How Continental Bank Got Silly

We are thoroughly charmed that a bank that almost went bankrupt is staking its recovery on a man twirling a hula hoop around his neck.

The bank is Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company of Chicago–which was plunged into scandal five years ago by bad loans and restructured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The Continental man is Rex Robbins, a Shakespearean-trained actor from Yale who lives in New York City.

Robbins first appeared last fall in TV commercials looking perfectly proper in a dark suit. He urged us to get a loan from Continental. He advised calling the bank’s 800 number “right now, while there’s a stupid commercial on.”

Then he twirled the hula hoop around his neck. Or played “Oh, Susanna” on the harmonica. Or marched with a baton to John Philip Sousa music. In another commercial for Continental, he swallowed helium and talked in a funny, high voice. Now he’s got his arms stuck in a dollhouse and he’s playing talking hands.

“I don’t think anything is too silly for a bank,” said Robbins. “I adore silliness.” Can one ever be too silly? “Not if it makes someone sit up and take notice,” said Robbins. “Continental Illinois was in serious financial trouble. I assume they used humor to make people forget that and pay attention to the bank.”

It worked. Loan applications jumped 150 percent.

The advertising agency, Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis, had one heck of a puzzle to solve. Account executive Susan Ellis said the biggest hurdles for the bank were a public perception of Continental as “a bank for rich people” and the inconvenience of the bank’s locations–on LaSalle Street and at Clark and Division. That’s why they used the 800 number. The bank’s financial scandal, said Ellis, “is not a concern to consumers, surprisingly.” Ellis said people probably figure the FDIC is always there to keep their money secure.

Continental decided to switch its emphasis from commercial to consumer banking. They wanted the little guy to come to the bank. “There was an awful lot of pompous, dry, uninspired bank advertising out there,” said John Forney, a management supervisor at McElligott. “There needed to be a breakthrough. I read somewhere that 98 percent of advertising isn’t remembered.”

Forney said that Advertising Age nominated the campaign as one of the nation’s best in the financial field. But “Ad Week condemned it. They thought it was inappropriate for a bank. They didn’t think it was how a bank should act,” said Forney.

“The ads were controversial to people in the bank, as to what kind of image they portrayed,” said Jack Downing, senior vice president of personal banking at Continental. It’s his department the commercials most affect. Downing told us they inspired “the biggest one-time surge in consumer credit business that I’ve ever seen here.

“I’ve heard some people tell me they make the bank look silly,” said Downing. “But I tell them with the results they got, I’ll take silly.”

Last September, Downing sat in a boardroom at Continental for the first showing of the commercials.

It was eight o’clock in the” morning. Bank chiefs John Swearingen, William Ogden, and Eugene Croisant sat in judgment while Rex Robbins went from the sublime to the ridiculous. The bankers “were somewhat surprised by the tone of these commercials,” recalled Downing. Then, he said, “there was high amusement.” Did the bankers laugh? “I think just mild laughter, really,” said Downing.

“The concept was to have a guy, and in the first 15 seconds or so you just assume it’s your normal, everyday commercial,” said McElligott writer Mike Lescarbeau. “Then it goes crazy.” Robbins’s own pixiness helped. “What we discovered was that Rex had all these abilities. He couldn’t do the hula hoop around his waist–have you ever tried it? He could only do it around his neck, and that was funnier. He said he could also play the harmonica. He said he could use a baton. He was a real find for us.”

Our Dinner With Andre

At Wrigley Field, they hawk T-shirts that say “Andres Army”–the Cubs’ new right fielder is the only player so honored. We noticed this while waiting to have dinner with Andre.

Andre Dawson suggested Ditka’s, where innumerable TVs surrounded us with the Spinks-Cooney fight. “I’m not one for a lot of punishment,” said Dawson about boxing. He told us about growing up in Miami, where he was the oldest of three brothers and four sisters. “I guess being the oldest, I played a major role in bringing them up. There were all the responsibilities when mother was at work,” he said. His mother, whom he calls “Lou,” was a chef at the University of Miami; his father wasn’t around. But three uncles lived with his grandmother, whom he called “Mom,” a couple houses away from Andre’s two-bedroom stucco home.

“She passed last February. It hurt. I closed the coffin and that’s supposed to be the way of turning her loose. I miss her. I still think about her,” Dawson said.

“My uncles were like a father figure to me. I basically was raised about as good as you can raise a kid.” Uncle John is a job placement counselor for the city of Miami, Uncle Curtis is assistant principal of an elementary school, and the late Uncle Theodore played in the minors for the Pittsburgh Pirates, then became a schoolteacher. Uncle Curtis, who was a director of the Little League, gave him his first baseball glove. Dawson now has six Gold Gloves.

“I set out as a kid,” he says, to play baseball. “It was a goal in life I worked for. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do.” And now? “First of all, it’s a job. It’s a business now. There isn’t much pleasure in it. Other guys will replace you if you don’t perform. You gotta produce. You’ve got to look at it as your livelihood. It’s not the same as being a kid coming up. I look at it as my job. That’s why I’m so serious.”

Off-season, Dawson does a lot of fishing in the Florida Keys. His whole family, uncles and all, is still in Florida. “My happiest times were when I first started to fish,” said Dawson. “It was a mile or so walk to go fishing, basically fish for bluegills and bass. It got to be sort of an art.”

Nine years ago, a girl named Vanessa that he’d grown up with became his wife. Dawson said they’re waiting to have children. “I always thought it was best to bring ’em up when I get out of baseball, so I don’t have to pull them in and out of school.”

Ditka’s is one of the glitziest places we have ever seen and it is managed by sycophants. Dawson, who labored ten years in Montreal, a hockey town, accepted the attention shyly. His buddy Leon Durham, who sat down with us, had several rings on his hands. Dawson just had on a wristwatch.

We imagined Dawson in his high-rise apartment reading the Bible. That’s the book he says he reads the most. He’s a Baptist, and prays often. “Sometimes I forget, but I try to every time I go to bed,” he said. Durham is the same way. Durham told us, “People who don’t believe, it’s like they’re out on their own. I got somebody always behind my shoulder–the Lord,” said Durham, glancing behind him.

After dinner, we left the two at Ditka’s, where every celebrity who enters is heralded over the loudspeaker. “Arturo! Maitre d’ of the Pump Room!” was announced. We would like to have heard “Lou! “Uncle Curtis!” “Uncle John!”