The Man in the Hathaway Shirt – The Most Interesting Ad in the World

Long before the days of Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” or Old Spice’s “Shirtless Guy in the Bathroom Talking in a Deep Voice,” there was “The Man in the Hathaway Shirt,” the catalyst for all the bizarre and inexplicably intriguing ad campaigns that would follow.  The story of “The Man in the Hathaway” has always fascinated me, not only because it hails from the glory days of American sportswear and manufacturing, but because from an advertising standpoint it’s probably one of the smartest ads ever created.

David Oglivy

During the peak of 1950’s peak of American Sportswear Hathaway was at the top of apex.  By this time the Waterville, Maine based company was over a century old, and was on their way to becoming not only one of the largest U.S. shirting manufacturers, but also one of the most illustrious, having produced the uniforms for Union soldiers during the Civil War.  The fifties marked a shift in the way we wear clothes, and blew the field of ready-to-wear shirting wide open.  This gave Hathaway, and their then president Ellerton Jette the opportunity to raise the company’s profile and tap into an entirely new market.  Jette decided to approach David Oglivy, one of the biggest names in advertising at this time with the prospect of representing his brand.  But to Oglivy, Hathaway was a minor account, and Jette certainly didn’t have enough money to even begin to entice Oglivy onto the project, yet what Jette could offer was control.  In the deal, Jette would give up all creative control to Oglivy, handing over final say and creative vision, but best of all Jette promised to never fire Oglivy for as long as Hathaway was in business.  Oglivy took the deal on the spot, as both men agreed they were about to become incredibly wealthy.

And that they did.  Oglivy dove right into the project, running through research and jotting down ideas, forging an attack plan for Hathaway’s new market.  The pitch he decided was fairly straightforward at face value: take a well-dressed, worldly-looking man, put him in a Hathaway shirt, and place him in front of some idealistic background.  It was obviously meant to invoke this sense of rugged sophistication, but that wasn’t really any sort of new idea.  The ads might have worked just as they were, but it was a last minute addition by Oglivy that sealed it.  On his way to the photo shoot, he stopped a five and dime, picking up a package of cheap, novelty eye-patches.  During the shoot, Oglivy handed a patch to the model, asking him to just throw it on for a few shots.  Upon getting the images back Oglivy instantly knew his idea worked, the eye-patch shots were exactly what he was looking for.  So, Oglivy took the photos, added in some copy about the model being some eccentric aristocrat, jetsetting around the globe, accomplishing unimaginable feats along the way, and sent them off to print.  The ads became a sensation, they were run in just about every major publications at that time, became a constant point of discussion for both men and women, and still hold up today as one of the most acclaimed and successful ad campaigns ever.

To understand the appeal, we have to look to the inspiration for the ads.  Oglivy claims he got the idea for the eye-patch from Ambassador Lewis Douglas, a twentieth century politician who lost his eye during a fishing accident.  And that would make sense, I mean the entire allure of the eye-patch and the accompanying text is this notion of mystique, of being a man that has some edge to him, that is both accessible and admired, but also hidden and reserved.  The ad tapped into something that would be replicated for years to come, this concept of selling through the story.  By creating the mysterious image of the “Man in the Hathaway Shirt”, Oglivy, and Jette not only sold an unprecedented number of shirts (Hathaway was one of the largest shirt companies in the states until they unfortunately closed in 2002 facing economic hardships) but also forever changed the way that we buy clothes.

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7 comments
  1. Gee! I remember these adds from my childhood! What a trip to look back at them from our “modern” age.

  2. just wow, how much can be learned of culture, industry, etc.-all from a vintage shirt ad!
    as much as the odd image, what astounds me is how much text the readership allowed in ads, and how much richness the text added.

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