New ESPN Series Shows How O.J. Simpson Changed Advertising—and It Changed Him

Hertz ads, not football, made 'the Juice' a superstar

If you thought FX's superb The People v. O.J. Simpson was the definitive TV miniseries about the NFL star turned criminal, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Just wait until tomorrow, when ABC airs the first part of O.J.: Made in America, a stunning 10-hour ESPN documentary series from director Ezra Edelman, who delves into Simpson's entire life and sets his NFL and Hollywood successes and subsequent murder trial against the turbulent backdrop of L.A. and race in the 1950s and '60s. It's a remarkable, tragic portrait of a superstar's rise and fall and our society's culpability in every twist of his story. Thought-provoking and engrossing, it pulls off something that might have seemed impossible: It surpasses the FX miniseries that preceded it. (ESPN will air the other four parts on Tuesday, Wednesday and next Friday and Saturday at 9 p.m.)

Some of the documentary's most interesting insights come during Saturday's premiere, which explores how Simpson became an advertising star almost as soon as he was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1969. He quickly signed deals with Chevrolet and RC Cola, but his most life-changing endorsement came in 1975 when he signed with Hertz.

The first ad, which saw him racing through an airport to get to his rental car, was an instant hit and lead to an astounding two-decade partnership between Hertz and Simpson that lasted until Simpson's trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

"There was never a story written about O.J. that didn't mention Hertz," said ad exec Mark Morris, former account supervisor with the Ted Bates & Co., Hertz's advertising agency at the time, in the documentary.

Simpson became the first African-American spokesman to appear in advertising campaigns for mass audiences, which until then had featured almost exclusively white actors. In the series, activist and sociologist Harry Edwards notes, "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. And the way they did that was to remove black people totally from any scene that O.J. was in." (Indeed, the spot's creators talk about adding in white characters cheering him on to counteract what they saw as a potentially problematic image of a black man running wild through an airport.)

Before his documentary debuts tomorrow, Edelman talked about what made Simpson so attractive to advertisers, how Madison Avenue made Simpson a superstar and how that other O.J. miniseries has been a mixed blessing.

Adweek: How did O.J. become the first African-American athlete who was also a star spokesman

Ezra Edelman: One of the fascinating parts of the narrative is that especially when you think of the history, there had been very few black corporate pitchmen, period. I think the only person at that point had been Bill Cosby, who had hawked White Owl Cigars in the mid-'60s. The idea that a black kid from Potrero Hill, the housing projects in San Francisco, after two years of junior college, arrives at USC, and two years later, he's spit out of his place and he already has these endorsement deals—that transformation is amazing to me. The fact that Chevrolet and RC Cola and ABC television, for that matter, signed him to these deals before he'd even played a down of professional football is astounding. How much of it was the pure magnetism of O.J.? How much of it was the influence of that school and the power of that school? He was transformational as a football star, but you're talking about something that's never been done before, that happened before he became even an NFL star.

What convinced Chevrolet to take him on right out of college?