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Big Chief Crow of Madison Ave.


Mr. Evans Houghton, of New York and Towaco, N. J., is one of the promising employees in the Selvage, Lee & Chase advertising stables, currently much occupied with the promotion of 86-proof Old Crow. Granted, Houghton did not know, when he retained the Crow Indians to plug his bourbon, that they had voted to retain prohibition. Not until the very last moment did he learn of it. But whatever doubts and fears assailed him then, he vanquished—had vanquished years ago, on the playing fields of Hearst. Foot in mouth at a jaunty angle, he proceeded to administer to the public as stiff a dose of relations as it's had from New York's Madison Ave. in a long time.

Last September, Mr. Stuart Little of the same ad agency set a grueling pace when he won Time and Newsweek praise for a maneuver which got Crow bourbon free space in more than 100 dailies, including the Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Little's ingenious low-budget promotion was simply a crank letter to all these papers, asking the aid of readers in his project to determine the maximum age attainable by Corvus Americanus. His folksy prose was spiked with references to this and that old crow of his acquaintance, and one bare-faced mention of a well-known beverage. Such oblique free plugs presumably are worth Mr. Little's salary to Selvage, Lee & Chase, and their fee from National Distillers, whose menagerie includes both the original 100-proof Old Crow and the new watered-down 86-proof subspecies.

No such modest undertaking was that of Mr. Houghton. On a $35,000 budget, he recently brought charter flights and DRIVEURSELF fleets of company brass, film crews from both coasts, and a complete Indian tribe to a ramshackle dance hall at a Montana whistle-stop, all to allure a press not only fickle but forewarned.

The press neither came nor saw, but was conquered, and the wires next day chattered the exact words of Mr. Houghton's copy, describing a colorful Indian adoption ceremony in which "Eric Stainton, Kentucky beverage company official, became the adopted son of Samson Bird in the Ground," taking the tribal name of Old Crow.

"The adoption," said the press, "was in recognition of Stainton's efforts in connection with making the Crow name known throughout the country and in plans now being prepared to aid the tribe in cultural and educational needs."

It W4S hardly necessary for the press to explain that the beverage company official was vice-president of National Distillers, who sell Old Crow whisky, or to elaborate upon the means and the undoubted value to the Crows of making their teetotaling name known throughout the country, or to detail the cultural and educational plans, which in fact amounted to a $500 contribution toward a new dance hall.

The adoption itself was more than anyone had bargained for. The Crows, who are infinitely more adept than any Hudson River tribe at manufacturing sincerity, all but reduced their steely paleface guests to tears.

The ceremony in the mud-chinked log hall at Lodge Grass was a wild and wonderful spectacle of barbaric song and dance, generating a significance of its own. The Indians had dropped their university accents, donned their most gorgeous finery and covered their short hair with braided wigs, to indulge in a kind of mass make-believe which appeared to be as satisfying to themselves as it was captivating to their captors. Drums exploded and tribal chants howled down paradox, within earshot of disapproving missions to which most of the dancers pay homage, in a village where a drink is a federal crime.

There developed an obvious eagerness on the part of all to play the game, to overleap the venal rite and reinvest it with an ancient dignity.

Robert Yellowtail, the political leader of his people (and also Republican candidate for Senator in Montana's primary this year), declared in their language and in English that "the Crows do not confer this honor promiscuously," that the name Old Crow had belonged to a valiant warrior of the old time; that only a man of Eric Stainton's stature could receive it, and that the tribe expected in their new brother such another staunch ally as the first Old Crow had been.

Stainton played his part with dignity and warmth, and, in his British accent, made a graceful speech of acceptance. The mood lingered through the anticlimax of innumerable retakes under the hot lights. Old Crow became more than a whisky salesman. He was now the brother and ally of a handsome and hospitable people, and he had no intention of forgetting it. He refused to part with his borrowed headdress, symbolic of new birth—a sentiment which pleased both Crows and Promoter Houghton, but which necessitated a rapid redistribution of wampum between them.

It was a big production and a big success, and for ad-man Houghton it required a full day of emotional unwinding. But as he alternately slept and wept, he cuddled the triumph of the night before. Driving back from Lodge Grass in a rented car, in the afterglow of the great powwow, Mr. Houghton had received his Oscars. Old Crow had handsomely promised several new accounts to Selvage, Lee & Chase. And Phil Lukin, the advertising account executive, had bestowed the final word of praise, the ultimate endearment — an unprintable endearment in Hudson River dialect, which meant that Evans Houghton was unquestionably "in."

This article originally ran in the July 5th, 1954, issue of the magazine.