March 15th, 2016

roldo rat 160314

George Sapin, a good friend especially of those who needed friends, has died. He was 91 years old. But somehow ever young.

George was an advertising exec who did TRW, Inc. ads but those are not the ads he should be remembered by. He was a principle in Fuller, Smith & Ross and then Wyse advertising.

But he wasn’t just a Madman ad guy. He was a man whose talents surpassed the corporate world. Ads you wouldn’t see produced today. Ads that had meaning.

Sapin did full-page ads during the late 1960s for the Council of Churches of Greater Cleveland. That’s when the organization had some sharp teeth.

Today no one would believe the Cleveland Plain Dealer would print such ads despite its precarious financial position. At least that’s my opinion.

Shocking ads!

One headlined read, “Merry Christmas, kids.”

That was in dark, bold headlines. Almost 4 inches in depth.

The headline was atop a photograph six inches deep, all across the full page.

The photograph delivered the shocking message George meant to expose.

A gut punch to the stomach, just as he desired.

The picture: A full-sized rat. Ugly.

Beneath was the copy line: “You were expecting a reindeer?”

I can hear George’s Brooklyn accent.

He was communicating anger, exasperation. With a state that kept poor people near starvation.

The ads were aimed at Ohio Gov. James Rhodes.

They dramatically told the story that the Great State of Ohio was providing those who had nothing or little with 73 cents a day per child.

It went on: “That doesn’t include rent, of course. Just everything else. Like food, and clothing and books and carfare and treats with the change.”

He went on with a story old and new. Inequality. As up to date today as then.

“What is surprising is that Cleveland is in the 4th wealthiest state in total assessed value of property. 5th in personal income. 3rd in manufacturing. And…

“30th in aid to needy families.”

Can you imagine the Plain Dealer or any newspaper today accepting such an ad? I don’t think so.

That was one gut-punch.

Another Sapin’s creation had run full-page in the Plain Dealer a short time before. For Thanksgiving. These were holiday reminders that not everyone shared in the good life.
The headline, more than five inches deep, said: “Thanksgiving Special: 17 cents a pound.”

Beneath was another photo shocker. A candle and an open can of dog food with a fork in it. Stark and shocking.

“If you’re on public welfare in Cleveland you can serve each child with one of these swell dinners and have enough left over for seconds.”

Nothing but a-smack-to-the-face-message.

Sapin didn’t believe in pulling punches when it came to helping those in need.
He believed in telling the truth—unvarnished.

He got angry with me once. At least I think so. Not completely convinced. He met me on the street downtown one day and told me a story of how he devised another shocker ad for a do-gooder organization. It was a gut punch, too. But the organization wasn’t convinced that’s what it wanted. It might be a bit hard, they felt. Might interfere with donations, they meant.

“Why did you write that story?” George asked the next time I saw him.

“Well, you told me about it,” seemed the simple but true answer.

He caught hell for telling a reporter. But I think he knew who he was talking with.

He told the story repeatedly in my company so I never was sure that he really minded. Or if it was just a good story. George enjoyed telling good stories. Just in case he did care, the organization will go unnamed.

Still not sure George would want it that way. I’ll miss his smile when he told the story.

By Roldo Bartimole…


  1. Walter Nicholes says:

    Hi, Roldo,

    I knew George lightly, at parties with other liberal friends. Never to sit down and deal with issues. Wife Connie an activist friend of Nina.

    Possible to find any of the ads cited? Would PD have total legal control over their use? What comes to mind is to lay one of these side by side with a current visual displaying a current example of Cleveland Poverty, with a headline: So what’s new in XX years?

  2. Barbara, Paul & Linda Sapin says:

    Thank you for this wonderful tribute remembering George and his activism. We recall being so proud of his work protesting poverty and injustice. He always spoke highly of you and we know you shared the same values. Thank you again.

  3. Walter, unfortunately, I don’t have dates of the ads.

    Barbara, Paul & Linda, thank you for your kind note. George was a special person and so likeable in so many ways.

  4. Gerald Schorin says:

    I was a senior copywriter at Meldrum & Fewsmith in the mid- to later seventies and remember George well. He was the senior account person on the TRW account — a large and significant one for the agency — and, rare indeed, was loved and appreciated by writers, art directors, and producers for his advocacy of outstanding, creatively-inspired advertising, and, not least, for his kindness and generosity. Having left the region in ’79, I was unaware of George’s work cited in this blog but hardly surprised. He was a lovely man and a true professional.

  5. Gerald:

    Thanks for your memory of George. It certainly corresponds with the regard others had for him.

    I’ve pass this on to Connie Sapin and I’m sure she will find it comforting.


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