Craig Otto remembers a veteran commercial music composer watching the final product of Craig’s first television commercial and telling him to pack it up and take a serious look at working in children’s television.
“’You’ll never be able to top this,’ he told me,” said Craig of the spot that earned such high praise. The year was 1982, and the ad in question was the now iconic Eat‘n Park “Christmas Star” commercial.
“That assignment was one in a million. It was the best creative assignment I ever got,” Craig said recently of the familiar animated, 30-second commercial where a Christmas star struggles to make it to the top of the tree. But with a little help from the tree itself, the star is able to shine brightly sending holiday greetings to the region the restaurant chain calls home.
For a little perspective, at the time this commercial was created, viewers watched on television sets that relied on heavy tubes to serve as screens. Thirty-three years later, new generations of Pittsburghers may see the commercial for the very first time on smart phones, flat screen televisions, or even on their Apple Watches.
This all serves to prove that regardless of changes to technology and the emergence of new delivery systems, timeless messaging that touches the heart endures.
Eat’n Park tells the story of the commercial on its own blog this way:
“It all started in early 1982. Eat’n Park was just beginning to blossom into the family restaurant chain that you’re now familiar with, and the company was prospering. Our CEO at the time, Jim Broadhurst (who recently retired), wanted to create a holiday card on video to thank the city of Pittsburgh for their support of Eat’n Park.
So, Jim charged Ketchum, our ad agency at the time, with creating a message that would ‘last for 20 years.’ Easy, right? Craig Otto, then a young Art Director, and Cathy Bowen, a fledgling Copy Writer at the time, lead the project. The pair worked for 3 weeks to generate over 30 ideas, none of which were met with approval. Eventually, they hit upon the idea of an animated commercial, but they still weren’t sure where they were going with it.
One Sunday shortly thereafter, Craig decided to come into the office. He sketched out a star, a traditional holiday image, and then stopped. ‘How does the star get to the top of the tree?’ He played around with a few ideas until deciding that, of course, the star would need some help from the tree itself. In a fateful coincidence, Cathy had also decided to come in to the office that Sunday. So, while Craig worked out the illustrations, Cathy devised a simple, yet perfect sentiment to wrap up the commercial.”
From a communications standpoint, animation seemed to work best. If it had featured actors and scenes that reflected the period when the commercial was produced, due to changes in fashion and production values, the ad would have quickly become dated. But animation or not, no ad stands the test of time like this unless there is something more.
“It’s about giving and receiving,” said Craig. “For Pittsburghers, it’s a holiday tradition. It’s such a big part of the regional culture. Pittsburghers have just taken ownership of it and truly made it a part of their own holiday tradition.”
As evidence of this, in 2012, on the 30th anniversary of the commercial, Light-up Night organizers and Lightwave International, a company based in Eighty Four, Pennsylvania, created the commercial in laser show format.
And local personality “Pittsburgh Dad,” paid his own tribute to the Eat’n Park advertising tradition.
“I’m not sure how many brands could have sustained this kind of tradition for so long,” Craig said. “The genuine connection that exists between Eat’n Park the local community reinforces everything that the commercial was about. “
He said that he still sees young children, born decades after the commercial first aired, respond favorably to the ad.
“I’m still amazed and humbled by how this commercial touches people of all ages.”