Advertising executives are not often the most selfless of men. They are rarely called martyrs for the needy. And they’re almost never called the patron saint of the “could-use-a-little-help” folk. Yet, every man has his means and ways about him. Even the busiest among the advertising class will check “yes” to support a noble cause, especially during tax season. He may even occasionally, if the moon is bright and the tides just right, leave a quarter in a beggar’s cup.
It must be mentioned the falseness of a common belief. We imagine that the cup and the quarter are the symbols of the beggar class. This is inaccurate at best, misleading at worst. It is not the cup, but the sound of two zinc covered pieces of metal clashing together that best represents those errant individuals sitting upon intersections requesting our beneficence. It is quite an unusual sound in our own day. Among the electronic zip and whirs of the world, the “CLINK” of two quarters has all but died out. But this was not so in the 1950s. Back then, the clink was an everyday occurrence.
On one such spring day in 1950 there was an encounter between the class of *CLINK* and the class of the silk shirted ad-man, an encounter that would reverberate through the annals of New York. No one ever understood why Rosser Reeves had done it. He was an ad executive, resplendent in his three-piece suit and dangling gold watch. He was never known to have added to the symphony of a beggar’s cup. If he had so desired, with all his wealth and influence, he could have been a master conductor. But his friends would never question him, for he had no time to be magnanimous. Not unless it was in his self-interest, of course. What’s more, Rosser Reeves was a pragmatist. He believed it would never do to hand a man a coin. Teach him to fish. Or something like that.
The only thing Reeves loved more than spouting proverbs was coining new advertising slogans. He was most proud of his slogan for Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I like Ike!”
This day was no different than any other spring day. New York City was in full bloom. He ignored the blue jay that flew over his head to land on a lush tree beside the bench where he and a colleague sat. They were known to occasionally sneak out of the forest of oak desks and shined-shoes and business talk, to talk business in the forest of oak trees and clear lakes that was Central Park. Quite a sight indeed. Two men in Italian suits sitting beside a flock of blue birds. There must be a painting of this image somewhere in New York’s archives. It might be called: “The Forest within the Concrete Jungle and the Two Kings of Advertising.”
With a jubilant jump, Reeves was on his feet and ready to return to the bustling ad world. His colleague rose and attempted to catch up to the swift Reeves. He didn’t have to wait long, however, for something had frozen Reeves’ expensive alligator shoes to the concrete sidewalk.
There he stood with his intense eyes focused on a cardboard sign. The sign was held by a man in a tattered piece of cloth that seemed to be held together by a hope and a prayer. Beneath the dirty black cloth was a frail body, and the body belonged to a beggar, and the beggar held out his cup. The cup shook in his hands. It emitted the most pitiful of sounds: that of a solitary coin.
Was Rosser Reeves feeling pity? That would be most unusual. The President of the United States had once waited on him. Upon closer inspection it seemed that Reeves was not at all interested in the man’s cup. He was interested in the sign he held. It read:
I AM BLIND.
Reeve’s colleague finally plucked up the courage to interrupt his friend.
“Hey Ros. Whatcha looking at?” Asked the befuddled man.
“Why do you suppose no one is giving this man any money?” Reeves stated as if
addressing a conference table full of employees.
“They’re just too busy.”
“Yes yes. They’re always too busy. But that hasn’t stopped people in the past. People are too busy to buy our products, but they do. They’re too busy to vote, but they did. Plus this blind man is more deserving than the dipsomaniacs we have both seen receiving alms.”
“He must have just got to the park.”
Reeves looked a little saddened by this thought. But he perked up and directed a question to the beggar: “My good sir. How long have you been sitting there?”
The despondent creature looked up slowly and said, “Fell asleep here last night. Woke up early. Been here a day now I suppose.”
“This just won’t do,” Reeves said. And the beggar sat up taller and held out his cup to Reeves. But Reeves just turned away from him and faced his friend.
“Do you have a pen?” he inquired.
“Yes of course. What’s this about Rosso?”
“I’m taking on this man as our client. I’m going to dramatically increase his earnings with just four words.”
Reeves turned back to the beggar and spoke to him in a deferential voice, “Sir. You’re not doing very well here. My name’s Rosser Reeves and it’s my job to persuade the people of this good nation to open their wallets and buy the goods of my clients. I’d like you to be my client. I promise that with four little words I’ll bring you enormous revenue. It will cost you one quarter. What do you say?”
The beggar pitifully poured out the quarter and handed it to Reeves.
Then Reeves snatched up the sign and took it over to the bench. With the pen he added four words to it. He hastened back to his newly acquired client and handed the sign to him. Grabbing his friends’ sleeve, he backed away to watch what would happen.
We often believe miracles are the work of the angels and that angels are some sort of ephemeral creature, but on that spring day in 1950, a real miracle occurred — and it wasn’t by any angel!
The first man to pass by was almost running. He had no intention of stopping for some bum. Then, as though struck by an invisible hand, he stopped moving. He turned around, reached into his pocket and dropped a coin into the cup. Next came a businesswoman in a loose cotton skirt. She was flustered and certainly on her way to an important interview. She glanced at the sign and then after a moment; as if the words needed to sluice through her body, she stopped, too. She began to scrutinize the trees and the birds. She pulled out a crisp one-dollar bill and placed it in the man’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Then she was off.
What happened next has gone into the advertising history books. Pedestrian after pedestrian stopped by the Blind Beggar. He received a deluge of coins and bills. His cup was overflowing. So full was it, there was no room for two coins to scrape together and make a sound. Even more curious the people did not merely walk by and in an involuntary act of pity drop a quarter, no, these people stopped to chat with the blind beggar. His cup was full and so was his heart. Men nudged the beggar’s shoulder and described the beautiful women walking by, bringing a sly smile on both men’s faces. Women told him of the children frolicking, the squirrels squirming and the flowers blooming. In return, the blind beggar turned prophet and sage—a lifetime of wisdom pouring forth from his lips.
Rosser Reeves turned on a heel and headed back toward his Madison Avenue office.
His friend asked, “How’d you know that would work?”
Without a hint of a smile Reeves responded seriously, “Contrast! Contrast. Contrast, my friend. Those busy saps are always in their own heads. It’s our job to help them see what we want them to see. I added four little words that would starkly contrast their world to that of the blind man’s. I know people. They had no means by which to empathize because his world is just too disconnected, too unreal from their own. Ah! But with the right words you can make people see whatever you want. Words, how innocent as they stand-alone in a dictionary, but how powerful when combined by someone who knows how. Words, My friend, have a power to help us see. But only if we contrast it with what we cannot.”
And so it was. For days on end the happy beggar held up his sign to crowds of people: