Actor Dennis Hopper shown in one of his Ameriprise Financial television advertisements.
It may be surprising for baby boomers to see Dennis Hopper pitching retirement planning for Ameriprise Financial Corp. He appeared in a series of TV ads for the company during 2006-2008. Hopper, it may be remembered, played the drug-addled cowboy biker, Billy, in the 1969 film classic Easy Rider. That’s the film he directed and starred in with Peter Fond and Jack Nicholson. In fact, the storyline in that film promised its two care-free bikers a “luxury retirement” via the big Mexican drug deal the two had just made — that is, until some redneck vigilantes brought Dennis and friends to an unpleasant ending.
Others might remember Dennis as the slightly maniacal photojournalist in the Vietnam-era Apocalypse Now of 1979, or the obscenity-spewing wildman Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet of 1986. And then there’s the mad bomber he played in 1994’s Speed with Kenau Reeves and Sandra Bullock, or the villain “Deacon” in Kevin Kostner’s Waterworld of 1995. Or how about the war criminal Victor Drazen in TV’s 24 series of recent years. Not exactly bright and cheery characters.
Biker Billy of 'Easy Rider,' a film about financial planning of a different kind.
True, these are all fictional roles and Hopper was acting. Nevertheless, this might not be the kind of imagery and character association that a financial services company wants floating around in the heads of its would-be customers.
“Of course, when you go with a celebrity,” explained Kim Sharan, Ameriprise’s chief marketing officer, “you have to be concerned. … [B]ut we did a significant amount of testing prior to going with Dennis. He tested really well.”
Although Hopper was pitching baby boomers when he made the Ameriprise ads, he himself was not a boomer. He was born in the 1930s, and was then over 70. But according to Doug Pippin, a creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, the ad agency then doing the Ameriprise ads, baby boomers saw Hopper as “an older brother who’s been out there.” At the time, Pippin called Hopper a “great anti-hero hero,” who stood for “unconventional thinking.”
Acting Since ’50s
Hopper, in fact, had a long and interesting career. He began acting as a teeanager in the 1950s and later signed with Warner Brothers. During the filming of Rebel Without a Cause — a 1955 film in which he had a small role — he became a friend to James Dean. He also appeared with Dean in Giant (1956), Dean’s last film before his death. By the late 1960s, Hopper teamed up with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern to co-write the 1969 film Easy Rider, which he also directed while playing the role of Billy. That film received two Academy Award nominations — one for a then-unknown Jack Nicholson for Best Supporting Actor and one for Hopper, Fonda, and Southern for Best Original Screenplay. The 1970s were a tough time for Hopper, dealing with alcohol and drug abuse.
In the 1980s, Hopper emerged in successful roles in Blue Velvet (1986) and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor as an alcoholic father trying to help his son’s basketball team in Hoosiers (1986). In 1988 he directed the police vs. street gangs drama Colors with Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. Since then he has directed a few more films, including The Hot Spot (1990) and Chasers (1994). In the 1990s, he became known for playing bad guy roles in films such as Speed (1994). In recent years, he has acted in several TV films and also appeared in TV series such as 24 and E-Ring. Beyond his acting and directing, Hopper is also an accomplished photographer with his work shown publicly and published in several books (see selection below “sources”). He is also a modern art collector.
Hopper has appeared in advertising throughout his career, for Nike and other sponsors. But the work he is now doing for Ameriprise may become one of those classic pieces of advertising history, despite all the criticism of a bad fit. At the very least, the style of the ads is a welcomed change from the more staid approaches of the past. Here’s some history on how it came about.
New Kind of Ad
“Our new campaign is a radical departure from standard financial services advertising,” said Ameriprise’s Kim Sharan at the launch of their ads in September 2006. “We are firmly focused on the positive aspects of retirement and our understanding that boomers aren’t going to spend this phase of life playing shuffleboard. There is no better figure to personify our message than legendary actor Dennis Hopper who embodies the spirit of the generation. With his help we are speaking with boomers not at them.”
Ameriprise — formerly a major division of American Express — became an independent company in August 2005 when it was spun off from American Express as a separate company. At the time, it was the sixth largest such roll out in corporate history. Today it is a stand-alone Fortune 500 company in its own right, ranked at #296 in May 2008, the fourth largest financial advisory firm in the U.S.
When Ameriprise became its own company, it needed to tell the world who it was and what it did, and so it began a “brand awareness” campaign. It also wanted to increase its business, add to the amount of assets under its management, and hold on to its advisor network. A marketing plan and advertising campaign were included. And that’s where Dennis Hopper comes in.
As Ameriprise began its new life as an independent, the financial services industry was in a major battle for the hearts, minds, and retirement money of the 78 million baby boomers now entering their 60s. At stake is more than $2 trillion in IRA and other assets that boomers now hold. Needless to say, companies like Fidelity, Merrill Lynch, and Ameriprise are, as one report put it, “salivating in anticipation” over this wealth. At stake is more than $2 trillion in IRA and other assets that boomers now hold. In the last few years, these and other firms have been spending some $700 million a year trying to capture boomer’s business. For Ameriprise, the question became how best to do that.
Ameriprise and its marketers began studying boomers. Using focus groups and other techniques, they met with boomers all across the country, taking their measure. They found a “work hard/play hard” cohort who were still rebels in a sense, and were not into passive retirement. Boomers are looking forward to the “next act” of their lives, but don’t want to be lectured about money and financial planning. From this, Ameriprise gleaned that “dreams” might be a good peg. Or as they put it: “We knew that we had to quell [boomers'] dread of financial planning and replace it with hope. We challenged our creative teams to take the focus off money and help boomers realize their dreams.”
Finding Their Man
In designing creative strategies, an “unexpected idea” of featuring Dennis Hopper in TV advertising arose. This came as part of the ad agency’s recommendation to use someone who was a leader or otherwise prominent in the 1960s counterculture. But the Hopper recommendation came as “a surprise” to the company. The only other celebrity used in financial services advertising at the time was Sam Waterston, who then played a righteous lawyer and prosecutor on the TV show, Law & Order. Ameriprise officials were not real comfortable with the prospect of using Hopper for their ads. Surely there must be other actors to consider, they suggested. “The Agency tried to think of some alternatives,” says one Ameriprise account of the process, “and that’s how we began to realize just how perfect and incomparable Dennis Hopper is.”Baby Boomers saw Hopper as extremely talented, willing to challenge him- self, uncompromising, and just really cool.
Still, Hopper was tested with audiences along with another unspecified alternative campaign. Here’s the report on what Ameriprise and their ad agency found:
“The two campaigns were taken to four markets for evaluation via one-on-one interviews. A consistent pattern of consumer response emerged. The concept featuring Dennis Hopper was clearly more appealing, in a big West Coast market as well as a smaller “Middle America” market. “Baby Boomers saw Hopper as extremely talented, willing to challenge himself, uncompromising, and just really cool. He is someone they look up to and aspire to emulate his values.”
“Meanwhile, we purchased syndicated celebrity research from E-Score (a more robust competitor to the well-known Q Score). The data reinforced what the qualitative research had demonstrated. Hopper had the combination of winning attributes that were consistent with Ameriprise’s desired brand personality: versatile, talented, experienced, intriguing, especially among our target audience.”
When they tested Dennis Hopper TV concepts, they also found a positive response. “When the Hopper spots tested above norm in quantitative testing, Ameriprise knew that Hopper was their guy.” All of the research, focus groups, and testing helped convince Ameriprise management that provocative ads featuring Dennis Hopper “could have significant positive impact on their business.” So the ads went forward, the first released in September 2006.
Hopper & ’60s Music
Hopper pitching Ameriprise.
In the ads, Dennis Hopper is aiming squarely at baby boomers and their retirement “dreams.” But he’s not exactly giving the soft sell. Rather, he is more cajoling, offering his message in a style befitting the 1960s’ way of doing things a little bit against the grain. In fact, he’s more like the “anti-retirement” messenger — at least in terms of what retirement used to be like. “No more rocking chairs or shuffleboard” — and Dennis says as much in one or more of these ads. Hopper is shown in an assortment of outdoor settings — on a sand dune, at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, in a suburban housing tract, on a beach with blue ocean background, and others.
The ads are emotionally powered by a 1960s’ song from Steve Winwood & the Spencer Davis Group, using a signature organ riff that is a guaranteed “boomer getter”.
Each of the Ameriprise ads features Hopper dressed in black with his symbolic red chair (the “anti-rocking chair”). But most important is the music, as each of the 30-second spots is emotionally powered by the same classic piece of 1960s’ music. The song used is by Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group, called “Gimme Some Lovin’ “(#7, 1967). It’s a landmark piece with a distinctive beat and signature organ riff that are immediately recognized by anyone who was even remotely paying attention in the 1960s. It also has guaranteed “kitchen-to-TV-room” drawing power for those who might have drifted away from their TV sets. The music almost has a “Pied Piper” effect on folks of that era. The tune plays prominently and at key moments in each of the ads as Dennis tells his viewers they “need a plan.” In fact, without the Spencer Davis song, these ads would be considerably less effective, as one You Tube clip without the music shows.
Curiously, at one point after the ads had run for a time, Ameriprise stopped using the Spencer Davis music with the ads and began using other music. A narrative sampling of four of the Ameriprise ads using the orginal Spencer Davis music, follows below. The videos with the newer music can be found at the Ameriprise web site.
Hopper in Ameriprise ad.
