On Thursday, November 12, 2009, The Seattle Times reports the debunking of a marketing hoax that had both bemused and mystified locals since it was launched in mid-September. At that time news accounts marveled over information provided by Ivar's Inc. -- the corporate entity that directs and manages the Seattle-based seafood restaurant chain founded by longtime waterfront character, Ivar Johan Haglund (1905-1985) -- regarding their alleged "discovery" at the bottom of Elliot Bay.
In essence, what Ivar's president, Bob Donegan, claimed then was that on August 21 -- just off Alki Beach -- teams of hired divers had successfully located and brought to the surface the first of three old advertising billboards. A photograph published in The Seattle Times on September 18 showed workers aboard a vessel hauling one of these apparently vintage, 7-foot-by-22-foot stainless steel signs supposedly fresh from the depths. With period-appropriate graphics, and hokey text -- "Ivar's Chowder. Worth surfacing for. 75¢ a cup," or, "Diver's special. Kids 12 & Under Eat Free with regular entrée. Includes Jell-O" -- the signs did have a certain nostalgic charm about them, and some of us longtime locals wanted to believe that funny old Ivar had pulled another on us. Which it turns out he -- or his minions -- had.
The "Real Thing"
The story was that Haglund -- an accomplished businessman and prankster who never let a marketing opportunity go by in the effort to increase sales at his Acres of Clams (Pier 54) or other restaurants -- had documented his mid-1950s plans for installing seven underwater advertising billboards just off Seattle's waterfront. The signs would be anchored by concrete footings at depths ranging from 55 to 80 feet -- and the goal was to attract the attentions of future commuters arriving here by submarines.
In his thoroughness, Seattle Times reporter Eric Lacitis questioned whether or not such a far-fetched plan by the long-gone Ivar could really be true. Donegan's answer? "If I was smart enough to come up with this hoax, I'd be doing other stuff." Still suspicious, Lacitis contacted one of Seattle's best-known historians, Paul Dorpat (b. 1938), who confirmed the authenticity of the billboards: "He doesn't believe the billboards are hoaxes" (Lacitis, September, 2009).
Dorpat – who was a founder of HistoryLink.org, Washington's online encyclopedia of history, would seem to be the ideal authority on Haglund. For nearly a decade he has been working on a biography of the restaurateur and has long had direct access to Haglund's personal and business archives. And it was there that this caper reportedly began -- with the alleged discovery of a map showing the location of the submerged billboards. In addition, it was stated that there were accompanying documents such as naval architectural drawings, billboard design blueprints, a payment check signed by Haglund, and a Department of Fisheries permit document apparently signed on July 16, 1954.
Considered as a whole, the stash was quite intriguing. All the more so when The Seattle Times reported that it was Dorpat himself who actually uncovered the documents. "'As far as I can tell, it's the real thing,' [said] Dorpat about the papers documenting Ivar's plans for the billboards" (Lacitis, September, 2009).
The Great Promoter
Ivar Haglund was, according to Dorpat, "The greatest self-promoter in the history of Seattle." Certainly the Seattle native -- who also sang silly folk songs (again, as an advertising ploy) on his own KJR, KOL, and KRSC radio shows back in the 1930s and 1940s -- knew how to gain publicity for his business enterprises. In the 1940s he organized a cross-continental East versus West Clam Eat-Off contest. There was the time he promoted an underwater match between the boxer "Two-Ton Tony" Galento and an octopus (that witnesses didn't know was already dead). Then too, Ivar garnered priceless national media coverage when he famously donned his rubber hip-waders, grabbed a plate, fork, and some pancakes and marched across Alaska Way to dip into the 1,000 gallons of maple syrup spilled from a train's tanker car.
In the years since Haglund passed away, his team has carried on the traditions of fun that their leader had pioneered in efforts to promote the chain's three restaurants and 27 seafood bars. Back in January they cooked up a real doozy: That's when Ivar's Inc. announced that they'd produced the shortest television ad -- all of one-half second long -- in Super Bowl history. Their spokesman admitted that the idea was "crazy," but "It's an Ivar's thing to do. We figured if our founder were alive, he'd probably be on top of this" (Guzman, January 2009).
It turns out that the whole premise to this billboard escapade had sunk back on October 23, when a trade publication, Nation's Restaurant News, reported in a little-noticed piece that the submarine-oriented sign story was a giant hoax. The Times followed up. "Donegan says he wasn't to reveal the hoax until after the ad campaign ended this month, but decided to come clean when the industry publication called" (Lacitis November 12).
We now know that the billboard was not steel but rather painted wood; that Seattle advertising veterans, Heckler Associates (2701 1st Avenue) helped devise the campaign; that a $250,000 budget was allocated for creating the hoax and pushing it with TV and radio ads. And that the hoax worked. As the November 12 Seattle Times piece noted: "In September, sales of clam chowder more than quadrupled when compared to September 2008, from 19,000 cups to 83,000 cups."
So, the submerged billboard caper of 2009 ended -- just prior to the campaign's original target date for winding down at the end of November. But some locals still have lingering questions about it. Lacitis, for one, essentially asked how and why the hoax ever took hold? His answer? Because: "People you wouldn't expect to lie, did."
He went further, noting that Donegan was "a Yale School of Management grad, a board member of everything from the Seattle Historic Waterfront Association to the Seattle Chapter of the Boy Scouts," who went "skipping past the line of truthfulness. ... Donegan perpetuated the lies by saying his company was sending samples of the paint to be tested for lead, trying to figure out when they might have been painted."
As for Dorpat: He lent "legitimacy to the fake billboards even though he knew otherwise." Luring Dorpat on board with the plan was "very important to give the hoax credibility" (Lacitis, November 12). Yet, Dorpat was unrepentant, insisting to The Seattle Times that the whole scheme was "the first really Ivaresque example -- since his passing in 1985 -- of a public promotion by Ivar's built on a grand fiction. ... This was romance, a delightful fiction to which we readily and willingly suspended our disbelief or we are pestering scrooges. ...To the point about me being a public historian who should 'keep clean' of such playfulness, I answer, 'keep clam.'"
Dorpat's invoking Haglund's most famous slogan -- a humorous inversion of the comforting "keep calm" -- was timely. Neither the leadership of HistoryLink.org nor The Seattle Times were pleased by his involvement in a historically oriented prank tied to such overtly commercial goals. Indeed, the paper's executive editor, David Boardman, said he "was distressed that Dorpat, whose 'Now & Then' column has appeared in the newspaper's Pacific Northwest magazine since 1982, would lie to a Times reporter." He said "Dorpat's continued freelance relationship with the paper is 'under review'" (Lacitis, November 12). Marie McCaffrey, president and executive director of History Ink/HistoryLink.org said no one at the encyclopedia was aware of the hoax and that she was taken aback by Dorpat's participation in it.
Though the imbroglio may prove a mere tempest in a chowder bowl, it does raise issues about the propriety of historians lending their intellectual weight to frivolous matters. But it also could make a salty final chapter to Dorpat's biography of Haglund.