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There have been a number of pivotal points in the success of the realty business founded by Rex Breeden, a business that still bears his name.
He was reminded of one of them earlier this week when Josh Bottum called the retired Columbus businessman to inform him of his father’s death. Bruce Bottum, who ran an advertising agency in Columbus in the 1960s and ’70s, had passed away Nov. 28 at an assisted living facility near Lafayette.
“We had become pretty good friends when he had the ad agency, and he would drop by my office on a pretty regular basis,” Rex recalled. “On one of those visits we began to talk about our home sales, and Bruce made the comment that we were missing out on a lot of potential customers. He said we needed to humanize our company, reach out to people who might not be in the upper-income level.”
The conversation ended with Bruce asking Rex to look over some marketing proposals.
“I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ and he was back the next day with his proposal,” Rex said. “Before he opened his briefcase he asked me another question. He made me promise not to make a decision until the next day. I agreed, and he made his pitch. After it was over, I looked at him and said, ‘Bruce, you’re out of your mind.’”
The centerpiece of Bruce’s presentation was a plan for a billboard. The proposal featured a ladybug and two smaller ladybugs ascending a blade of grass. It was captioned, “Ladybug, ladybug, we’ll find you a home.”
The adman was not upset by his potential client’s initial reaction. Instead he reminded the businessman of his pledge to wait a day.
“I went home that night and thought about it some more,” Rex said. “Sure enough, the next day I woke up and said to myself, ‘Why not? Let’s give it a try.’”
It turned out to be a pretty good decision.
“Thirty years later people were still talking about that promotion campaign and the ladybugs,” he said. “I have had people come up to me on the street and tell me that the ladybugs played a major role in their decision to buy a house from us.”
If anything, the company carried the iconic symbol to extremes. At one point in time Breeden real estate agents were providing home purchasers with a box filled with live ladybugs. “We told people that these were good bugs who ate bad bugs,” Rex explained. “They’d use them in their gardens.”
That ad campaign not only spelled success for the developer but more directly spoke to the whimsical nature of the adman.
Bruce had about him a wry sense of humor that seemed in keeping with his career choices. A native of West Lafayette, he moved to Columbus around 1960 and quickly became involved with other young business professionals. He began his local career with Cummins Engine Co., in charge of advertising and publicity. Eventually he decided to go out on his own.
He had a lot going for him, most especially a creative mind. He tested the boundaries of traditional approaches, often creating concepts that few, if any, others would have considered.
Rex wasn’t the only client who thought he was out of his mind, only to say, “Why not give it a try?” in the end.
He handled the ad campaign for the opening of Courthouse Center in 1974. The center was Columbus’ first indoor shopping mall and carried with it a measure of controversy in that the modernistic building displaced several blocks of 19th-century structures that despite their dilapidated condition had become a symbol of the old Columbus.
In going through his father’s papers recently, Josh came across a cartoon that had been used to promote the late October opening of the center. The caricatures were created by Bruce Bottum, incorporating images of several well-known and popular figures in the 1970s. Motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel soared in the air near Bartholomew County Courthouse. Little Orphan Annie stared blankly out of the crowd while her dog barked “Arf.”
President Richard Nixon proclaimed, “I want to make Oct. 24 perfectly clear.” There were also local touches to the overall image, one caption declaring, “Oct. 24. Holy cow,” a pretty pointed takeoff on legendary Columbus broadcaster Sam Simmermaker’s trademark exclamation.
Bruce was not afraid to stray outside his comfort zone. In 1972 while discussing the presidential campaign between Nixon and George McGovern, he hit upon the idea of creating a chess game based on the politics of the day and some of its more colorful characters.
He molded the figures out of clay, creating remarkable likenesses not only of Nixon and McGovern but other well-known figures such as Vice President Spiro Agnew, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, environmentalist and crusader Ralph Nader and Martha Mitchell, outspoken wife of Attorney General John Mitchell.
The chess game was marketed in the Midwest but had only limited sales. One can only wonder how it would have done had it still been on the market in 1974, the year Nixon resigned the presidency.
Bruce had a number of friends in Columbus who were drawn to his self-deprecating humor. He seemed to never take himself or the world seriously.
He had his difficulties in his last years in Columbus. He lost both the advertising agency and a partnership in a business on 25th Street called Three Guys Inc. Eventually he left town.
He’s been gone for more than 30 years, but there’s a lot to remember him by, including an iconic business logo that caused at least one client to question his sanity.
We need more whimsical folks like Bruce Bottum.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.
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