want you to primp the flowers," Vilsack says.
The woman goes through the motions twice.
"Sniff the flowers," Livingston urges her. "You're proud of the library . . . Sniff, sniff . . . That's great, beautiful."
Livingston wears cowboy boots and jeans, and he treats talent delicately. Livingston 5--he chose that number because he likes it--is one of Hollywood's "boutique" production companies that operate with low overhead, renting stages and equipment as needed. Film cutting and other technical services are farmed out. Production companies and related services generate about $100 million every year in Los Angeles alone by making commercials, not including the cost of talent.
"Super," Livingston says.
After she has left the room, Vilsack says, "She's got a nose that would stop a tank."
The rest of the actresses go through the paces; none of them seems quite right. The strongest candidate is a strawberry blond, but Franks points out that they have already chosen talent with the same hair color for two other vignettes. "Everybody in middle America doesn't have red hair."
The door opens and two mimes enter. They are dressed in black, with stark white faces. The woman has red hearts drawn on her cheeks, and is taller than the male mime. Acting on Livingston's instruction, she puts on a sad face, then breaks into a smile when handed the flowers.
"Can we paint their teeth white?" asks Weaver.
Other mimes perform. The judging panel decides to use one of them as the librarian, and not as a mime. The man chosen to be a mime has done other commercials and a nude Charlie Chaplin calendar. The woman chosen for the mime vignette is striking in a knitted black body suit, so much so that Weaver finds her "distracting."
"Great bones," says Vilsack.
A subtle protocol is at work. Livingston has all the director's privileges, but must listen to Vilsack, who is ultimately responsible for the quality of the spot. Vilsack must listen to Karu, who acts as a buffer between the client and the creatives. Karu must listen to Weaver, who listens to the couple with 13 acres of roses under glass.
"On other occasions," says Karu, "I've had to take the production people aside and explain to them that the clients are paying for all this creativity."
The group adjourns for lunch. Everyone is afraid of "weathering," delays due to rain. The cost would be considerable. Rain insurance is available, but very expensive. The conversation turns, inevitably, to hot tubs, and Weaver says, "Now let me get this straight. You get in without any clothes on?"
Later, the couple with 13 acres of roses under glass rides back to their hotel, and the woman says, "Well, I wouldn't get inffito a hot tub with a bunch of strangers in my birthday suit."
Eight a.m. on Tuesday, and metal boxes clutter the floor of the history department of the Los Angeles Public Library. A forest of tripods supports 5,000-watt lamps. A 12- foot-square "silk" --white synthetic material for softening the light--hovers like a sail over the desk to be used. The 35mm. Mitchell "wild" camera with seats for the cameraman and assistant cameraman is mounted on a dolly, and boards have been put down for the dolly track. Thick cables snake across the burnished wooden floor from the generator in the street.
Three dozen people drift among the tables and card catalogues, including agency and flower representatives, extras and the film crew, which has been working since 5:30 a.m. Production assistant, assistant director, grips, lighting technicians, and utility, prop, still camera, makeup and script persons all have their specific duties. Outside, a hired policeman keeps an eye on the equipment truck and trailer.
The real librarians standing behind the counter stare grimly at the "Quiet" sign on the desk, which they think unfairly stereotypes librarians as authoritarian figures. "And librarians don't dress like that," complains one, pointing to the tailored black suit and flawless coiffure of the actress.
The actress, Anna Dresdon, studied under Marcel Marceau in Paris. She has also done hamburger commercials in Arizona. "I put in a rough night after I'm picked for a commercial. I say to myself, 'Is this what they think of me?' But commercials are a way of supporting yourself . . . I want to be a movie star."
The official flower consultant is Salvy Guzzo, a short, stocky man wearing a windbreaker and dark glasses, who arrives with boxes of roses, carnations, pom-poms, statice, baby's breath and daisies. He assembles a mixed bouquet of flowers that are available all over the country.
"I have to satisfy everybody," laments Guzzo, trimming stems with a pocketknife. "It's very political. The rose- growers and the carnation- growers are the most powerful. The carnations are like the Democrats, the roses like the Republicans. The rose-growers are always asking why we can't have total rose arrangements, when nobody can afford to buy them." He sighs and adds, "And I have to watch out for the bulb growers."
Water is added to the vase. The extras take their places. The bouquet is assigned a young gofer with a bandanna tied round his neck, whose only duty is to dry the flower stems with paper towels between takes. Final touches are added to Dresdon's hair and make- up; the lights are adjusted. She rehearses carrying the flowers to the desk, putting them in the vase, sitting and smiling.
"We're rolling on this one," announces the assistant director.
The cameraman peers through the lens. Dresdon walks to the desk, places the flowers in the vase and sits, but her motions are too dramatic. Livingston tries to "bring her down" through 12 different takes, until the gestures begin to look natural.
Each time the extras return to their starting position, and the whole operation begins anew. "You don't throw a bouquet into a vase like a dart," mutters Weaver. His complaint is filtered through Karu to Vilsack, then to the director.
Livingston does 20 takes before he is satisfied; it takes two hours. Vilsack has smoked almost an entire pack of cigarettes.
A caterer serves lunch from a table set up outside. The second vignette, of the coed being handed flowers by her boyfriend, will be shot under a tree on the library grounds. Two off-duty policemen hired for the occasion keep the bystanders out of the camera's view.
The young man, David Murphy, has made 44 commercials; the one for Tic Tac mints eventually earned him $30,000. His "girlfriend" in the spot, Michele Tobin, almost won the Little Tiny Tot Miss America contest in the Hollywood Bowl, when she was 4. She didn't go to college when she graduated from high school, but into a series. " 'California Fever' was shot on Venice Beach--it was like being at camp."
