A Tipsy Time With the Half-Naked Bellboy

Vegas hotel Cosmopolitan’s edgy take on the luggage lad is only the latest incarnation of a branding icon

Headshot of Robert Klara

If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel that has over two stars, you’ve already met him. But heck, even if you’ve only seen it in the movies, we all know what happens when you drop your bags at the front desk. Turn around, and the bellboy is taking your suitcase in hand. Chances are, he’s wearing a red cap, brass buttons and striped trousers (well, hold a moment on the trousers). The getups vary, but the job never has. Bellboys lift the luggage, fetch the messages, deliver the flowers. Whatever thankless, menial thing needs doing, they stand at the ready. It’s not surprising, then, that advertisers have historically given the burdened bellhop yet another job to do: convey the messages of quality and cheerful service for brands.

The 1928 ad for Fatima cigarettes shown here is a classic example, but there are plenty more where that came from. Between the Great Depression and the 1980s, Hanes Hosiery, Mead papers, U.S. Luggage, Firestone and PM cocktail mixes (to name a few) all used bellboys in their advertising. Pioneering adman Milton Biow plucked New Yorker Hotel bellboy Johnny Roventini to be the brand mascot for Philip Morris in 1933, and the gig lasted for the next 41 years. A pituitary-gland disorder had left the adult Roventini trapped in a pre-pubescent boy’s body, but his angelic B-flat voice (“Call for Philip Morris!”) made him world famous. Finally, it goes without saying that the hotel bellboy has also appeared in hotel ads where he became the physical embodiment of the hospitality promise: always ready, always quick, always happy to break his back for you.

“The bellboy is really an iconic character because everybody is familiar with him, and advertisers have picked up on that,” observed Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “The bellboy is all about service. He’s a positive character, safe and respectable.”

No doubt, that’s why the accompanying 2013 ad for the Cosmopolitan hotel has turned so many heads. So far as anyone can tell, this sassy Las Vegas hotel (and its ad agency Fallon, Minneapolis) was first to shatter nearly a century’s worth of marketing tradition by showing a bellhop as: 1) a stud, and 2) a stud wearing nothing below his waist. “The ad is really quite jarring because the last thing you’d expect is for your bellman to show up with no pants on,” Calkins said. “But the hotel is saying, ‘This is how we roll.’ It really makes you think twice about the hotel, and in a way that says something powerful.”

And that’s precisely what the ad is meant to do. A recent installment of the Cosmopolitan’s “Just the Right Amount of Wrong” campaign launched in 2011, this ad was designed to help a chic new hotel stand out in a city jammed with chic new hotels. “The challenge for any hotel is to differentiate,” Calkins said. “Clearly, the Cosmopolitan is taking a stand as a racy, edgy hotel. Marriott wouldn’t do something like this.”

Probably not. Then again, let’s remember where we are. This is the city that trademarked “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.” And who knows? Maybe it might happen with the bellboy.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.