Update: It was with great sadness that I received the news that Don Pegler passed away yesterday, prostate Dec. 26, salve 2011. He was a giant in the business of advertising and truly one of the nicest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. RIP Don. You’ll be missed.
(Originally Published Oct. 1st, 2010)
With bedbugs, stinkbugs, and R1N1 in the headlines these days, what better time to check in with Don Pegler, the creator and artist behind one of the most successful ad campaigns ever?
The Raid bug campaign, originating in 1963, is part of advertising history, and Don Pegler designed and drew them for 40 years of his career with Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency (now DraftFCB) in Chicago.
When I called on him for an interview all these years later, he was as cordial and generous with his time as always, crafting a thoughtfully written twelve page letter in response to my questions.
Were you surprised at how enduring the Raid campaign has been?
DP: When I started on the Raid account I really liked it, but I never thought it would still be going 50 years later. And I got to go out to Hollywood and work with famous people like Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny and many others) and Tex Avery (Animation Director). At the time, I didn’t realize how famous they were…just a guy making funny voices- and driving a Rolls Royce. Years later at an animation show, some people wanted to touch some of the notes Tex Avery had sent me as if they were touching the Holy Grail.
Where did you learn to be an illustrator?
DP: I went to The Art Institute of Chicago for a semester, but they weren’t teaching us how to get a job. So I took a night course on how advertising works- one week at a studio, next a printing house, then an agency, etc. At the end of the course, the teacher got us jobs. I was an apprentice at a large art studio- delivering packages and mail, cutting mats, etc. I made $20 a week. But I could use the studio as a downtown base to shop around my samples and look for a real job. One time I went to the office of Esquire magazine on Michigan Ave. to show some cartoons I had done, but they were packing up the office to move to New York. And one of their people had just quit to start a “girlie” magazine. It was Hugh Hefner going to start Playboy. Years later, I was introduced to his daughter, Christy Hefner and I was tempted to tell her that story, but I didn’t.
Did you have other jobs before FCB?
DP: Before joining FCB, I had been a magazine illustrator for five years, and then an animator for five years. A former Disney man taught me animation at a studio called Cartoonists, Inc. in Chicago. But Chicago style animation meant doing the whole job yourself, not like in LA, where you had backup people to do the hundreds of in-between drawings- 12 drawings for each second of film. So I started to feel I was drawing pictures by the pound. And I couldn’t show off because the agency guys would be afraid to change anything after they had sold the idea to the client.
Earlier, you mentioned a comic strip of yours that was never published. What happened there?
DP: One day Henny Youngman called me from New York. He told me he was a comedian with a thousand and one jokes and asked if I was interested in drawing a strip. Of course I was. Henny’s strip was about a grandfather who is showing his grandson around New York City. The only gag I remember drawing was: The grandfather takes the kid down to see the subway. When they come back up, the kid says, “I don’t know who lives down there, but he’s got a great train set.” Unfortunately, most of Henny’s jokes were for nightclubs and the syndicate that ran comics had strict rules about what went into the comics, so most of the jokes he sent me couldn’t be used. How do you illustrate “Take my wife….PLEASE!”? They even had words you couldn’t use because “creative” kids could doctor them into swear words. Henny couldn’t understand why I couldn’t use his jokes, so he asked me if I didn’t think he was funny. I told him he was maybe the funniest person I ever met, but his jokes weren’t for the comics, so we gave up. I’m glad I did because even though it was a chance at big money, I wouldn’t want to do the same thing day after day.
I remember walking down Michigan Ave. with Jeff MacNelly, the Chicago Tribune political cartoonist who had just earned his 3rd Pulitzer Prize. I asked him how he had time to draw the strip “Shoe” and do the editorial cartoon AND the cover of the Sunday Magazine section. All he said was “That’s not all I do.” He died young. Too bad. He was a great talent.
What do you think of the more recent computer animated films as opposed to traditional cel animation?
DP: I’m from the horse and buggy days. It’s changed so much that I have no idea how it’s done. Last night I watched the movie “Avatar” and couldn’t tell the real from the fantasy. When digital artists started at FCB, I asked if they drew pictures. They said yes, but it wasn’t that important to what they do. So maybe it’s the end of drawing as we know it.
Any advice for aspiring illustrators?
DP: Because of the difficulty I had getting into the art business- no contacts- no one to ask questions- I always try to help others who want to make a living in art. Through the years, I’ve been asked to look at young people’s portfolios. I’m happy to do that, but I only look at their drawing ability. If they don’t have it, I tell ‘em. There’s other kinds of art jobs- designer, art director, etc., but illustrators have to have drawing ability. And I tell them to be careful of what samples they show. One bad drawing or layout or design will stay in the client’s mind over a bunch of good stuff.
My many years at FCB were helped by my being able to draw realistically and also draw comic line stuff. I would be asked to do a client’s portrait one day and a cartoon the next. And I looked forward to it. Every day.
I’m very thankful to Don Pegler for taking the time to share some of his memories of those early days of advertising. Funny how the Raid bugs meet their end in every commercial, yet they’ve somehow managed to endure through all these years.