Ivar's undersea billboards a hoax devised as marketing ploy
The Ivar's billboard supposedly hauled up from Puget Sound in August wasn't put there in the 1950s to appeal to future submarine travelers, after all. It was a marketing ploy by the local restaurant chain.
Seattle Times staff reporter
So, OK, it all turned out to be a hoax.
That story about those Ivar's underwater billboards at the bottom of Puget Sound, supposedly anchored in the mid-1950s?
You know, the one Ivar's people supported by hauling one of the billboards up off Alki Beach in August and backed up with decades-old documents — from the state's Department of Fisheries and a Ballard diving service — supposedly found in the archives of the legendary Seattle seafood restaurateur?
Fake, fake, fake.
The documents were faked on a computer. The billboard was a wooden prop, says Bob Donegan, president of Ivar's Inc. The only thing real about it was the barnacles stuck to it.
Although who knows if the barnacles were even real. That is, after all, information from Ivar's.
Give credit where credit is due. It was a great marketing campaign. Donegan says about $250,000 was spent on the hoax and the follow-up TV and radio ads and real highway billboards. The hoax was reported Oct. 23 in the industry publication Nation's Restaurant News. Donegan says he wasn't to reveal the hoax until after the ad campaign ended this month, but decided to come clean when the industry publication called.
In September, sales of clam chowder more than quadrupled when compared to September 2008, says Donegan, from 19,000 cups to 83,000 cups.
Sure, that was greatly due to a promotion, in conjunction with the fake billboards, to sell it at the supposed 1955 price of 75 cents.
Still, all in all, says Donegan, customer counts were up 5 to 10 percent over last year, for Ivar's, which operates three dinner houses and 27 casual seafood bars.
The story had legs because of well, how to put it?
How about like this: People you wouldn't expect to lie, did.
There was Donegan, a Yale School of Management grad, a board member of everything from the Seattle Historic Waterfront Association to the Seattle Chapter of the Boy Scouts, skipping past the line of truthfulness.
And there was Paul Dorpat, the respected Seattle historian and first vice president of HistoryLink.org, giving legitimacy to the fake billboards even though he knew otherwise.
"It was a good-hearted hoax," says Donegan. "We have a creative team that's in-house, and of our outside advertising agency and public relations people. It came up over the summer in that group."
Ivar Haglund, who died 24 years ago at 79, has been called one of the greatest self-promoters in city history.
So a hoax about Ivar being so far ahead of his time that he predicted the local populace would be making commonplace submarine travel in Puget Sound seemed "in the grand tradition of Ivar," says Donegan.
The ad agency of Heckler Associates in Seattle began making the fakery happen.
It wasn't that hard to get from the Internet typefaces that looked like they came from manual typewriters, says Terry Heckler, head of the company.
Clues were planted
Or to scan original checks that Ivar had signed, and alter them. Heckler says making the fake documents look like they deteriorated over time was "really tricky."
He says the agency included clues so that "a series of dots didn't connect quite clearly."
The price of that chowder wasn't correct for that era.
The wrong governor was put on the letterhead from the Department of Fisheries.
But very important to give the hoax credibility was getting Dorpat on board. He is writing a book about Haglund and has access to his extensive archives.
Dorpat says that over lunch at the Salmon House, Donegan showed him the fake documents. The documents, says Dorpat, "were done brilliantly, but to my experienced eyes, within 20 seconds I figured they were a little too polished."
He decided to go along. He and Donegan say Dorpat was not paid for his part.
"I became part of the theater," says Dorpat. "It was very much in the spirit of Ivar Haglund."
Dorpat was quoted extensively about the billboards in a Sept. 18 article in The Seattle Times. He told this reporter he's the one who found the documents in Ivar's archives and didn't believe it was a hoax.
"As far as I can tell, it's the real thing," he said then.
Donegan perpetuated the lies by saying his company was sending samples of the paint to be tested for lead, trying to figure out when they might have been painted.
Believer "for a moment"
Dorpat on Wednesday wrote down his thoughts about the hoax. He said, in part: "In my now long life — I turned 71 imagine! — I have been involved in a few pranks and public practical jokes even without Ivar or Ivar's. ...
"When I was first shown the 'evidence' I was a believer — for a moment — but then soon understood its deeper or submarine significance. Laid before me was the first really Ivaresque example — since his passing in 1985 — of a public promotion by Ivar's built on a grand fiction.
"It is very much in Ivar's way and I am, frankly, already disappointed that it has been 'revealed' or 'outed.' ... This was romance, a delightful fiction to which we readily and willingly suspended our disbelief or we are pestering scrooges.
"To the point about me being a public historian who should 'keep clean' of such playfulness, I answer, 'keep clam.' All will be revealed."
Times Executive Editor David Boardman says that while he can appreciate the initiative behind the marketing ploy and had suspected it was a hoax, he was distressed that Dorpat, whose "Now & Then" column has appeared in the newspaper's Pacific Northwest magazine since 1982, would lie to a Times reporter.
Dorpat's continued freelance relationship with the paper is "under review," Boardman says.
As for Donegan, he was asked what he'd tell Boy Scouts, as he is in a leadership role in that organization with its motto for honesty.
"I have to think about that," says Donegan. "There is a long tradition with the Boy Scouts about being storytellers, too."
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.