Why Harpo Quenches My Thirst, but Jennifer Aniston Doesn't

Until a few weeks ago, an image of Jennifer Aniston holding a bottle of water was splayed across a billboard a block from my office. I’m sure the brand of water was also splayed across the billboard, but I don’t recall it, even though I stared at the billboard often enough. Nor do I recall any message, like “Jennifer Aniston says this is the tastiest water ever” or, to quote from the episode of Avatar in which Sokka has a bad trip after guzzling down some hallucinogenic cactus juice, “It’ll quench you. Nothing’s quenchier. It’s the quenchiest.” 

I guess I’m supposed to associate the brand of water with whatever positive attributes Jennifer Aniston is believed to possess, and figure that by drinking it—or maybe just by holding the bottle—I’ll gain those attributes too.

The only reason I even thought of the billboard is that last night I came across a 1955 commercial for Pepsi starring Harpo Marx. Even though Harpo, of course, never uttered the name of the brand, I could easily recall which soft drink he was plugging. 

Granted, comparing a billboard to a nearly two-minute commercial that includes harp playing and pantomime isn’t apples to apples. So let’s compare one print ad to another. First, Aniston for Smartwater (I Google’d “Jennifer Aniston” and “bottled water” to find out the brand):

The copy establishes a rationale for Aniston to be promoting water, and to be flaunting her toned torso while doing so: “Working out feels great… afterwards. That’s why I drink Smart. It’s hydration I can feel. (And it’s one part of my routine I never sweat.)” What it doesn’t do it explain why I should drink Smartwater over not-so-smart (read: tap) water.

Now, here’s a 1961 ad for Smirnoff, featuring (yet again) Harpo Marx*:

 “When I honk for vodka, I expect Smirnoff,” reads the headline. The copy continues, “Harpo, the silent one, may be excused from naming his brand. But you, gentle reader, should be specific. For, ever since Smirnoff changed the drinking habits of America, countless Johnny-come-lately vodkas have gotten into the act. To ensure yourself of the flawless original, always call for your Smirnoff by name. It makes the driest Martinis, the smoothest Screwdrivers, the most delicious drinks of every kind. So know what you drink—drink what you know.”

The link between Smirnoff and Harpo is tenuous at best. Jennifer Aniston is much more likely to drink Smartwater than Harpo, who didn’t really imbibe, was to have consumed Smirnoff. Yet the Smirnoff copy gives me a reason not just to buy vodka but to buy Smirnoff vodka: It’s smoother and drier than the rest.

Many brands, like Smartwater, forget that with celebrity endorsements, the celeb is merely the hook. He or she will attract the consumer’s attention, but it’s still up to the brand to sell itself. No matter how seemingly perfect the match between a celebrity and a product may be, that in and of itself won’t persuade most consumers to buy said product. First of all, I’d wager that most consumers no longer believe that the celebrities use the particular products they endorse. Second, there are too many celebrities posing for pictures with too many products.

Of the commercials I’ve seen in the past few weeks, just one sticks in my mind. And it doesn’t feature a celebrity. It’s for an antiflatulence product called Gas-X, and it includes the line “Your son Rip is on line toot.” It’s neither sophisticated nor tasteful, but it seized the attention of all three of us in our household. Just as important, it used that attention to inform us of the benefits of the product (speedy relief of gas and bloating, in individual-dosage packaging that easily fits in a trouser pocket). 

In this case, “Your son Rip is on line toot” is the celebrity, catching the audience’s eye in the same way that Harpo’s mugging did for Smirnoff or Jennifer Aniston’s flat tummy does for Smartwater. But the rest of the commercial touted the unique selling proposition of Gas-X just as the ad copy did for Smirnoff but failed to for Smartwater.

If only Jennifer Aniston had said, “Smartwater’ll quench you. Nothing’s quenchier. It’s the quenchiest.”

* The reason for my current obsession with Harpo is that I just finished reading his autobiography, Harpo Speaks, and it was one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. You needn’t be a Marx Brothers fan to enjoy it; I wasn’t. Harpo's evocations of growing up poor in Manhattan, struggling through vaudeville, and hanging out with other members of the Algonquin Round Table provide an indelible sense of those milieus while also showing without telling what a happy-go-lucky, decent, and sweet guy Harpo was. And as an adoptive parent, I was moved to tears by his description of how he and his wife presented their four children with the stories of their own adoptions. So if you haven’t read it, do so.


  1. Your riff on the Gas-X commercial helped me place where the hapless husband in a new commercial I saw recently appeared before. The hapless's wife is headed out with the girls to something (you can see how memorable this spot was!), and the guy looks on bemused and finally asks if he can go with them -- and, to my surprise, they say Yes. All the while I was racking my brain to place that guy. And now, with your help, I've done it. Now maybe the next time I see that commercial I'll actually remember what it's for....