This ad opens with a close up of Dennis in the middle of big field of sunflowers, dressed in his black shirt, twirling a single flower in his hand as he talks directly to the viewer: “Some people say that dreams are like delicate little flowers. WRONG!” Cue Spencer Davis tune and pan out to wide view of whole field and Dennis tossing the flower into the air. “Dreams are powerful,” says Dennis, now in close-up mode talking with the viewer while using emphatic hand gestures. “Dreams are what make you say, ‘When I’m 64, I’m going to start a new business; I want to make my own movie’.” “Flower power was then, your dreams are now.” Then, with some finger pointing, he adds, “But powerful dreams need more than just a little weekend gardening.” Cut to beautiful Southwest desert scene with assorted tall cacti and attractive gray-haired lady taking in the beauty, then to scenes with husband and a financial planner sitting down going over some paperwork. Then cut to attractive adobe-like building in the desert — i.e., dream realized, home in the desert — as voiceover explains: “Start with your dreams, and your Ameriprise Financial advisor, through a unique approach called Dream, Plan, Track ( these words flash on screen, along with “Go To What’s Next” and “ameriprise.com”). We’ll work with you to help make your dreams realities.” Cut back to Dennis in the field of sunflowers, close up: “Flower power was then, your dreams are now.” Close: Ameriprise logo and lettering flash on screen with 1-800-Ameriprise phone number.
. . . in American Dreams ad.
In this ad, Dennis Hopper is shown with his red chair standing at an intersection in the middle of a suburban housing tract. “The American Dream,” he says, describing the conventional American community as the camera pans down the street, dog barking in the background. “White picket fence, 2.4 kids, and a nice puppy dog — NO!,” he then says emphatically, slightly laughing as he puts his hands to his head, waving off that idea. Cue the Spencer Davis tune, as Dennis sets us straight: “The American Dream is that each one of us gets our dreams — big dreams, small dreams, cra-a-a-zy dreams,” adding appropriate hand gestures to signify each kind of dream. “It’s not just where your dreams take you, it’s where you take your dreams.” “But here’s the thing,” he says, pausing for effect, then looking straight into the camera. “It’s not just where your dreams take you, it’s where you take your dreams.” Pan out to Hopper laughing as he walks away down the street. He disappears as the voiceover adds: “Find out why more people come to Ameriprise for financial planning than any other company.” Corporate lettering then appears on screen in the sky above the street scene — “The personal advisors of Ameriprise Financial,” along with a web page-like display of topical choices — “Financial Planning > Retirement > Investments > Insurance.” The add closes with the red chair remaining in the intersection and the voiceover continuing, “Visit us at ameriprise.com/plan.” On the final screen shot “ameriprise.com /plan” remains on screen.
Dennis Hopper in ad.
This 30-second spot, titled “Salt Flats,” opens with Dennis, dressed in black, on a large expanse of bright sandy white salt flats with mountains in the distance. The camera work alternates from close-up and far away. “‘Your dreams are crazy!,” he bellows in the first frame, close up, pointing his finger accusingly at the viewer. Cut to Dennis at a distance, standing, making large sweeping gestures with his arms, bellowing again, “They’re impossible”[i.e., your dreams]. Back to Dennis, more close up, standing, now in a more civil tone, cue Spencer Davis music: “That’s what they said back in the day when your dreams changed everything!,” he says, now removing his sunglasses and pointing with them in hand. “See, the thing about dreams is, they don’t retire.” “That’s not gonna stop now,” he says insistently of his viewer’s expected behavior. “You’re not gonna turn your dreams over to the authorities at age 60,” he continues, incredulously. “You find someone who believes in your dreams.” Cut to sequence of shots of Japanese American client who is presumably a hobbyist photographer consulting with his wife and an Ameriprise agent, with client shown thereafter continuing his photographic quests in various settings on a road trip. “Get To What’s Next” flashes on screen during this sequence as the voiceover makes the pitch: “Start with your dreams and your Ameriprise financial advisor working with you one on one, face to face. We’ll work with you to help make your dreams realities.” Back to Dennis at close: “See, the thing about dreams is,” he says putting his sunglasses back on, “they don’t retire.” Closing shot includes Ameriprise Financial information and 1-800-Ameriprise on screen.
Hopper in 'Stars' ad.
This ad opens to a nighttime setting in the desert, with a big starry sky. The first scene shows Dennis at some distance, standing, back to the camera, near a red chair, looking up at the sky. An owl is heard calling in the background. Camera pans the nighttime sky. Cut to Dennis close-up on his chair looking into the camera: “When you a were a kid, wishing upon a star was a cute idea. “Unless I’m completely in the dark here, you’re not a kid anymore.” But unless I’m completely in the dark here, you’re not a kid anymore.” Cue: Spencer Davis tune. “Though you still got dreams, don’t you? You gotta plan to get them up and runnin‘?,” he asks. “Or are you just keeping your fingers crossed?” A shooting star streaks across the sky, with laughter from Dennis. “Maybe it’s time for a wake up call, ” he says, with an encouraging facial nod. Voiceover: “Find out why more people come to Ameriprise than any other financial planning company. Visit us as Ameriprise.com/plan.”
