Everything I Know About Selling I Learned From Bob Hope

Working for Bob Hope taught Bob Mills basic successful sales principles, applicable in any business.

I was a script writer for Bob Hope and worked with him almost daily between 1977 and 1992. During that time I observed him in countless situations, doing what he knew best — SELLING BOB HOPE. He didn’t remain on the top of America’s popularity charts for generation after generation by chance. Right from his beginnings in vaudeville, he realized that he had a product to sell… himself. How did he go about this? What did he learn to do that made agents sign him, movie producers hire him, networks air his specials and audiences like him enough to return time and time again for more of the same?

Here is what I observed over the years — an approach to selling that you can start using right now to keep your own products and services in constant demand.

1) KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE (in your case, your potential customers). Bob Hope never appeared on stage anywhere that he hadn’t thoroughly researched his audience in advance. By the time he walked on stage to the strains of “Thanks for the Memory,” he knew the members of the audience intimately — their politics, customs, habits, likes, dislikes, even their local scandals!

Before we wrote comedy material for his overseas military shows, we first studied reams of background material on each base or ship where Hope was scheduled to appear. When Bob told his first joke, the audience immediately identified with him as one of their own. How else would he know all those intimate details? The names of all the sleazy bars off-base where everyone loved to hang out — names and idiosyncrasies of the officers in command? — even nicknames of notorious members of the platoon, battalion or ship’s crew. Bob realized instinctively that the young GI’s in his audiences would become his potential fans back home after the wars were over — the ones who would keep him on television regularly for over forty consecutive years.

In 1978, when we journeyed to Perth, Australia to do a two-hour special opening the Aussies’ new 8300-seat entertainment center, we had spent weeks poring over every facit of Australian life — from the local weather, wildlife, industry, food and recreation to its history, ethnic makeup and language. By the time Bob strode on-stage, he sounded like he’d been living Down Under all of his life. From his very opening line, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. Once you can achieve that, selling anything is easy.

2) PERSONALIZE YOUR PRODUCT: During my 17 years on the road with him, I observed Hope perform for all strata of society — from captains of industry to union workers, generals to enlisted men. And in every case, he succeeded in making the audience identify with him. He was friendly and non-threatening. He was that favorite uncle who was always welcome and whose company everyone enjoyed. After awhile, the product he was selling — Bob Hope — literally sold itself as he collected lifelong fans and admirers. People felt they knew Bob Hope as they know any member of their own family. And it’s easy to sell anything to a relative, isn’t it? It’s interesting to note here that, during all of my years gallivanting around the globe with him from Sydney to Peking, London to Stockholm, I never saw him turn down a request for an autograph. It would be like refusing a favor for a relative, and who could do that?

3) MAKE YOUR NAME AS FAMILIAR TO PEOPLE AS THEIR OWN: Bob has admitted to interviewers that he invested the most money during his career on two things — fresh material and publicity. Top gag writers were engaged to make sure he’d always have a steady supply of the best jokes money could buy and publicists were hired to make sure the seats would be filled with folks anxious to hear them. Over the decades, quotes by Bob Hope appeared in all the major columns from Winchell to Drew Pearson to Louella Parsons.

Of all the major stars of his era, Bob Hope maintained as warm a relationship with the press as anyone in the history of show business. He almost never turned down requests for interviews and was available for press conferences whenever asked. No surprise that the press has treated him favorably with kind words and often glowing reviews for over 75 years.

4) PROMOTE, PROMOTE, PROMOTE: Whenever we had a television special scheduled to air, Hope spent his every waking hour thinking of ways to advertise it. He’d give countless phone interviews to local TV critics extolling the delights of the upcoming extravaganza… listing the guest stars, describing the sketches and even telling some of the jokes! On the Friday before any special was scheduled to air, Hope appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show accompanied by a tantalizing video clip. After a while, Johnny resented Hope using his show as a billboard, But since Hope had been with NBC since his Pepsodent days on radio, there wasn’t much Johnny could do about it. Whether they’d decide to tune in or not, Hope was determined that, come hell or high-water, people would KNOW ABOUT THE SHOW.

If, after the Neilsen ratings had been posted, a special failed to garner the audience he had expected, he would invariably blame himself for not promoting the show more effectively. (God forbid that our clever jokes may not have been all that funny.)

To this day, the very mention of Bob Hope’s name generally elicits a warm, respectful and happy response. Why? Because he was extremely talented (a given) and made sure that the attitude he projected was always positive and friendly. He knew his product intimately and he succeeded in selling it to generations of Americans for over seven decades. Emulate Bob Hope and your sales, too, can soar.

Read Bob Mills’ account of how Bob Hope learned the true power of advertising and how he turned this to his personal advantage.

“Everything I Know About Selling I Learned From Bob Hope” is copyright 1998 (c) by Bob Mills (All rights reserved). Portions may be quoted with attribution.

Bob Mills is an attorney-turned-comedy writer who now delivers motivational corporate and cruise ship lectures based on his adventures with Bob Hope. Full details can be found at http://www.laughmakers.blogspot.com. He also publishes “Funny Side Up,” a free topical comedy newsletter delivered by e-mail Mon-Fri. Send a “subscribe” e-mail to thelaughmakers@gmail.com.