Her commercial credits include McDonald's, Starkist and Egg-O Waffles. "I love dramatic parts--I cry very well."
Guzzo has brought 200 daisies for this vignette. A sandbag is brought for Tobin to stand on, so she will appear taller. After two dozen takes, the ground at Tobin's feet is littered with daisy petals.
The crew moves across town to a Victorian house in Echo Park, where the broken window vignette will be filmed. The talent is an 8-year-old boy, David Faustino, who has a pageboy cut and appropriately grimy sneakers. He has spent most of the day in a rented trailer with a studio tutor hired, according to law, to teach him math, phonics and sentence construction to make up for the school he is missing.
David's mother, Kay Faustino, keeps an eye on her son. All four of her children are in the business, including the 2-year- old. "He's done two print jobs already." Kay Faustino spends 20 hours a week on David's career, setting up interviews, call- backs and picture sessions.
"I always give David a choice," she says. "Sometimes he comes home and wants to play, but he knows he has to go if he wants to work."
David has appeared in "Little House on the Prairie" and "I Ought To Be in Pictures." His singing commercials, according to David's press release, include Duncan Hines Cookie Mix, Bactine and "prunes."
"Series are where the money's at. I'd like to get David a series," she adds, as a Washington mother would like to get her child a slot at Sidwell Friends School. "If we made David feel like a star, he'd have problems later on. Some kids out here become obnoxious. I tell David that he has a nice personality and that he's a good actor. I also make him clean up after our dog."
David is happy to appear in the flower commercial: "I haven't worked in a while. I missed my last call-back because I had the chicken pox."
In this vignette, David must sit on the porch with a shaggy dog that appears with his trainer, Paul Calabria. The dog and trainer get $160 plus mileage. Calabria says animal fees are "very negotiable." He learned dog training in the Army and got into the business because "I met the people who owned Lassie."
Calabria used to own 150 dogs, a lion and some raccoons, but now he rents more unusual animals. "I've done elephants. I have friends who taught an elephant to water ski . . . I've done pigs. The most unusual animal I ever trained was mallard ducks."
The window has been "broken" by a carpenter who took it out of the frame and shaped the hole with a glass- cutter.
The dentist's office on the set in the rented studio contains old dental equipment that was more expensive to rent than new equipment-- $750 opposed to $500--and much harder to find. The walls have been repeatedly painted, known as "roping," to give them an authentic look. The glass in the window is real and dusty, so that it "reads" as glass to viewers. The words "Family Dentist" have been lettered on it. A tree limb, sprayed bright green and attached to a tripod, can be seen through the window.
"I pride myself on credibility," says Joel Schiller, who also designed the sets for "The Graduate," "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Megaforce." "If people turn on their television sets and are greeted with fakery, they're not going to believe the whole thing."
The little girl sitting in the dentist's chair has freckles. Her false braces, made by her real dentist, clip onto her teeth.
After the vignette is shot, the mimes appear in white greasepaint with white powder applied to it. The powder has irritated the woman's eyes, which are slightly bloodshot. "How am I supposed to read?" she asks the director.
"We've had enough sadness," Livingston tells her. "This time we're going to have anger."
The spot is almost done. All five vignettes will beollywood Bo fitted into the one 30-second spot. The film still must be cut, approved by the flower people, then color corrected and transferred to tapes that will be shipped to the networks. But by this evening, at least, the rough product will be in the can.
And the next morning, Karu will wing eastward. He has other clients to deal with, among them the Coast Guard and a French yarn manufacturer, Pingouin, whose representative gives regular knitting lessons to the agency's creatives. There are also members of Congress and other Washington worthies whose public relationships are handled by HJK&A.
The agency will make $150,000 on this commercial, and the florists will make--according to Karu--about $50 million. That discrepancy is not lost on the Wunderkind of Washington story boards.
"Advertising's more fun than most businesses, but less profitable," Karu says. "I'm getting out."
And into ... the flower business.
"It's a staid industry, with antiquated marketing techniques. . . and tremendous potential. I want to set up regular flower deliveries at peoples' homes. I want to sell flowers at liquor stores, 7-Elevens, at gas stations . . ."
Or so he says. CAPTION: Cover Photo, FROM THE WONDERFUL WASHINGTON AD AGENCY THAT BROUGHT YOU SECRETARIES WEEK, THE INSIDE STORY OF A $100,000 COMMERCIAL THAT AIMS TO MAKE AMERICANS FLOWER FANATICS, BY JAMES CONAWAY; Pictures 1 and 2, Stuart Karu, president of Henry J. Kaufman and Associates, in his Washington office with creative director Roger Vilsack, copywriter Jan Franks, art director Kathy Burleson and the product, a big bouquet. The story board, a deceptively simple illustration with lyrics, used by HJK&A to depict vignettes to be filmed in Hollywood for the $100,000 musical commercial. By Margaret Thomas; Picture 3, Karu, on commercial location, with wife Candace. By Candy Carey; Picture 4, David Faustino, age 8, looks remorseful about professionally broken window. By Candy Carey; Picture 5, For the dentist vignette, clip-on braces were put on a red-headed girl's teeth by a real dentist. By Candy Carey; Picture 6, David Murphy woos Michele Tobin. "I cry very well," she says. By Candy Carey; Picture 7, Waiting for the filming to begin, the mimes rehearse their bit. Tissue paper keeps the male mime's white greasepaint off his black costume. By Candy Carey; Picture 8, The film crew prepares to shoot the "dentist's" office. Among the forest of equipment are lighting technicians, cameramen and grips. The set walls have been painted many times for an old-fashioned look. By Candy Carey; Picture 9, Salvy Guzzo, with fellow flower industry representatives, stands behind the "librarian"--actress Anna Dresdon. She wants to be a movie star. By Candy Carey