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Still Lonely After All These Years (8/1)

August 1, 2002
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Maytag celebrates the 35th anniversary of Ol' Lonely, the Maytag Repairman.

For 35 years, he's been waiting patiently by the phone, hoping someone will call for his help, but of course, no one ever does, because the company's products are "so darned reliable." He's Ol' Lonely, the dependable Maytag Repairman, and today Maytag Appliances is celebrating the 35th anniversary of the cultural icon who has become the longest-running real-life advertising character in television history.

The first Maytag Repairman commercial premiered on the "Today" show in 1967. Ol' Lonely was a natural outgrowth of the thousands of letters Maytag received about its repair-free washers. Today, the character is known and cherished by millions as the symbol of dependability and icon of loneliness.

"There's something about Ol' Lonely that people just gravitate to," says Bill Beer, Maytag Appliances president. "He has human strengths and weaknesses. People identify with him. They trust him."

Ol' Lonely is among the most enduring cultural icons, according to Christie Nordheilm, an assistant professor of marketing of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and a consultant who has created advertising strategies for Nestle, Keebler and Star-Kist Foods. "What makes cultural icons successful is the fierce protection of an idea. Because Maytag has protected and nurtured the Maytag Repairman character all of these years, he's become a friend to consumers. He has definitely become a part of pop culture, and has even showed up in political cartoons."

In the mid-1950s, Maytag began to receive letters from customers who wrote about the reliability of its products. Leo Burnett Company eventually created Maytag's "Dependability" advertising campaign, which launched in 1961. Advertisements began to feature real Maytag consumers, and with each ad came even more letters. "Every time we ran an ad featuring a consumer, we got more letters from people who wanted to tell us about their own positive experiences with our appliances," says Kristi Lafrenz, Maytag brand manager.

A Canadian radio call-in program followed. On the program, an appliance repairman offered advice to consumers in the style of "Dear Abby." The concept was translated to television in 1967, with actor Jesse White appearing as a Maytag Repairman. Titled "Drill Instructor," the commercial showed White preparing trainees to fill their considerable free time with such activities as crossword puzzles, playing cards and beadwork.

By the 1980s, the repairman began to appear in Maytag advertisements accompanied by soulmate and companion, Newton, a sad-eyed Basset Hound named after Maytag's Newton, Iowa headquarters.

After 68 Maytag Repairman commercials, Jesse White retired in 1989 at the age of 70 years old. Maytag chose to continue its campaign, featuring repairman ads with former "WKRP in Cincinnati" actor Gordon Jump. "The repairman concept was so firmly entrenched in people's minds and represented our products so well that we kept on with it," says Lafrenz.

Consumers quickly began to love Jump, who first appeared as Ol' Lonely in 1989 in a spot called "Biker." He was shown riding a bike as a narrator described how "neither rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night can keep the Maytag Repairman from his appointed rounds, even if the only thing he needs to fix ... is lunch." Jump ended the spot by fixing a hot dog for lunch.

As Maytag products kept pace with the changing needs of consumers, the Repairman evolved with them. In 2001, the company introduced the Apprentice character, played by actor Mark Devine. The Apprentice came to embody Maytag Appliances' innovations as well as dependability.

Today, the two repairmen appear together in the company's commercials, with Ol' Lonely still looking for ways to pass the time, while the Apprentice works hard to fill his time.

"The two characters approach their jobs differently," says Lafrenz. "The Repairman wants to instill within the Apprentice the same serious sense of responsibility to the Maytag consumer that for decades has kept Ol' Lonely idle, yet alert, waiting by the phone. The Apprentice brings a more proactive and contemporary approach to his job. His days are filled with creative ways of putting Maytag's appliances to the test."

The key to the Maytag Repairman's popularity has been his consistency of character, Beer says. "His endearing human qualities, when combined with a brand known for reliability, are something that never disappoints our customers. People feel like they know him."

For the better part of a century, Maytag (NYSE: MYG) brand appliances have been synonymous with dependability and quality. Today, Maytag remains one of America's most trusted appliance manufacturers. Based in Newton, Iowa, Maytag Appliances offers a full line of high performance appliances, including the Gemini(R) double-oven range, Neptune(R) and Atlantis(TM) washers and dryers, Wide-by-Side(TM) refrigerator with ClimateZone(TM) Technology, and Jetclean(R) II, the world's first three-rack dishwasher. For more information on any Maytag appliance visit http://www.maytag.com/ to purchase an appliance online.

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