|Oregon Magazine||Live at the coast:: Little Whale Cove|
Airline Logo on
memoir by Larry Leonard
A genius is somebody who sees what has been right in front of
people all along, yet none of them have noticed. -- P.T. Barnum
The term "logo" comes from the Greek word logos, which means name. In the advertising business, it refers to the element of a company's communications which identifies the firm, even symbolizes it. If you are not in the business, you don't realize the historic importance of these symbols, or what goes into their creation. By the time you finish reading this piece, you will.
The history of the logo
Commerce was invented when the first man made a living by specializing. Perhaps he was good at fishing, but lousy at gathering nuts. Perhaps he lived in a place with lots of fish but no nuts, and knew a fellow who lived in a place with lots of nuts but no fish. Commodity trading began and the world was guaranteed that one day there would be a Chicago.
Soon, our first businessman wondered if he could trade his fish for more than nuts. He started waving a dried fish at passers-by. The problem was that some people didn't speak his language, and thought he was threatening them with a mackeral. What he needed was a way to let everybody know he was a peaceful merchant -- open for business So, he carved a sign on a piece of wood and attached it to his fish racks. He used a symbol that all would understand no matter what their native tongue -- a picture of a fish.
That was the first business logo. It led to today's multi-national identity symbols.
From that first sign
signs featuring tankards of ale for Middle-ages inns, signs with a shoe
for those who made and repaired footgear, the anvil and hammer of
America's blacksmith's signs and the eskimo in the photo above.
A brief period of personal history
After graduating from Hillsboro High in 1959, I worked at quite a few different jobs until, one day in Coos Bay, the local paper hired me to run errands for the display ad department. (Also known in the trade as "retail" advertising, this department does the ads that aren't in the classified section of the paper.)
That job led to others in newspapers, then advertising agencies. By the early 70's I was the Pacific NW creative director of Richardson, Seigle, Rolfs and McCoy -- the largest independent advertising agency chain in the west. On my walls today hang award certificates and gold medals from most of the advertising competitions of the day. And, of all the clients I served, from small Oregon banks to international corporations like Peterbilt, Sealand, Hewlett Packard and Greyhound, one sticks out above all others.
I have walked the
in a midnight blizzard, and out of pure chance found my way back to
I have raced across a Turnagain Arm muskeg wetland with a 1,000 lb.
on my tail, trying to kill me. I have awakened from a reverie on
a pebbly North Slope beach to find myself in in the middle of wandering
bears. I have downed shots of whiskey in the workshop of the
Trading Post while helping the caucasian proprietor make genuine
Eskimo artifacts for tourists out of walrus tusks.
Alaska Airlines developed out of the dreams and efforts of bush pilots. But, small bush planes cannot fly a thousand miles carrying fifty passengers, two tons of dry goods and a printing press. So the pilots bought some big ones. Before long they were flying Boeing 727's into airports that were bigger than the town they served, and so for the first time brought together the outposts of the Great Land -- the SE coast with its Indian totem poles and Russian churches, the gold rush culture of Juneau, the vast interior and the Eskimo lands of the far north.. .
Near the end of my
career we received a request from Alaska Airline's advertising manager,
one Bob Giersdorf. This request was passed to me through the
account executive, Bert Nordby. (An account executive, or AE, is
the liason between a company and its advertising agency. AE's
for the agency.)
A concept usually
theme. For some time we had been promoting the airline's elegant
"Golden Samovar Service," which had the stews (now called by PC
in Russian style costumes, serving meals with a Russian flavor.
But, this was
What they wanted was a completely new direction. Something
That is exactly what
for three months, without finding the answer.
Once the data was in, the creative team pounded their typewriters (no
in those days) and drew their pictures week after week, but nothing
Idea after idea popped up, but all were rejected before the client even
saw them. What happened next was right out of a cheap novel.
"If we lose the Alaska Airline account, I lose my job, my car, my home
and probably my wife. You are supposed to be the hottest creative
director on the coast, and what have you come up with?
Not a damn thing! I'll tell you this, though, you are going
to come up with something good, and you're going to do it today.
I am not going out to that airline tomorrow without a great idea,
"No," he said.
quit today rather than go out there tomorrow with nothing. You
got to give me something, now. Right now. I don't give a
what it is. I don't care if you put that on the damned
but I want it now!".
Some final observations
McCoy, decided to add to the concept. He selected the domes of
Russian churches, a raven totem from SE Alaska and a gold miner.
All these along with the Eskimo were painted on the tails of the
The Four Culture concept he called it. It made the aircraft into
flying tourist billboards for Alaska. I have the original
of the four planes flying past Mt. McKinley hanging on the wall not ten
feet from where I am typing this story.
What I do know is
way up in management hated that Eskimo. Probably we can attribute
that to the disease of power. Until you have spent a decade or so
in corporate boardrooms, you don't really understand the power of the
In any event, whoever he was, he decided (probably to save face, and
a bit of irony) that he had to change something. So, he
the mouth of the Eskimo into a smile. He's a happy Eskimo, now,
of the noble Eskimo he originally was. (See photo below.)
In any event, I have heard that
bush pilot claimed the Eskimo as his own after the
It's a false claim, though, because I know exactly who came up with
marvelous visual -- Bob and Ira Spring took the original and a drunk
ad agency account executive by the name of Bert Nordby brought it to my
attention. All I did was recognize a great airline logo idea when
it flew past.
informed of the existence of this story, Alaska Airlines Manager of
Communications, Jack Evans, sent the following email to Oregon
and I quote: "Fascinating. Yet another person who claims
for the Eskimo!" That, my friends, proves two
things. First, since I didn't claim I came up with the idea, his
comment means he didn't read the whole piece, and second, that he is
living proof of the old maxim that no good deed goes unpunished.
Vic Warren is named in one of the replies. He was my second in command at the RSRM ad agency, and the man I told Charles Heinrich (successor to Harry McCoy in Seattle) to give my job to when I quit the agency and returned to Oregon. Vic Warren was (perhaps still is) an honest man, and would never take credit for Bert Nordby's Eskimo -- LL/OrMag
Another Update: July 24, 2012
From: Jacqueline Spring
Text (C) 2001 Oregon Magazine All grapics except the four planes and the last one are hotlinks, and the copyrighted property of the folks you reach when you click on them.