The Payne of It All

"They didn't realize until after they made the commercial that Les was a dropper-inner."

A dropper-inner?
"Ol' Les broke down up here one time about four years ago to fix his vehicle; he'd drive from Houston to Laughlin to gamble, and he'd always stop in after that. He got to lookin' at John's situation, I guess, and thought, 'Boy, I'll just move here.' And that's what he did." (John = someone who lives in Nothing. With a situation.)

Les Payne--the $100 one--is still out at the picnic bench. Now he has lighted his Camel. I get out a copy of People and show him the ad, which he hasn't seen yet.

He squints at it.
"No, that's not me. I look as bad as he does, though, don't I?" bellows Les. "Ah, ha, ha, ha." He spits. "They just asked me if they could use my name, they give me $100 and I said, 'Use it all you want, I don't give a dang!' I don't know how they do things; they just used him in my place. That's my name, all right."

The Health o meter ad offers a Nothing Web site that has yet to be fully up and running, and a telephone number for more information. When you call that number, this is what you hear:

"Thanks for calling about the Health o meter water pitcher. I'm Les Payne, Mayor of Nothing, Arizona. Of course, you probably knew that from reading the ad. Everyone here in Nothing really likes our water pitcher . . ."

This phone deal is news to Les.
"They didn't say nothing about that. They did say they might be back later, though, and do some interviewing with me and Miner Jim. You know him? Wears a gun and a beard and lives out in the hills out here. Kind of a hermit, more or less."

Let's just skip over this Miner Jim thing.
The ad continues: "If your tap water tastes funny, as ours does in Nothing, Arizona, the Health o meter water pitcher will come as a welcome surprise."

Look. By his own admission, Les has never taken sip one from a Health o meter water pitcher, and perhaps a greater surprise is Les' take on the tap of Nothing.

"We've got a well that's 220 feet deep," he says, somewhat puzzled. "If you want a taste of it, it's tap water, but it's good. It isn't cold, but it tastes dang good cold. You can get one of these coffee cups and drink it if you want."

But get this: Les doesn't even drink the tap water. Not that he doesn't like it, it's just that he's a Safeway water man.

"It comes from a spring in the Sierras," he offers, spitting with the confidence of final truth revealed. Then, just to prove it, he ambles in to the camper and returns with a half-full plastic Safeway jug. He studies the label, but there is no mention of a spring, in the Sierras or anywhere else.

"Well, it says it's from a municipal source," he admits, pointing at the words. But this does not sway his passion for the Safeway water. "That's a well-established, guaranteed, municipally good water. And Safeway wouldn't put out some crap."

The advertising company responsible for this $5 million ad campaign that will be running "for the foreseeable future"--the one that coughed up $100 for Les Payne's name--is called Meldrum and Fewsmith. It is out of Cleveland, Ohio, a long way from Nothing, Arizona. The senior vice president of the firm is one Dan Dahlen. I called the guy. He talked like the senior vice president of an ad firm.

"We were looking for that one idea, that one nugget to kind of develop the advertising around, and one of the operative words in our strategy was the word 'nothing,' and the fact that nothing tastes better ended up being our theme . . . in developing that, our creative department looked for a number of different ideas, and Nothing, Arizona, was discovered on a map. As soon as we discovered Nothing, we made the contacts, called some people, had some scouting done. We were informed that the mayor's name was Les Payne, and we thought, 'What an interesting spokesperson that would be.'"

So why didn't they just use our man Les?
I will give you Dan's answer in full, just because it is so wonderful:
"We have a lot of ways we plan to execute this advertising and this communication, evolving it into a lot of different areas, and to that end we felt that we needed a professional that had some range and could work with us. We considered using the real Les Payne, and in the final analysis we thought it would be better communication if we, in fact, used an actor."

I asked him why they'd only paid Les 100 bucks.
"Well, that's between Les and whoever he made the deal with."
I asked him if they had copped the whole idea from the New Times article.
"I can't answer that. I haven't seen it."

After I finished with Dan, I spoke with Emily Federici, account supervisor of Meldrum and Fewsmith. She talked more like an account supervisor than a senior vice president.

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