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The downside of starring in your own ads

For the cover story of Family Business Magazine back in January/February 1991, we profiled members of business families who star in their company's ads. Our cover photo featured Gert and Tim Boyle, the mother-son duo who control Portland, Ore.-based outerwear maker Columbia Sportswear. The Boyles have amused generations of customers with their "overbearing mother and long-suffering son" ad campaigns. (One magazine ad featured a photo of Tim holding an empty hanger and the slogan, "Mother wouldn't approve a single ski parka for this ad," followed by a two-page spread in which Gert offered "three damn good reasons why" -- Columbia's outergarment, the ad copy explained, was actually three parkas in one.)

Being your own spokesmodel has its drawbacks, our 1991 article noted. "The business that aspires to become a high-tech, global company," our report said, "may want to keep its family origins in the background."

Bernie and Phyl Rubin, the entrepreneurial couple who in 1983 founded Bernie & Phyl's, now one of New England's largest furniture emporiums, discovered another downside to pitchmanship, the Boston Globe recently reported. The Rubins, known throughout the region as the stars of their company's folksy TV commercials, tried to keep Phyl's multiple sclerosis under wraps -- even among their friends, family, customers and employees. But viewers flooded the company with e-mails and phone calls wondering about her condition. Not all of these communications were supportive, Bernie Rubin told the Globe.

"Most of the time I'd just say she's fine. It's been that way since day one. Most of the nasty e-mails I never told her about. You get mad but what can you do?"


Why did Phyl want to keep her disease a secret? She told Globe reporter Jenn Abelson:

"I am a private person. I didn't think it was anybody's business."


She persisted in filming the successful ads out of dedication to her business, donning a wig when an experimental drug she took made her hair fall out. Her son Larry, the company president, admitted to Abelson that this caused "a tricky situation":

"When you're on TV and you're trying to promote your company, you want to put forward the best public image. You don't want to raise questions.... We want to sell furniture, we want to promote our furniture store."


Phyl, who is now semiretired, has decided at last to go public with her illness. As the Globe reported, she and Bernie are now appearing in a new series of ads -- public service announcements to raise awareness of multiple sclerosis and help others with the disease. In May, she'll be honored by her local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Like actor Michael J. Fox, who initially concealed his Parkinson's disease, she may find a new leading role as an advocate for medical research.

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