The Wiz

The Wall Street Journal‘s ad reporter Suzanne Vranica today raised a relatively overlooked, but not unimportant dimension of Michael Jackson’s multi-dimensional life. In so doing, she brought back some good memories.

My first brush with the child star happened by phone. It was shortly after “The Wiz” had shuttered on Broadway and just before the show’s scarecrow went “Off the Wall.” Jackson starred alongside his mentor Diana Ross (or “Ms. Ross” as she insisted on being called). I was just out of college and working for a small entertainment PR boutique in NY that had handled publicity chores for “The Wiz,” and subsequently for Ms. Ross’ first solo U.S. concert tour.

A call came into the office and the caller, in a soft voice, identified himself as Michael Jackson. He requested that the cast album from the show be sent to a certain address. Fan, friend…who knew? I asked the caller to confirm he was indeed Michael Jackson. He immediately provided his home address, phone. etc. My boss called Michael’s father who verified the accuracy of the info. The album was sent.

Years later, at Hill and Knowlton, we repped Pepsi, which along with its ad agency BBDO and Jay Coleman, had pioneered the use of pop artists in commercial advertising. We were initially retained by Pepsi International to help manage the overseas introduction of New Coke — yes New Coke. That’s another story. See post here.

For Pepsi USA, however, we were charged with publicizing the post-Thriller Jackson and specifically, his new multi-year contract for a second round of advertising spots. (It was during the taping of the first that the star’s hair caught on fire, creating global headlines.) To announce the deal, Jackson reluctantly agreed to make an appearance alongside then Pepsi USA CEO Roger Enrico at a NYC news conference held at nightclub called the Red Parrot on West 57th Street. (See above video clip.)

As if the throng of expected media wasn’t enough, we convinced Mr. Jackson’s reps to allow us to deploy an ENG video crew backstage to follow him around and onto the presser stage. After the obligatory intros and Jackson’s three words of thanks, the enigmatic star tried to slip off the stage. Mr. Enrico, to his credit, pulled the star back for an impromptu Q&A.

Later that day, we delivered that behind-the-scenes footage via satellite to hundreds of major market TV stations nationwide, let alone a handful of national TV entertainment programs and segments.

The commercial itself, if my memory serves me well, was destined to debut on the Super Bowl. (Pepsi had a penchant for making big splashes, and getting its money’s worth.) Yet, Mr. Jackson, the perfectionist that he was, was in control. In fact, it was Jackson who oversaw the editing process, which put everyone at Pepsi in Mentos mode when the spot remained in edit the night before the Super Bowl game.

It had to be perfect, and guess what? It was.