Debra Goldman’s Postscript: A Sweet Send-off

Woe unto those arrogant institutions that do not pay sufficient respect to a departed object of the people’s affections. They will suffer the anger and contempt of the masses whose deep loss is devalued and ignored.
You thought I was talking about Princess Diana and the Royal Family? No, I was referring to that other bold-faced name in the gossip columns, Fred the Baker. It looks like Fred, the beloved sad-sack symbol of Dunkin’ Donuts, is about to hang up his apron.
But he is not simply going to vanish, like poor Mr. Whipple, who was tossed away like used toilet paper. In a month-long campaign, which kicked off in early September, Fred is receiving the highest honor our nation can bestow: the full icon treatment.
On radio, Liz Smith speculates about the fate of the “dunkin’ hunk.” On TV, he is getting outplacement counseling from Bob Dole, surely the most pointed postmodern pairing since Michael Jordan co-starred with Bugs Bunny.
Of course, it is not just Fred who is being honored. This retirement party is an act of deference to every consumer who has ever identified with the working stiff who got up before all the other working stiffs to make sure the donuts were fresh. To this audience, Fred is every bit as real as the former majority leader of the U.S. Senate-which says a lot about both of them.
Fred owes his existence to the feelings people have for him. And there’s nothing more real than consumers’ feelings. Attention must be paid.
“The consumer and the brand build their own relationship, and the advertising has to recognize that,” says Tom Carroll, who runs the Dunkin’ Donuts business at Messner, Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG. “So honor Fred for the relationship he’s built. It says that the brand knows how to treat its people, just as it knows how to treat you.”
Frankly, it’s time for Fred to go. For all America’s affection for its working-class hero, Dunkin’ Donuts, pressed by fear of frying on one side and by skinny tall mocha lattes on the other, has been forced to fight its image as home of the blue-collar breakfast. I vividly recall laughing at a radio ad for a store called Just Pants, whose slogan was “We’re not just pants.”
For the last couple of years, the strategy of this chain might be described as “Dunkin’ Donuts. We’re not just donuts.” And despite hawking bagels and coffee, Fred is still the guy who schlepped out of bed to make those sugar-crusted lumps of fried dough.
At the risk of offending those legions of Fred faithful, I would also suggest that, as icons go, Fred never had much range.
True, with his basset hound mug, fireplug body and Hitler-by-way-of-Chaplin mustache, he etched an indelible image as he shuffled off in the dark muttering, “Time to make the donuts.” He did it so winningly, in fact, that few were mean-spirited enough to point out that Fred’s inimitable shuffling and muttering were pretty much the sum of his talent.
He was not particularly funny running down a street with a giant bagel in hot pursuit. In the spot in which former New York mayor Ed Koch attempts to teach the baker how to say “schmear,” the future star of The People’s Court blew poor Fred off the screen. And now, in his farewell tour, he’s reduced to playing straight man to humorists such as Larry Byrd and Mary Lou Retton. It’s a strange denouement for one of the funniest faces in commercials.
But then, it doesn’t much matter that the ads aren’t that funny. The people’s pitchman is bigger than the commercials he appears in. Which is why Dunkin’ Donuts has so cleverly provided this celebrity- studded moment-so we can give Fred and ourselves a warm farewell hug.