Hopper with dictionary.
In addition to the four preceeding samples, there are also other ads in the Ameriprise series, including one that opens with Hopper in black shirt and sunglasses, standing on a white, sandy beach, holding a big black dictionary (see also opening photo above). That ad begins with Hopper reading from the book: “To withdraw, to go away, to disappear,” he says, quoting from the dictionary. “Your generation is definitely not headed for Bingo night.”“That’s how the dictionary defines retire- ment.” Then he says in louder voice, “Time to redefine,” tossing the book aside as the Spencer Davis tune comes on. “Your generation is definitely not headed for Bingo night. In fact, you could write a book about how you’re going to turn retirement upside down. . . .” Cut to the generic financial planning scenes and voiceover. Then back to Hopper: “. . .’Cause I just don’t see you playing shuffleboard, you know what I mean?”
Other Ameriprise ad.
Over the lifetime of the Dennis Hopper/Ameriprise ad series — which is still ongoing as of June 2008 — the ads have appeared on a variety of network and cable TV shows, including: NBC Sunday Night Football, LOST, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Desperate Housewives, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace, and others. There have also been print, radio, and online components to the campaign.
Ameriprise landed a share of criticism for these ads, both in the blogosphere and from mainstream media critics, some taking shots at the use of Hopper in particular. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age — after offering a qualifying aside that “those ’60s dreams weren’t about bond yields and beach houses” — didn’t think Hopper was the right messenger. The casting of Hopper, he said “presumes that all leading-edge boomers identify with, or at least fondly recall Hopper’s transgressive roles and his generally schizoid persona. “This was a big mistake, said Garfield. “Not everyone from 1969 wanted to stick it to The Man.” Most boomers, he said, were not revolutionaries beyond bell bottoms and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In. Bob Garfield of Advertis- ing Age noted that “those ’60s dreams weren’t about bond yields and beach houses.” The Establishment survived, he explained, and so “a fringe character like Hopper isn’t necessarily symbolic of his generation. Joni Mitchell would be a better choice.” Garfield noted that Hopper’s off-screen life “hadn’t been especially orderly, either.”
The ad also failed its sponsor, charged Garfield, for not explaining the brand, Ameriprise, which few people then knew. “This spot is a classic example of Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, falling so in love with star power that it neglects the brand itself.” Still, Garfield conceded the spot was better than most financial planning advertising fare — “not like some brain-dead, condescending pitch… to an audience of presumably doddering old fools.” Could it be, Garfield wondered, that baby-boomers might be the first retirement age group “to be treated by Madison Avenue with dignity?” Explaining how Mad Ave normally did this kind of pitch, Garfield wrote: “One day you’re a vibrant worker with responsibility, income and possibly even a sex life and — wham — the next you’re a fearful dullard, being insultingly spoken down to by the very people who want your business.” So for Garfield, although Hopper may not have been the right icon, “we’re just thrilled it wasn’t Aunt Bea.”
'Easy Riders' - from left: Hopper, Fonda & Nicholson.
Diane Rohde, writing for The Onion.comin late May 2007, had some satirical fun with Hopper’s screen personas: “Retirement planning means a lot of decision making, and thank God I have the soothing presence of that amyl nitrite-huffing, obscenity-screaming, psychosexual lunatic from Blue Velvet to guide me through it.” She also added, “I’m sure that Dennis Hopper wouldn’t represent a company that was anything other than a rock of respectability. When I hear him in those commercials, it’s the familiar voice of a coke-dealing, LSD-fueled hippie cowboy biker putting me at ease….” In addition to the print send-ups, there were also a number of Dennis Hopper /Ameriprise video parodies that ran on You Tube and other sites — some quite hilarious. But others, such as blogger Lewis Green, liked the ad and thought it an effective way to reach boomers.
Hitting Their Mark
By late February 2007, the ads seemed to be hitting their mark — or at least some of them. USA Today found that the Ameriprise ads scored low overall with adults generally who were surveyed by its Ad Track weekly poll at that time. However, the target audience of boomer-age consumers generally had higher scores. About 50 percent of the boomers liked the ads “a lot” or “somewhat,” and 79 percent rated the ads “very effective” or “somewhat effective.”
“We know that these ads are striking a chord,” said Ameriprise’s Kim Sharan in February 2007. “Financial services is a pretty staid field, so we wanted to bring a tone and personality that is more emotionally driven.” Even the criticism is a good sign, according to Sharan.“We know that these ads are striking a chord,” said Ameriprise’s Kim Sharan, who added later, “… and in some ways is becoming part of our culture.” The Ameriprise website received an uptick in hits after the Onion.com piece appeared n May 2007, according to Sharan. That “shows our message is out there,” she said. “It’s resonating, and in some ways is becoming part of our culture.”
