Hertz made advertising history with O.J. Simpson's airport runs

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In a 1977 Rolling Stone cover story, O.J. Simpson is referred to in the second paragraph as “the sexy black guy in the three-piece suit who runs through airports in those Hertz rent-a-car ads.”

The first reference to the Buffalo Bills, the NFL team he had played for over the previous eight seasons, comes in the 59th paragraph. The Bills are mentioned long after a breakdown of how successful the Hertz ad campaign was.

When we talk about the origin of athletes as pitchmen, and more specifically black athletes as pitchmen, Joe Greene’s famous Coke ad is often cited as a milestone. That ad came in 1979, four years after Simpson’s first ads for Hertz.

Most of the first episode of the epic five-part ESPN documentary, “O.J.: Made in America” focuses on Simpson's rise to fame. Football was the foundation of that, from his Heisman Trophy at USC to his 2,003-yard season in 1973 with the Bills. But the Hertz campaign boosted him from a sports star to a bona fide celebrity.

Maybe it was inevitable that Michael Jordan and Stephen Curry would sell us sneakers and Richard Sherman would pitch beef jerky to us on television. And Jackie Robinson and other athletes endorsed products well before Simpson was famous. Even Simpson was a Chevrolet spokesman, among other products, before pitching Hertz.

But Simpson running through airports to sell Hertz rental cars was unquestionably historic, no matter how Simpson’s legacy would change many years later.

Brands are always going to want to associate themselves with winners because, as a culture, we love them,” said Tim Gordon, the group creative director of Droga5, the ad agency that has produced campaigns featuring Curry and other famous athletes as the agency of record with Under Armour. “Once O.J. laid the groundwork and demonstrated that this was a successful strategy it was only a matter of time before we saw more of the same.” 

The Hertz campaign started simply enough. Mark Morris was an executive at the Ted Bates & Co. ad agency, which handled Hertz’s campaign. Morris said when he and the agency were developing a new campaign, research showed that businessmen looked at renting cars as “a necessary evil," and they just wanted to get the car fast and go. Morris said a new campaign wanted to project speed of service.

“We presented a campaign showing an average businessperson running through the airport,” Morris said. “We’re sitting there discussing it with the client, and someone said, ‘Have you been watching the ABC program, 'The Superstars'?”

O.J. Simpson had just won the competition on that show. Morris and art director Nick Pappas re-watched a few hours of “The Superstars” with Simpson and Hertz in mind. Who projected speed in 1975 better than Simpson?

“We looked at each other and said, ‘This guy really has a persona,’” Morris said. “So we went back and inserted O.J. in the campaign.”

It was a massive hit, successful by just about any measure you can have for an advertising campaign. The numbers were astonishing, Rolling Stone said: After Simpson’s ads there was a 20 percent increase in the number of people who said Hertz was the first rental car company that came to their mind, a 71 percent increase in the number of people who remembered the message of the commercial, and a 56 percent increase in car renters who thought Hertz was the best rental car company. And 97 percent of viewers understood the message of the commercials.

“I think the commercials were successful for a couple reasons: they partnered with O.J. at the perfect time in his career, they showed the world a side of O.J. removed from the field [a charming, fun side],” Gordon said in an email. “Hertz was able to use his athletic abilities as a metaphor and, as mentioned before, he could actually act.

“They come from a time when media was less fragmented and consumers had no other real choice but to sit through commercials. They are very overt with what they are selling you, where as today the most memorable commercials are a tad more nuanced. That being said, they do have a charming quality to them and you can’t help but find O.J. magnetic regardless of what would ultimately transpire in his life.”

The success of the campaign, and how memorable it is more than 40 years later, doesn’t happen with a random businessman running through an airport.

“What we could when we started working with him is he had a magnetism,” Morris said. “He was very photogenic.

“He was just so universally accepted and respected by our main target audience.”

It was a hit for Simpson, too. He was named Advertising Age’s Star Presenter of the Year in 1977. In the Rolling Stone article that year, he said the Hertz commercials led to his fame.

"Before that, I'd say 30 percent of the people I met recognized me, and they'd be football fans. Now I'd say it's closer to 90 percent,” Simpson told Rolling Stone.

The ESPN documentary discusses the racial aspect of the advertisements, pointing out that everyone in some of the commercials was white except Simpson.

“O.J. was the first to demonstrate that white folks would buy stuff based on a black endorsement, as long as it was not pressed as a black endorsement,” Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at UC-Berkeley, said in the documentary. “And the way they did that was to remove black people totally from any scene O.J. was in.”

The documentary points out is how the commercials were set up so someone white — an old lady in one, some girl scouts in another — cheer on Simpson by yelling “Go, O.J.!” At the time the commercial was being filmed, the director decided there needed to be some justification in the commercial for a black man running through an airport. So the people rooting on Simpson validated him as he ran to the Hertz counter.

But in general, Morris said there was not a lot of talk about the racial aspect of using Simpson in the campaign or any factors such as the race of the stand-ins.

“We didn’t focus on him being African-American,” Morris said. “We weren’t trying to break any barriers. He just fit.

“You look back now at this successful, well-known campaign and you think, ‘Did we think through all these things?’ It didn’t happen that way really.”

Even if the people working on the Hertz commercials didn’t realize the ramifications of a black athlete being featured that prominently in a major campaign, it had an impact that still resonates today.

“Those were heights we had not reached before,” civil rights activist Danny Bakewell said in the ESPN documentary. “So he was a pioneer.”

In 1984, consumer research company Video Storyboard Tests found that Simpson was still the most popular athlete spokesman, according to Advertising Age. That was five years after his last NFL game. In a well-known 1989 profile of Eric Dickerson in Sports Illustrated, writer Rick Reilly shoehorns in a reference to Simpson’s Hertz commercials.

Simpson’s campaign for Hertz has to be considered one of the greatest ever.

“Ummm, yes,” Morris said when asked if he thinks it’s one of the greatest campaigns ever, before laughing. “In all honestly. It had all of the proper elements and it clearly focused on the main point of difference in the category, and it put a smile on your face. It was an extremely successful piece of advertising. I was in the business 38 years and it was clearly the highlight campaign of my career.”

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To some extent, it was a landmark. As Morris remembers it, Simpson got about $100,000 for his first week doing the Hertz campaign, then the company moved quickly to get Simpson as a long-term pitchman. Morris said he negotiated a three-year contract worth about $200,000 per year. Consider that Simpson's first pro contract was estimated to be for $350,000 over four years. We're in an era in which there's a blurred line between an athlete's loyalty to his team and his shoe company, because the shoe company provides a much higher salary. Simpson's Hertz ads also began to usher in an era in which companies started using athletes to sell anything and everything, even if the athlete had practically nothing to do with the product he or she was pitching.

After Simpson's massive success with Hertz, companies wanted to align themselves with star athletes. Maybe that all happens without Simpson running through the airport, but Hertz and SImpson gave a clear template for future campaigns. It was the first campaign of its kind to that magnitude.

"I think the rise of mass advertising really coincided with the rise of the sports star," Gordon said. "As we began seeing more mature, creatively-led campaigns we also began to see more idolization of athletes it’s a natural fit.

"In many ways, O.J. was the perfect spokesman at the time  an incredible on-the-field talent with an impeccable off-the-field image, the kind of guy you admired for his sporting prowess but could also imagine hanging out with. Not to mention he was great in front of the camera. Hertz really tapped into the national love for O.J. at the right time in his career and gave the public a way to be a little closer to him, even if it was just by renting a car. "

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!