Saturday, July 10, 2010

Not the capo d'astro bar again!

The only reason I'm writing about this tired old subject, the legendary Capo d'Astro Bar story--an object lesson in advertising from the days when Pangaea was the only continent--is that I was brainstorming yesterday with a colleague about an impending pitch, trying to figure out what, if anything, we could say about the product, and I mentioned, "We need a capo d'astro bar."

"A wha...?" he said. I thought he was kidding. I thought everybody in advertising above a certain age knew about the capo d'astro bar story, and knew what the phrase meant in the context of advertising. But, as talented and skilled as he is, I realized he was below that certain age. And then I realized that this tired old fable might die and lose its industrial utility if Poloniuses (Polonii?) like me don't keep the lesson alive. It's my duty to advertising history. Think of the children!

So for the half of my readership who is sick to death of this story, go ahead, roll your eyes and go back to figuring out how Medicare works. And for the other half (Dave), here it is:

Back in the Glorious Days of the Sixties' Creative Revolution (Mad Men, to give you all who were nowhere when Kennedy was shot an historical context), a young, smart-ass copywriter named Bud Robbins was supposed to write an ad for his agency's client, Aeolian Pianos. These were very expensive pianos and seemed to be the choice of many great musicians.  But nobody could tell Robbins why they were so good.  He didn't know why they would be better than any other expensive grand piano, like Steinway or Baldwin. They must have had some secret ingredient that distinguished them from all the others. He asked to visit the factory.

After enduring the usual account executive derision for his need for information (they were busy doing what account executives do on Mad Men--their secretaries, and, of course, smoking too much--and couldn't be bothered with irritating "creatives"), he was sent off to St. Louis for a begrudged tour of the Aeolian Piano factory.

In spite of spending two days at the plant, nobody seemed to be able to tell Robbins the difference between Aeolian and the competition. On getting ready to leave to catch his flight, Robbins asked his guide to wrack his brain one more time and think of any difference, however insignificant.  The sales manager scratched his head and said, "Well,  our pianos are a little heavier; that's why they cost more to ship."

"Why is that?"

"Well, because of the capo d'astro bar." (Here it comes, at last!).

The man invited Robbins to crawl under one of their pianos to look at a heavy, cast-iron bar strapped across the higher octave strings. He pointed out that it was there for the piano to keep its tune after the wood frame started to fifty years. Fifty years. And the only reason an Aeolian Piano was heavier than a Baldwin or a Steinway was this patented hunk of metal. Here was a little technological gizmo, completely invisible, that wouldn't even start working for half-a-century, but would let their pianos outlast any of their competition. Robbins had found his secret ingredient.

This was the reason the director of the Metropolitan Opera said that the only thing they were taking with them from their old home to their new digs at Lincoln Center was their venerable Aeolian Grand Piano--with its 50-year-old capo d'astro bar.

So Robbins started writing and created a legendary ad campaign around the capo d'asto bar, this secret ingredient that made the Aeolian Grand the greatest piano in the world. Steinway and Baldwin would, of course, take issue.

The point isn't one about pianos, or what's better. I have no idea. I can't even play Guitar Hero. The point is that this story became well-known among an entire generation of art directors and writers going to ad school in the seventies and eighties. And the phrase "capo d'astro bar" stood for any unique selling proposition (USP) that a product or service had. It was the one quality that had to be teased out of the client, something they usually took for granted and often didn't even think was that big a deal.  So whenever a creative team would be assigned a new client, they were trained to start looking for the "capo d'astro bar."

Sadly, few people seem to have that discipline any more--or even curiosity about their clients' products. They'll be happy just making vague assertions about quality, selection, value, and passion for excellence, and worry more about including keywords for search engines than whether the thing they're advertising has any special juice. It's good because we say it is, okay? Now just buy it.

But if more advertising professionals remembered the capo d'astro bar--and Bud Robbins--maybe advertising would start to get creative--and good--again. And maybe, just maybe, people wouldn't TiVo past it. Or might even click on it. And when they searched online, they'd search for the brand and not the commodity.

I can dream, can't I?


  1. i learned something new today. Nice article. Count me among the previously uninformed -- had never heard of this but then again, why would I? I mean how often do astrophysicists come across the phrase capo d'astro? ? ? (har har)

  2. Jeff;

    I googled Capo d'astro bar and came upon your post here. Did I ever mention to you that Bud Robbins was the first to hire me in the ad world? 1984 in L.A.. Agency was Kresser and Robbins. I accepted the position - mailroom - and gave 2 weeks notice at my video store job. Bud had a heart attack and passed away in the interim and I never had the chance to work with him. Though I did work for his company along with the subsequent version of it - Kresser/Craig - for 11 years. Naturally, we were all quite familiar with the Capo.

    Great to see your work - I hope you are well...

    jerry grant

  3. I too Googled this term, except in my piano I was highly suspicious it was CAUSING a lack of tuning, not keeping the piano in better tune. It's nearly 90 yrs old though, so way past its guarantee lol.