Why you should care

Because maybe there’s a better, more intimate way of doing business — a way that’s lubricated with gallons of liquor. 

George Parker was enjoying midday drinks with clients when he clocked Spanish painter Salvador Dali — white cape, top hat, cane and all — sauntering into the restaurant to grab a seat for himself and his tiny pet leopard. Parker needed more than a few winks afterward before he could get on with business. Sometimes more than half his work revolved around drinking, and he wasn’t even a raging alcoholic. The lunch booze forays were sanctioned, even mandatory, in Mad Men-esque style.

But Parker was the version of Don Draper not approved for the general public. He made “Mad Men look like Sesame Street. Unless Kermit is caught with his pants down banging Miss Piggy on the PBS boardroom table,” he writes in Confessions of a Mad Man. Parker spent upwards of three hours, multiple times a week, wining and dining clients, including the likes of Proctor & Gamble reps and the makers of Smirnoff Vodka, on the dollar of various high-powered ad agencies of the time. Some of his clients brought in so much cash that they could order everything on the menu twice and “die of caviar poisoning and it would still be worth it,” the retired Brit quips from his home in Boise, Idaho. And Parker often indulged them (save the dying part). Luckily, he and his colleagues had offices, sofas and secretaries to wake them up with coffee after a two-hour, post-lunch nap.

The practice was so “par for the course” that it had its own term: the three-martini lunch. And according to President Gerald R. Ford, it was “the epitome of American efficiency. Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?” But the companies weren’t the only ones footing the bill behind this push to give “high noon” a new meaning. Since entertaining clients was often a tax-deductible business expense, everyday Americans paid for a piece of those high-class cocktails at the Four Seasons and Bobby Van’s Steakhouse. And while Presidents Kennedy and Carter both bemoaned the elitist injustice, it was finally under Ronald Reagan that the TML got its fill.

Lost were sanctioned bars and tables where, unlike the stuffy boardroom, “things could be slipped and truths could be told.”

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was the second of two “Reagan tax cuts” and the nation’s last major tax overhaul. Buried in a host of hot-button issues was a severe choke hold on travel and entertainment deductions to the tune of 5.3 billion dollars of revenue in the five years following the bill’s passage. That’s a lot of ungulped gin. The bill “put an end to three-martini lunches,” says Steve Entin, a senior fellow at the Tax Foundation, who worked at the U.S. Treasury Department under Reagan.

Or did it? Not according to a prominent copywriter of the era, Tom Messner, who says the TML simply took to the shadows like a communist during McCarthyism. The days of regularly rubbing shoulders with famed Spanish artists in renowned eateries may have dried up, but it simply meant that businessmen — much like Dali — had to get creative. Parker, for example, could still pamper one of his largest clients, Heublein — which owned Smirnoff Vodka — as long as he did so under the guise of doing “research” on their product, he says.

While Reagan’s tax-slash rampage pushed the corporate entertainers underground, what really rang the TML’s death knell was the ’87 stock market crash, known as Black Monday. In its wake, budgets tightened and profit margins slimmed. Many companies had to join forces, creating conglomerates run by typical “bean counters,” says Parker, who cared more about the bottom line than clients’ booze brunches. What followed was a change in corporate culture. Lost were sanctioned bars and tables where, unlike the stuffy boardroom, “things could be slipped and truths could be told,” says Michael Lee, founder of marketing company Madam. Nowadays, ties between agents and clients are weaker, meaning a race to lower prices at the cost of intimate relationships, says Lee. And according to Entin, President Obama’s proposed tax reform won’t touch entertainment deductions, so it’ll be more of the same for business day-drinkers.

As Parker puts it, for clients of ad agencies back in the day, their rendezvous seemed a bit like “Disneyland.” That is, if you could get completely smashed at Disneyland … during the day … and put it on the company card.

Comment

OZYFlashback

Tales from the past to titillate and educate while giving you a lens on the present and future.