In August 2007, Ameriprise and its ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi launched a second wave of Dennis Hopper ads. This round of TV advertising was accompanied by spots on the Web, and Ameriprise also paired with National Geographic to do some videos of people fulfilling their dreams who are aided by Ameriprise advisers. The company is hoping these efforts will go beyond boomers, and appeal as well to Generation-X. Ameriprise spent $110 million on advertising in 2006, according to the Nielsen Co., and about that much again in 2007. The second round of Hopper ads began their run in late 2007 early 2008 and as of June 2008 were still appearing.
'Palm Springs Magazine,' March '07.
In one early self-assessment of their advertising and branding efforts — which is generally referred to as the “Dreams Don’t Retire” campaign — Ameriprise found as of the 3rd quarter 2007, that mostly good things had resulted for the company. Total brand awareness for Ameriprise had increased 29 percent; traffic to its website, Ameriprise.com, was up 15 percent; assets under management increased 12 percent; clients in the target audience of “mass affluent and affluent Baby Boomers” increased 11 percent; and cost per lead generated by advertising decreased by 21 percent. Ameriprise’s stock price also increased 53 percent since the September 2006 launch of the campaign.
In partial summary, the company also offered this perspective:
“The new campaign was an opportunity to position Ameriprise in a way that no brand in the category had done before. The antithesis of the stodgy and outdated financial services company, Ameriprise brought to life the independent, irreverent, and optimistic character of the Boomer generation.
We used our television executions to inspire Boomers to start dreaming. The spots featured anti-hero Dennis Hopper riffing about dreams and their indelible power. Introducing a new vocabulary to the financial services world, the spots shifted the focus of retirement away from numbers. Hopper became a trustworthy advocate for Boomer dreams in a way that only he could. . .”
In April 2008, at an awards ceremony in New York, the Advertising Research Foundation awarded both its top-place Grand Ogilvy advertising award and the Gold Award for Financial Services to Ameriprise Financial for its multimedia national ‘Dreams Don’t Retire’ campaign.
As for Dennis Hopper, one can’t help but think that he had some fun making these commercials, and that he also had a few laughs in the process — including those on the way to the bank.
Jack Doyle, “Dennis Does Ameriprise, 2006-2008,” PopHistoryDig.com, June 17, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Dennis Hopper on the cover of Life magazine, June 19, 1970, as he began making a new movie in Peru following "Easy Rider." That movie was titled "The Last Movie," released in 1971.
Famous Andy Warhol portrait of Dennis Hopper, 1970-71.
Kemper Museum version: synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, Bebe and Crosby Kemper Collection.
Ameriprise Financial, Inc., Minneapolis, MN, Press Release, “New Evolution of Ameriprise Financial Advertising Emphasizes that “Dreams Don’t Retire”; Broadcast Ads Feature Actor Dennis Hopper and A 1960s-Style Red Chair,” September 7, 2006.
Bob Garfield, “Ameriprise’s Dennis Hopper Spot: Wrong Icon, Right Tone – Saatchi & Saatchi Work Hypes Star, Neglects Brand,” Advertising Age.com, November 19, 2006.
Laura Petrecca, “More Marketers Target Boomers’ Eyes, Wallets, USA Today, February 25, 2007.
“Dennis Hopper – Biography,” Biography.com, A&E Television Networks, 2007.
“Dennis Hopper,” Great Movie Actors at Movie Actors.com.
Diane Rohde, “There’s No More Reassuring Voice In Retirement Planning Than Dennis Hopper,” The Onion.com, May 30, 2007 | Issue 43•22.
Ameriprise Financial, Inc., “Online Strategy Plays a Primary Role in New Evolution of Ameriprise Financial Advertising – New television spots air tonight on ESPN Monday Night Football,” Business Wire, September 10, 2007.
2003 edition of JFK book, published by Harper-Collins.
Profiles in Courage is the name of a Pulitzer Prize- winning book by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy written in 1954 and 1955 while he was a U.S. Senator. The book chronicles acts of bravery and integrity in the careers of eight U.S. Senators in American history. Profiles in Courage became a best-seller and was ground-breaking in its day, becoming one of the first books used to advance a political career aimed at the White House. Yet apart from its politics, Profiles in Courage remains popular, not only for its attachment to the Kennedy legacy, but also as an important book on political courage and U.S. Senate history. Sometimes forgotten is the fact that Kennedy’s book also spawned a Peabody Award-winning television series in 1964. Profiles in Courage also had numerous print runs including a 50th anniversary edition in 2004, inspired several new books and ongoing research on the history of political courage, and also led to the creation of the “Profiles in Courage” award, given annually since 1990.
