A few years ago, back when this was a blog dedicated to delightful things I found on the internet, I wrote a quick note about my love for the Man in the Hathaway shirt ads. Back then I’d only seen a handful of the ads including the original. Last week I had the good fortune to locate the book Hathaway Shirts: Their History, Design, and Advertising at the reference library. I spent a rainy afternoon flipping through the 90+ years of advertising history of a small clothing company. For fun.
Hathaway Shirts was founded in 1837 but it was David Ogilvy’s big idea in 1951 that earned the company a spot in advertising history. With “the Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” Ogilvy created an icon. All it took was a cheap eyepatch to take a distinguished gentleman from handsome shirt model to a man of intrigue and mystique. Ogilvy plucked Baron George Wrangell from Russian aristocrat obscurity and molded him into a jet-setting renaissance man of leisure. Each ad told a visual story of a sophisticated man of the world and his adventures. The Man in the Hathaway Shirt as personified by Wrangell was fearless, curious, and cool. The eyepatch contributed to the intrigue—what’s it for? Did he lose the eye in a wrestling match with a tiger? Or was it a fencing accident with a six-fingered man?
Wrangell retired from shirt modeling in 1961 and was replaced by Colin Leslie Fox, a sailor who crossed the Atlantic solo—while wearing Hathaway shirts, coincidentally. Fox brought a rugged, outdoorsy quality to the character and continued the tradition of the sophisticated Man in the Hathaway Shirt. There would be two more official Hathaway Shirt Men—Ned Phillips (c. 1977) and Clark Halstead (c. 1984). Neither fully captured the allure of the aristocratic adventurer. Halstead, a real estate mogul, didn’t even wear the eye patch.
At the end of the ’60s, Hathaway Shirts took a new advertising direction, hoping to capture the attention of the vibrant youths who would undoubtedly need shirts…eventually. Once Green Domatch, Inc. took over the Hathaway campaign, the creative floundered. Ogilvy & Mather had introduced this style icon that seemingly left little room for fresh creative thought. The ads from the 1970-77 era are markedly different from the previous 20+ years. As client and ad agency struggle to appeal to a more youthful demographic and distance themselves from the distinctive ad layout that David Ogilvy helped to perfect, the colour palette changed, the text placement changed, and the models changed.
The once dashing hero ripped from the pages of some epic romantic novel was replaced by a soap opera villain—the one who marries the dimwitted millionairess and whose foes vanish in tragic boating “accidents.” The campaign suffered from inconsistencies in ad layout and with models. Where Ogilvy & Mather placed the focus on one ocularly-challenged Man in the Hathaway Shirt, Green Domatch allowed for multiple uni-eyed men to frolic about in their client’s shirts. The Hathaway men of the 1970s were less sophisticated. The story behind the eyepatch could more believably be attributed to a case of chronic pinkeye or an unfortunate run-in with a lady he’d been stalking.
The eye patch tripped up the creative team. They tried using it on different models, wedging it into the Hathaway logo, and even using a white box with an illustration of an eye patch over a generic male model’s face. Why didn’t Green Domatch scrap the eye patch altogether and go a new direction? They were already running a few other Hathaway campaigns with no sign of vision impairment, including a campaign featuring Jack Nicklaus. Did the client insist on keeping the eye patch around for brand equity? The problem was that they focused on the object and lost sight of the underlying narrative. The story was lost. Gone was the intrigue and mystique. The company was no longer selling a fantasy. It was selling shirts. Even when Ogilvy & Mather reclaimed the Hathaway account, the ads were hollow attempts at recreating the Man in the Hathaway Shirt story.
Whatever your feelings of David Ogilvy or advertising in general, his take on the Hathaway campaign was a creative success that worked as more than just an ad for button-up shirts. The subtle photography and ad composition allowed the reader to engage in a story, a fantasy about a man and his exotic life. The reader can project any fantasy onto this man. This fantasy prompts the reader to rationalize that the fantasy could be attributed to the shirt, as in, “If I wear this Hathaway shirt, I could be just like this man.” The copy supports the fantasy and the rationalization while extolling the practical benefits of the garment. Not enough advertising today encourages the use of imagination. Hell, there isn’t much in any realm of popular culture in the 21st century that encourages imagination. We’re taught in design programs about short attention spans and the urgent need to capture the audience’s eye in three seconds or less. Which has lead to a lot of overwhelming imagery in the general marketplace. David Ogilvy showed us how to create a focal point and capture visual interest with a dime store eyepatch.