SEATTLE Just weeks after three barnacle-encrusted billboards were pulled from the bottom of Puget Sound, restaurant operator Ivar’s Inc. is honoring the promotions spelled out on those possibly decades-old advertisements.
The mystery surrounding the billboards, and whether they were ordered sunk 54 years ago by the company’s prankster founder for the benefit of Elliott Bay submarine commuters who never materialized, remains to be solved, according to company officials. Those officials, if talking with tongues planted firmly in cheeks, were not letting on.
The tale of how the undersea billboards were discovered and recovered to inspire the promotions running through Nov. 22, including 75-cent bowls of chowder, down from their regular price of $3.50, and the offer of a free child’s entrée valued up to $8 with the purchase of an adult menu item, is fantastic. But consider the source.
Seattle-based Ivar’s – operator of three dinnerhouses and 27 fast-casual seafood bars known for fish and chips – has a history of pranks and promotional silliness that stems back to its founder, the some-time jingle crooning Ivar Haglund. The late Haglund was well known for stunts, including his arrival at the scene of a syrup tanker car accident in boots holding a plate of pancakes at which time he advised curious rubberneckers to “Eat at Ivar’s, we don’t skimp on the syrup.”
Even after its founder’s death in 1985, Ivar’s has entertained its home market with, among other things, an annual July Fourth waterfront fireworks show, which was put on hold this year because of the recession, and humorous, clam-strewn TV commercial parodies of popular movies, including “Chariots of Fire,” “Back to the Future,” and “Dances with Wolves.”
Now comes the tale of the submarine billboards that, according to Ivar’s president Bob Donegan, began with the May discovery by historian Paul Dorpat of documents in the company’s archives suggesting that long circulated rumors about submerged advertising may have had some basis in fact. Armed with multiple documents, including a map with seven undersea locations marked in red and billboard blueprints, the company asked the diving and salvage ship Prudhoe Bay to look into the matter, Donegan said.
The Prudhoe Bay team, Donegan explained, pulled the first board up from the waters near Alki Beach on Aug. 21 and two more at different sites about two weeks ago. He said the discovery set off an avalanche of activity, as his staff delivered the billboards to a restoration specialty company, began looking for ways to confirm their authenticity and started plotting the manner in which Ivar’s would honor the promotions highlighted by the signs.
The story of the documents, ideas about what might have been going on in Haglund’s mind at the time the billboards were sunk, if at all, as well as video of the on-water recovery operation have been posted in the “Ivar’s Undersea Discovery” area of the restaurant company’s website at http://ivars.net/index.php?page=happenings_Underwater .
“Is it real?” Donegan asks rhetorically, saying out loud what most people who hear the story want to learn. “We don’t know,” he continued, before adding, “but we decided that it doesn’t really matter because there is so much community excitement and the offers are so amazing.”
The Ivar’s executive noted, “If it turns out to be true, we’ll donate the billboards to the Museum of Business & Industry,” or somewhere else appropriate.
Donegan said the menu promotions are being supported with website material, T-shirts for restaurant crewmembers that carry photos of the content of the recovered billboards and, possibly, a themed contest later. He said billboards are being constructed based on the plans uncovered by historian Dorpat and will be placed around the region in the weeks ahead.
“We haven’t slept much since this came up,” Donegan remarked about what he maintained was a sense of urgency within his company and among many outsiders that began building when a Seattle Times photographer snapped and published shots of the Alki recovery effort.
“Paul [Dorpat] said Ivar was struggling with his Ivar’s Pioneer Square restaurant in 1955 when cross-Sound bridges to Bainbridge were in discussion, and at that time Ivar was at his peak of brilliance,” Donegan said in a written statement about the billboards. He added, “Ivar thought submarines would be more efficient than ferries, and plotted routes across the sound, marking seven locations suggesting where billboards were to be placed.”
Donegan said he and historian Dorpat have reviewed archives from 1953 through 1955 and found clues that indicate Haglund may have been in shenanigans mode when he entertained the concept of undersea billboards for sub commuters.
But for now, pending the completion of authenticity due diligence, the waterlogged billboards teeter between a place among the marketing finds or fun marketing frauds of the century.
Links to some of Ivar’s better-known commercials, as viewed at YouTube.com, follow. Among them is a link to the company’s half-second regional TV spot created for Super Bowl Sunday 2009 to one-up Miller High Life, which had put out advance word that it would air a one-second commercial during the big game.