“Jack” Kennedy was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946 as a Congressman from Massachusetts. He was 29 years old at the time. In 1952, he ran for and won a U.S. Senate seat. However, as a freshman Senator in 1954 and 1955, Kennedy took leave from the Senate to recover from surgery to treat a perennial back problem. It was during this period that he undertook Profiles in Courage. In the book, the senators that Kennedy profiled were mavericks of a kind who took courageous stands or stood apart from the safe and conventional norms of their day. They crossed party lines, defied their constituents, or ran counter to public opinion to do what they felt was right. Among Kennedy’s featured senators were: John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Lamar, George Norris, and Robert A. Taft. Each of these, and others Kennedy mentions in his book, suffered severe criticism and losses in popularity because of the particular stance or action each took, which was the point of Kennedy’s “courage” argument.
Early paperback edition of JFK book.
Becoming A Best-Seller
By the late fall of 1955, advance notice of the book’s publication began appearing in some national newspapers. Kennedy himself also penned a long piece in the New York Times Magazine in December 1955 that previewed the book’s themes. On Sunday, January 1st, 1956, the book was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review along with a large photo of Kennedy. Cabell Philips, the reviewer, noting that politicians themselves often criticized their own profession, wrote: “it is refreshing and enlightening to have a first rate politician write a thoughtful and persuasive book about political integrity.” Profiles in Courage generally received good reviews and was widely acclaimed. It became a best seller and remained on the best-sellers’ list for some 95 weeks. The book gave Kennedy a certain political gravitas and national recognition he did not have before, lifting him from the ranks of unknown senators. And the book’s arrival was well-timed too, as 1956 was a presidential election year; a time when national political campaigns were in full swing.
The book gave Kennedy a certain political gravitas and national recognition he did not have before, lifting him from the ranks of unknown senators.
Although Kennedy was not a presidential candidate in 1956, he took center stage for a time at the Democratic National Convention that August in Chicago. Political conventions then were just beginning to receive more coverage by television. NBC, for example, pre-empted its day time soap operas and assigned two of its reporters, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, to co-anchor the convention coverage. Kennedy, meanwhile, gave the nomination speech for Adlai Stevenson, who became the party’s presidential nominee. Stevenson liked Kennedy and thought about making the young senator his running mate, but decided instead to throw open the nomination for Vice President to the entire convention. Several candidates were then vying for the VP slot: Senator Hubert Humphrey, Senator Al Gore, Sr., Senator Estes Kefauver, and Kennedy. All mounted instant campaigns on the floor of the convention. Some of Kennedy’s campaign paraphernalia tagged him as “a profile in courage.”
JFK VP campaign button at the 1956 Democratic Convention tagging him a 'Profile in Courage'.
The scramble for convention votes among the candidates proved dramatic with television capturing a series of roll-call ballots. Three separate ballots were needed. On the second ballot, Kennedy led 618 to 551½. At one point, the Chicago Daily News reported that Kennedy and Kefauver were tied, each falling short of the number to nominate. Kennedy then came to the floor and asked for Kefauver to be put on the ticket by acclamation. Stevenson, watching on TV at his hotel, was reportedly disappointed in the outcome. In the general election that followed that fall, the Stevenson-Kefauver ticket was crushed by the re-election of President Dwight Eisenhower and his running mate, Richard Nixon. For Kennedy, however, the national exposure he had received at the convention provided a springboard for 1960. Kennedy biographer James MacGregor Burns would write of the Kennedy’s vice presidential bid at the convention: “The dramatic race had glued millions to their television sets. Kennedy’s near-victory and sudden loss . . . struck at people’s hearts in living rooms across the nation. In this moment of triumphant defeat, his campaign for the  presidency was born.” One of those who watched on TV was a young Bill Clinton in Arkansas, who years later recalled: “The Kennedy-Kefauver thing, oh, yeah. I remember that,” he said, “– and Kennedy’s gracious concession speech.”
Kennedy featured on Time cover, Dec 2, 1957, with cover story, 'Democrat's Man Out Front'.
In 1957, following the election, Kennedy began his unofficial campaign for the White House as he continued his duties in the U.S. Senate. Among fellow Democrats in the Senate who were also presidential contenders at the time were Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. Profiles in Courage, meanwhile, returned to the news in May 1957 as the book picked up a Pulitzer prize. The award came as something of surprise, however, as the Pulitzer board rejected the jury nominations and gave the prize instead to Kennedy’s book. In fact, a few critics charged that Kennedy’s father had been involved behind the scenes on his son’s behalf. New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, a friend of Joe Kennedy’s, boasted that he had lobbied hard for the Kennedy book. But no evidence of impropriety was found Through 1957, Kennedy continued to travel the country, with numerous speaking engagements. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s December 2nd, 1957 issue, with the feature story, “Democrat’s Man Out Front.” About that same time, however, some charges surfaced that Profiles in Courage had been written by others working with Kennedy. On December 7, 1957, syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, interviewed on TV by Mike Wallace, said the book was ghostwritten for Kennedy, suggesting that Kennedy’s aide, Ted Sorensen, had written much of the book. Kennedy did not take kindly to the charge and hired lawyer Clark Clifford, who produced Kennedy’s handwritten notes and statements from people saying they had seen Kennedy working on the book. Sorenson also denied the allegation and signed an affidavit attesting to Kennedy’s authorship.
