'Terrible Beer but Lovely Commercials'
Inside the tangled history of UPA's Bert and Harry Piel.
UPA’s reputation rests on artistry. Employing modern art and design, and developing new forms of animated motion and storytelling, the American studio made cartoons that played not just in theaters but in museums.
The animation produced at UPA helped to define the ‘50s, and it earned lots of money along the way. Really, though, it was never a simple case of art winning out. For all its artfulness, UPA owed a good deal of its success to the crassest kind of commercialism: advertising.
Around the start of 1950, UPA expanded from its headquarters in Los Angeles County to a second studio in New York City. The goal was to make animated ads “3,000 miles closer to Madison Avenue,” according to artist Gene Deitch, who headed the new division.1 As Deitch later wrote:
It became clear from day-one that our role at the New York branch was to earn money to support the Burbank studio. We were assigned to do commercial work, using the UPA mystique, as critical darlings of the animation world, to attract the highest-paying clients. All of our income had to be sent to the Burbank studio bank account, and each week we had to wait for our paychecks to arrive in the mail. Nearly every week, we, who were the nominal executives, had to virtually barricade ourselves in the office when the paychecks failed to arrive on time. We were paying Burbank’s bills, but could hardly pay our own.
What did arrive on time were the regular recorded Dictaphone belts from Steve [Bosustow, head of UPA], delivering his weekly pep talk and general instructions. It had the advantage to him that it was a one-way message. We couldn’t talk back. We could only razz his recorded voice.
UPA New York was behind some of the decade’s best and most popular TV ads, which raked in money from (and for) big companies. One major spot was Busy Day, done for General Foods’ Jell-O around 1953. Deitch won awards with it.
But the crowning achievement of the New York branch — in fact, one of the most-discussed animated ad campaigns of all time — was for Piels Beer. This was the Bert and Harry Piel series, begun in 1955. It was a megahit and, within the ad world, the most controversial campaign of its day.