A familiar trivia game in bars is guessing which enormous multinational corporation is behind what well-known product. There are easy ones, like GM owns Frigidaire, and more difficult ones, like Fiat owns Ferrari.
"The problem at AMF is exactly the opposite of, say, the one at ITT," explains Mitchell DeGroot, of AMF's advertising firm, Fuller & Smith & Ross. "Everybody knows the initials ITT even if he can't name a single ITT-owned company. But at AMF the franchises are so strong that the corporate logo gets lost next to Head or Harley-Davidson.
"When AMF came to us in 1969 it had a bowling-alley image. So we tried a few specials, like
and Of Thee I Sing, but there was no continuity. Then came ABC. The Wide World of Sports package was unique. The network had never allowed a single sponsor to take a half-hour with no competition. That would cost. We got 116 minutes for $3 million."
What AMF wanted, DeGroot says, was "rub-off—crossing brand names with the corporate image of excellence. Take a guy who owns an Alcort Force 5 sailboat and wants to get transportation to and from his dock. If he knows AMF made his sailboat and it's a damn good one, when he looks at motorcycles, you want him to realize that AMF is in the market with a Harley-Davidson 125-cc machine." Although a Hell's Angel won't jump the rail and take up sailing in Head tennis shirts unless his hog falls off the Golden Gate bridge, rub-off can have subtle and substantial effects.
But AMF fretted about the inherent dangers in its alliance with Wide World. Would an athlete using a competitor's equipment be shown winning? ABC was accommodating, agreeing to substitute commercials in embarrassing situations. Even with that decided, the show arrangements were sensitive. "Each Tuesday we had scenario sessions with ABC," says DeGroot. "The network knew by then about 90% of that week's show, but the live segments couldn't be nailed down. We had to speculate. If a motorcycle race was scheduled, we wanted to have a Harley-Davidson ad running, of course. But if there was an accident in the race, then we wanted ABC to pull the Harley ad and go to Hatteras yachts, or something." In advertising circles there is still talk about the time Swede Savage wiped out at Indy. The cameras cut away to an STP ad with Andy Granatelli dancing around the Brickyard. Savage was his driver in the STP Special.
The corporation and the advertising firm are convinced the Wide World commercials have succeeded. AMF's new image has cost upwards of $60 million, and to assure that it lasts, close to $12 million is being spent each year.
Rodney C. Gott, 63, president and chairman of the board of directors, is the spokesman for the direction AMF is taking and himself a fine example of American leisure in action. Gott does not behave like the high-pressure corporate biggie who phones brokers from his private limo on the way to his Lear jet. In fact, Gott can often be found on two wheels rather than four. He is fond of rolling out his Harley-Davidson Sportster and, with his gallant and stately wife on the back, roaring from Westchester to West Point to watch his old alma mater get trounced.
Gott's military training is evident in his bearing. His words are shadowed by a lurking Yankee accent. In the face of the fast-disappearing "discretionary dollar" and the energy crisis, the ex-colonel remains convinced of the endurance of the leisure-time industry: "Leisure is one of the most promoted words in America—the unions scream it, the doctors and psychiatrists scream it. There are Heritage Villages all over. Maybe it started with the Paul Dudley Whites riding bicycles and golfing. But the biggest reason is money. Self-involvement in sport and recreation is no longer just for the wealthy. People are playing golf on public courses, there are public tennis courts and public boat landings, and people are using recreational vehicles to get there."
Recent trends make AMF cautious, in spite of Gott's enthusiasm. Leisure products make up 63% of the corporation's business. "We have downside protection with our automated machinery and other industrial products," he says. "If there is a severe setback in recreation, we can switch our emphasis to the industrial sector. Currently, we're beefing up that area, investing new capital there and in research and development."
The commitment to sport is based on boardroom history as well as financial reality. "I joined the company in 1946," says Gott. "At that time we had just come into the bowling deal, which put us officially in the leisure field. Then in 1951 we acquired Wheel Goods, a leading bicycle maker, and that established the pattern of our acquisition, buying the best in sports equipment firms."