John Kennedy, before he entered politics, had aspired briefly to a career in journalism and had written on history and public policy. As a student at Harvard in the 1930s, Kennedy had studied international relations and history. In his senior year, he wrote a college thesis that examined the failures of the British government to take steps to prevent World War II, entitled “Appeasement in Munich.” Kennedy’s paper did not castigate Britain’s appeasement policy, and suggested that an earlier confrontation between the U.K. and Nazi Germany might have been more disastrous in the long run. That paper was written in the spring of 1940.
Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., looking out for his son’s political future, was able to get that senior thesis paper released from Harvard and had it published as a book. Joseph Kennedy, as ambassador to Britain, had supported Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement during the late 1930s, which many believe cost the senior Kennedy his own political career. At any rate, John Kennedy graduated from Harvard with a degree in international affairs in June 1940. A month later, his thesis was published by Willard Funk, Inc., in New York in July 1940 as Why England Slept – a play on Winston Churchill’s 1938 title, While England Slept, which also examined the buildup of German power.
Although there has been a long running dispute over how much of Profiles in Courage Jack Kennedy actually wrote, it does appear that he formulated the idea, wrote a number of memos on the project, did oversee the book’s structure and production, and did write and/or dictate much of it. Wife Jacqueline also appears to have contributed to the concept for the book, and helped engage the research and writing assistance of a history professor at Georgetown University named Jules Davids, whom she had met taking his history course. Library of Congress researchers also assisted Kennedy, as they would any Senator requesting background research from the Library. But because of his back problem – according to one of Kennedy’s secretaries at the time, Gloria Sitrin – Kennedy could not sit for long periods of time writing or typing, and instead, dictated much of the material. Still, Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s assistant, is believed by many to have written at least some of the book, while others say he only provided research and constructive editing. In any case, in the final book, Kennedy acknowledged all of these participants and contributors.
About a week after the allegation had been aired by Pearson, ABC executive Oliver Treyz read a retraction of the charge on the air of Wallace’s December 14th TV show. The statement was reprinted in the New York Times, Sunday December 15th, as follows: “I wish to state that this company [ABC] has inquired into the charge made by Mr. Pearson and has satisfied itself that such charge is unfounded and that the book in question was written by Senator Kennedy.” Kennedy had also acknowledged Sorensen’s involvement in the book, crediting him in the preface and also acknowledging other contributions. Kennedy and Sorensen insisted that Kennedy was the book’s author and the initial controversy died down, although it would emerge again years later. Kennedy, meanwhile, was re-elected to a second term in the U. S. Senate in 1958 by a wide margin, and continued to draw national attention through the Democratic front runner for the White House. In January 1960, he formally declared his bid for the Presidency. During the campaign, and after Kennedy won the election, there was continuing interest in Profiles in Courage. By the time of Kennedy’s Presidential inauguration in January 1961, the book was being prepared for sale as a Pocket Books paperback. A young reader’s edition was also produced in March 1961. By then, Profiles in Courage had sold 2 million copies since its original 1956 publication.
In June 1963, midway into Kennedy’s presidential term, the television rights for Profiles in Courage were sold for an estimated $3.5 million (1963 dollars). The NBC television network planned to film and air a series of 26 hour-long TV programs based on the book. Several months later, however, national tragedy came with the president’s assassination in Texas in late November 1963. After Kennedy’s assassination, Harper & Row was besieged for copies of Profiles in Courage, with orders in excess of 10,000 copies by late November. A Perennial Library Memorial Edition of Profiles in Courage was prepared by Harper for 1964, which included a moving introduction by Kennedy’s brother and then U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy.
Front-page New York Times story on the sale of JKF book for TV series, June 10, 1963.
The following year, in mid-November, the planned NBC television series, ”Profiles in Courage,” began airing on Sunday evenings. However, with 26 episodes, additional characters beyond those in Kennedy’s book were needed for the series. All of the additional characters subsequenlty profiled in the TV series had been previously approved by JFK. The producer of the TV show, Robert Saudek, was known for his serious television productions, and had also produced the much-praised OmnibusTV series as well as concerts by the New York Philharmonic. Saudek had a clear grasp of Kennedy’s message for the Profiles TV series. One of the additional historic politicians, for example, was that of Oscar Underwood, an Alabama Senator who in 1924 was in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Underwood, however, chose to condemn the Ku Klux Klan, losing southern support, thereby ruining his chances of winning the nomination and later losing his Senate seat and his political career.
