MYNORTHWEST HISTORY

Before it collapsed, WaMu ad campaign was the ‘Friend of the Family’

Mar 17, 2023, 10:33 AM | Updated: 11:34 am

All the failing banks in the news lately remind so many around here of Washington Mutual (WaMu), and that seemed like a good reason to revisit one of the Northwest’s most memorable – indelible, even – ad campaigns of all time.

WaMu, a long-beloved local company around here, failed on Sep. 25, 2008. In spite of those recent bank problems in California and elsewhere, WaMu still qualifies as the largest such collapse of a financial institution in American history.

Yes, rest assured that your giant foam hand is still valid: We’re still Number One!

Long before the subprime mortgage crisis of 15 years ago, Washington Mutual was founded in the ashes of the Great Seattle Fire way back in 1889. In the late 1960s, the Seattle-based savings and loan was on the rise, adding branches and looking to expand its customer base. That’s when Seattle ad agency Kraft, Smith, and Lowe were hired to raise the beloved institution’s profile.

The campaign that resulted featured a friendly and familiar looking – yet hard-to-name – character actor as Washington Mutual’s spokesman. In one particular TV commercial preserved by longtime local ad guy David Horsfall, that familiar man can be seen in a wide shot, standing at the base of the Space Needle. He’s the embodiment of avuncular and seems like someone you could trust with all of your cash – like a living, breathing FDIC.

“Look closely at an exciting idea, and you’ll see that it’s founded on a simple, sturdy base,” the man says as a zoom shot of the Space Needle dissolves. “Steel and concrete . . . same kind of base you need when you design your future. A safe, sturdy foundation, like money in a savings account, can support your tallest dreams.”

As the 30-second commercial reaches its conclusion, it’s a close-up shot now. The familiar spokesman is in full-on “trust me” mode, his hand patting one of the concrete footings and giant bolts holding the Space Needle in place.

“Lay your financial foundation at Washington Mutual,” he says with a gentle smile. “The friend of the family.”

Similar, locally shot commercials with the same actor and same slogan played seemingly all the time on Northwest TV and radio stations in the 1970s, and variations – at least with the same actor – were produced as late as the early 1990s.

That ridiculously resilient slogan – “Washington Mutual, the friend of the family” – is credited to a local man named Dean Tonkin.

Tonkin is in his early 80s, retired after a decades-long career in advertising, and now managing a skiing program at Snoqualmie Pass. Tonkin grew up in Portland. He moved to Seattle as a child and graduated from Queen Anne High School. After a stint in New York working for advertising giant J. Walter Thompson, he took a job in the late 1960s with Seattle ad agency Kraft, Smith, and Lowe.

Tonkin told KIRO Newsradio that the inspiration for “the friend of the family” was more like frustration and came from a popular Broadway musical and film in the 1960s.

It seems that the composers of “Oliver!,” the musical based on Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” “would not release the music from the play – ‘Consider yourself at home, consider yourself one of the family,’” Tonkin said, quoting lyrics from one of the shows more memorable tunes.

“And so I came up with ‘friend of the family,’” he said.

With slogan in hand, it was time for Tonkin to choose a spokesman.

The actor who would become the Washington Mutual spokesman was born in Portland in 1923 and grew up in the neighborhood known as Northeast Portland. He attended acting classes at the University of Washington, though it’s not clear if he graduated, and he served in the military in World War II. The man’s Northwest roots did not play a part in his getting the Washington Mutual gig.

Over a decades-long career, this actor ultimately appeared in hundreds of plays, radio shows, movies, and TV programs starting in the 1940s – with notable roles on TV programs such as “Planet of the Apes” and “General Hospital,” in movies such as “Norma Rae,” and in plays such as “A Christmas Carol” – and yet, he was never a household name.

And that, Tonkin says, was a big part of the appeal of Booth Colman.

“He was a genuine gentleman who personified some of the characteristics that I wanted for Washington Mutual,” Tonkin said. “And he also had a good film background as not somebody who is going to ‘vampire’ the story by being overriding in his popularity.”

By not ‘vampiring’ the ad campaign, Tonkin means that it would never be about Booth Colman; it would always be about Washington Mutual – unlike, say, recent campaigns for cryptocurrency companies featuring celebrities like Matt Damon.

Tonkin says Colman was chosen in Los Angeles through a “cattle-call audition” process and then at least one “call-back” to confirm he was, indeed, the one.

It’s hard to believe now, but Tonkin also says that the choice of Colman to be the spokesman and the adoption of the “friend of the family” slogan were not subjected to any of the kind of preliminary vetting which is commonplace in major advertising campaigns these days.

“It wasn’t put through any rigors of focus groups or convoluted marketing research,” Tonkin said. “It was just because it felt right.”

And how quickly did Washington Mutual management love the “friend of the family” slogan?

“As soon as it came out of my mouth,” Tonkin said.

Colman passed away in Los Angeles in 2014 at age 91. It’s unclear if anyone ever asked him how he felt about the 2008 collapse of the “friend of the family.” Tonkin says he was pretty disappointed to see the local institution, which he’d had a hand in building, fall so dramatically fast.

While the WaMu bank branches and Booth Colman are no longer with us, at least one “alternate universe” geographic reference to Washington Mutual remains on the map in Seattle in the form of WaMu Theater at Lumen Field.

The theatre was officially called that in 2006 as part of a 10-year naming rights deal with the savings and loan. At some point in the past 14 years, First & Goal, the entity which operates Lumen Field, quietly swapped out the “Washington Mutual” roots of the facility’s name, so it’s now formally called “Washington Music Theater,” though its nickname remains WaMu Theater. See what they did there?

In one other “alternate universe” moment, Tonkin says there was always a small chance that Colman wouldn’t get the gig.

Tonkin told KIRO Newsradio that there was at least one other actor in the running for the spokesman job, but the group making the decision at the audition in Los Angeles – Tonkin, a Washington Mutual representative, and the creative director and art director from Evans, Kraft, and Lowe – just couldn’t get past one aspect of the man’s appearance.

Tonkin says he can’t remember the other man’s name – this was more than 50 years ago, after all – but describes him as “a very droll character actor.”

And why, exactly, did they choose Booth Colman instead of that other guy?

“We didn’t like his hairdo,” Tonkin said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Before it collapsed, WaMu ad campaign was the ‘Friend of the Family’