U.S. Government Loosens Up in Promotion of New Dollar Coin
New York Times
March 7, 2000
By STUART ELLIOTT
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Look out, America. George W. is getting a radical makeover in a $40 million advertising blitz portraying him as a cool urbanite whose dry sense of humor is matched only by his self-confidence.
No, it's not that George W. It's the other George W. associated with presidential politics: George Washington. A wry, sly and totally fly version of the first chief executive -- portrayed in contemporary pursuits from dining on Chinese takeout to surfing to riding the subway -- is the focus of an atypically offbeat campaign from the federal government, promoting use of the new dollar coin.
The tone of the campaign, which begins this week, is cheeky, even impertinent. For instance, in one television commercial, Washington echoes the cult film "Swingers" by declaring that the golden dollar, as the new coin is called, is "so money." Several ads use the slogan "Change happens," evoking a popular scatological catch phrase.
But the purpose of the campaign could not be more serious. The goal is to help prevent the new coin from suffering the same fate as its predecessor, the Susan B. Anthony dollar. That coin, introduced in 1979, has become as much a symbol of failure in government as the Edsel or New Coke has in marketing.
"The wreckage of the Susan B. Anthony still exists," said Philip N. Diehl, director of the United States Mint.
"It's inevitable there would be skepticism about a brand-new product," he added. "Who better to reassure the American people than George Washington himself?"
The campaign is composed of the commercials, featuring the actor Michael Keaton as the voice of Washington; print ads in magazines like People; transit posters; and Web site banner ads. They show Washington as completely comfortable with the concept of the golden dollar being used rather than "his" dollar bills for routine transactions like paying highway tolls, making purchases from vending machines, buying hot dogs at a ballpark or feeding a bus fare box.
Washington is also presented as endorsing the decision to use Sacagawea, the young Indian woman who helped guide Lewis and Clark, on the obverse of the new coin in place of his visage.
"We needed a strong, unusual approach," said Dan Rosenthal, president and creative director at the Dan Rosenthal Company in Bethesda, Md. His shop was selected by the mint on the recommendation of Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations agency owned by the Omnicom Group that was hired to help introduce the golden dollar.
"We put two or three creative teams on this, and one said, 'Hey, is George Washington going to be sad about the new dollar?' " Mr. Rosenthal recalled. "That sparked the idea that since he still has a job because the paper dollar's not going away, he's happy with it. And since everybody loves George Washington, if he's happy, we all should be."
In lightheartedly poking fun at traditional attitudes against using coins in place of paper dollars, the campaign represents a delightful departure from the earnest entreaties associated with pitches from the federal government.
That was "crucial to our strategy," Mr. Diehl said, because "the ads have to cut through the clutter, especially this dot-com creative mania, all the edgy campaigns out there using humor."
That's particularly true because the golden-dollar campaign, like dot-com ads, is seeking to reach a primary audience of urban and suburban consumers 18 to 49.
"If the younger people who use coins a lot accept it," Mr. Rosenthal said, "us old folks would, too."
"And if George is cool with the idea of the dollar coin coming out," he added, "we can show him as a devil-may-care kind of guy."
But the creative teams at Rosenthal "didn't want to overplay it," Mr. Rosenthal said. "There are no cherry tree jokes or coins thrown across a river."
"And the mint kept us from pushing the edge too far," he added. "Once we had George a little too dressed down in street clothes."
Even so, Washington's apparel is wide-ranging, including black tie, a raincoat, scuba gear, a T-shirt and snappy suits. Sometimes, he is dressed in the tone-on-tone look popularized by Regis Philbin on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
The Washington head from the dollar bill is superimposed atop the contemporary togs. In the TV spots, the head and mouth are animated with special effects supplied by Charlex in New York.
The dollar coin campaign is meant to supplement an intensive 13-month promotion and public relations effort that culminated in February, which included distribution of golden dollars in change at Wal-Mart stores and as prizes inside boxes of Cheerios cereal, sold by General Mills.
The new coin can also be ordered on the mint's Web site (www.usmint.gov). With Madison Avenue flair, the home page shows a golden dollar overlaid with a star burst proclaiming "Available now!"
The mint "issued 200 million dollar coins during February, which was equal to four years of demand for the Susan B. Anthony, and we will make more than a billion this year," Mr. Diehl said proudly. "By comparison, it took 21 years for the Susan B. Anthony to get to 900 million."
"It's exactly the kind of success you dream about," he added. "But that's why we're undertaking this air campaign and ground campaign, to dispel perceptions among bankers and retailers that the public doesn't want this coin."
Those words of war were apt. After all, this George W. was a general, too.