Profiles in Courage-TV Episode List, 1964-1965
Episode Oscar W. Underwood
Mary S. McDowell
Thomas Hart Benton
Richard T. Ely
Gov. John M. Slaton
Robert A. Taft
Gen. A. Doniphan
John Peter Altgeld
Charles Evans Hughes
Edmund G. Ross
George W. Norris
John Quincy Adams
Judge Ben B. Lindsey
____________________ Aired on NBC, Sundays, 6:30-7:30pm.
Time magazine called the Profiles in Courage TV series “a bracing antidote to the plethora of two- dimensional tele- dramas in which tinsel laurels automatically crown the good guy.” The TV series ended in mid-1965, but received a Peabody Award for “distinguished and meritorious public service rendered by radio and television.” The book, meanwhile, remained in print and continued to be used in schools and beyond.
Award & New Books
The Profiles in Courage legacy, however, continued through the remainder of the 20th century and into the 21st Century. In 1989, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation established an award for political courage called “The Profile in Courage Award.” The annual award is made to recognize displays of political and moral courage similar to those that Kennedy originally wrote about in his book. It is given to individuals, and often elected officials, who have risked their careers or lives by pursuing a larger vision of the national, state, or local interest in opposition to popular opinion or pressure from constituents or other interests. Winners are selected by a bi-partisan committee named by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which typically includes members of the Kennedy family as well as other prominent Americans. The award is generally made around the time of JFK’s birthday, May 29th. From the early 1990s, the award has been presented at the Kennedy Library in Boston by Kennedy family members, including JFK daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the late John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Senator Ted Kennedy. In addition to honoring those with political courage, the award had also helped kindle continuing interest in the original book.
Former President Gerald Ford receiving 2001 Profile in Courage award from Caroline Kennedy & Senator Ted Kennedy.
In 2002, Caroline Kennedy gave the “profiles of courage” concept a new focus, teaming up with publisher Hyperion and serving as editor for a new book, Profiles in Courage for Our Time, offering a collection of essays profiling recent winners of the Profile in Courage award. In this book, award winners are profiled by a variety of writers, historians. and journalists, some of well-known stature such as Michael Beschloss, E. J. Dionne, Anna Quindlen, and Bob Woodward. Famous award winners, as well as lesser known recipients, are profiled in the book. Among some of the well-know recipients profiled, for example are: New Jersey Governor James Florio, former U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker, and former president Gerald Ford. Among the less well-known are activists and community heroes such as Corkin Cherubini, Nickolas C. Murnion, and Hilda Solis.
2005 book of essays on Profile of Courage award winners by Caroline Kennedy (ed).
In April 2006, a special 50th anniversary edition of Profiles in Courage was published by Harper. This special “P.S.”edition, as the publisher called it, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication and also included a number of extras, such as vintage photographs, an extensive JFK biography, Kennedy’s correspondence about the project, reviews of the book, a letter from Ernest Hemingway, and two speeches from recipients of the Profiles in Courage Award. Elsewhere in the Kennedy family, the “heroes theme” was also being explored by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who with publisher Hyperion in September 2007, launched the first of “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s American Heroes Series” of children’s books, Joshua Chamberlain and the American Civil War. A second book in the series, focusing on another Civil War hero, Robert Smalls, a slave who hijacked a Confederate steamer and turned it over to the Union Navy, and later became a U.S. Congressman, will be published by Hyperion in 2008.
50th anniversary trade paperback edition of JFK book issued by Harper-Perennial in 2007.
JFK’s Profiles in Courage, meanwhile, compiled quite a track record over more than 50 years. The book has had at least 65 printings, sold more than 3 million copies, and hit the bestsellers list three times: in the late 1950s when JFK was an up-and-coming Senator; after he was elected President in 1960-61; and following his assassination in 1963-64. The book also spawned a successful television series in 1964-65, inspired the annual Profiles in Courage Awards, and sparked new research and subsequent books on political integrity and the history of heroism. Whatever criticism may still linger about the JFK’s Profiles in Courage, there is no doubt that this book instigated an important concept and way of evaluating political courage, fostered a respectable progeny of good and useful history, and helped bring into the spotlight contemporary careers of exemplary public service and good works.
For additional stories at this website on Politics & Culture, or Celebrities & Icons, please visit those category pages, or go to the Home Page for other choices. Additional stories at this website related to JFK and other Kennedy family members are listed below in Sources. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. — Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “JFK’s Profiles in Courage, 1954-2008,” PopHistoryDig.com, February 11, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Time magazine cover, November 24th, 1958, featuring seven “Democratic Hopefuls” then believed to be in the early running for their party’s 1960 presidential nomination: at top, Adlai Stevenson, former Illinois Governor and Democratic Presidential candidate (1952 and 1956); standing from left, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey (MN), Senator Stuart Symington (MO), Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (TX); and seated, from left, New Jersey Governor, Robert Meyner, Senator John F. Kennedy (MA), and then California Governor-elect, Edmund "Pat" Brown.