Catching Up With...Peter Levathes

Posted on Feb 20, 2011

Long after the death of the cassette tape player, when America finally realized that greed was not good and the euphoric highs from the era of excess were replaced by doubt and uncertainty, a curious artifact has remained. A black-and-white print ad for Maxell from 1980 featuring a guy sitting in an armchair facing his speaker system and literally being blown away has become such an enduring icon that it can still be seen today. People have since dissected its details, from the chair (Le Corbusier LC2) to the speakers (JBL) and the model (rumored to be Peter Murphy from the rock band Bauhaus). In 2005 Maxell relaunched the campaign with an updated version that still retained the original image. We caught up with Peter Levathes, a copywriter from the legendary agency Scali McCabe Sloves who was one of the creators of the famous "Blown Away Guy," to talk about why it has endured after all these years.

So what are you up to these days?

I retired about eight years ago. My wife Mary and I divide our time between Florida and Montauk, Long Island. We do a lot of the boring stuff retirees do—golf, tennis, bridge, complaining about the neighbors.

Does it surprise you that Maxell is still using the "Blown Away Guy" after all these years?

Yes. But given what I imagine is a drastically reduced ad budget, it makes sense.

Why do you think the campaign became so famous?

Hate to say it, but it was due to brilliant art direction. My art director, Lars Anderson, was able to bring restraint to an outrageous visual. The setting was simple. The guy was cool. People saw themselves in that chair.

Most art directors would have pushed the visual too far and made it corny. Lars kept it understated and therefore almost believable. And after 30 years, most ads look dated, but not that one.

Talk about the story behind the ad. Where did the original idea come from?

Before 1980, Maxell ads were targeted to audiophiles. Our client asked us to broaden its appeal.

Since most audio ads at the time focused on the equipment, Lars and I thought our campaign should be visually arresting. After a few days, Lars came in with this weird visual of a guy in a chair getting hammered by the music coming out of his speakers. I brought in a visual of a car wreck in the middle of nowhere. We stared at these for several weeks before we figured out how to make them into a campaign.

When we presented them to our two clients, we ran into a problem. One client loved the car ad but hated the blown away guy. The other client felt exactly the opposite. After several agonizing days, they decided to compromise and do both.

The next year when the ads won Gold and Silver at the One Show, the client who liked the blown away guy said to his colleague, "See, I told you my ad was better."

Is it your favorite ad campaign you worked on or are there others?

It's certainly the most well-known ad that I've done, but my favorite was an ad for People magazine that ran only once.

It was two photos from the magazine, side-by-side. On one side was a photo of a chimp with his arm around a puppy. On the other side, Sylvester Stallone with his arm around his latest girlfriend. The headline: "Every week People magazine examines relationships. From the complex to the not so complex."

Do you still keep up with advertising?

Several years ago, I cancelled my subscription to Adweek, but when I see a commercial like the Traveler's spot with the dog trying to protect his bone, I miss the business.

We still see Ed McCabe every now and then.

Ed was the best boss I ever had, even though it took me 20 years to realize that. In the environment he created, it's not surprising that so many great ads got done.

Let's settle this once and for all: Who is the guy in the armchair? Was it Peter Murphy?

His name escapes me. But I'm 99% sure it wasn't Peter Murphy. My recollection is that he was just some guy who worked in a hair salon who bore a striking resemblance to my art director, Lars.


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