Master Lock: The Mouse That Roared

December 1, 2006

In June 1998, Master Lock ran the first-ever, nationally broadcast one-second blink-and-you'd-miss-it commercial. Few blinked as a bullet pierced a Master Lock, which shuddered but held fast. That signature image had been embedded in the American psyche because it played on the world stage during 21 Super Bowls - appearing more times on Super Sunday than the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Miami Dolphins combined.

Since it shelled out just $107,000 to air its first Super Bowl commercial in 1974 - a voice announced that a sharp shooter at a firing range was honing in on its #15 lock - Master Lock has shot holes in thousands of locks, generated millions of inches of news and become synonymous with padlocks. Early days when it was one of a pack of indistinguishable padlocks, the prime target was not consumers but distributors, recalled Greg Clausen, VP-director of media planning at the Cramer Krassault agency. But after 20 years of shoot-em-ups in the Big Game, Master Lock had almost universal brand recognition and more than a 70 percent market share.

After the first four times, the suspense of whether the lock could sustain the marksman's shot had ebbed. The company evolved the campaign so that by 1978 its "Tough under Fire" theme with a rifle blast bouncing off the lock became its signature. The padlock defeated assaults from hammers, crowbars, boulders, even barreling pick-up trucks.

In 1994 the company tried a new combination it hoped would open wallets. It alternated views of four "places where security matters most" that actually used its product: the Hoover Dam, Caesars Palace, Ely Maximum Security Prison and a Wells Fargo Armored Service truck with scary images of a man methodically loading bullets and firing them (ineffectively) into a Master Lock. A narrator explained it could "lock in, lock out, lock up or lock down almost anything" to images of a lock securing a bike, a strongbox, a locker and a caged tiger.

"Each year the Super Bowl was the cornerstone of our marketing program. Each year we felt like we'd won the game," says James H. Beardsley, who retired as president/CEO of the company in 1977. "We reached 120 million people at once. Every year we'd start with a blank sheet and ask ourselves if we should we do the game. Every year we decided to go for it."

Beardsley bet big beyond the cost of entry - a huge chunk of its marketing budget. Their approach used no celebrities, glitzy gimmicks or rollicking guffaws but rather approached a serious subject with a straight face. The team strengthened the odds by generating publicity about its investment. For years it ran a "Super Poll" on what Americans munched while watching and what Super Bowl spots they remembered. To mark its 20th anniversary as a game sponsor, it delivered padlocks with bullet holes to the media. Before each kickoff Master Lock reminded hardware wholesalers of its brand building plans.

In its last year at the game, (1996) Master Lock presented ominous back alleys, dangerous looking men and frightening crime scenes set to ``For What It's Worth'' by Stephen Stills/Buffalo Springfield. "Something's happening here ... what it is ain't exactly clear, there's a man with a gun over there, telling me I've got to beware..." read the lyrics. The implication was that crime was everywhere - and that Master Lock meant security.

That promise didn't ring true. How could a padlock protect from modern predators? More problematic, the marketing landscape had changed. Raw material costs were rising, competition at big discounters was fierce, and rivals were producing locks cheaper overseas. Master Lock's share was already sliding when in 1996 Wal-Mart dropped it.

The Super Bowl has created great awareness for Master Lock, but was no longer an efficient way to target niches with new products like neon colored locks for kids, marine products and gunlocks. "We were costed out and cluttered out," recalls John Melamed from Cramer-Krasselt. What's more, the game had never jived with Master Lock's prime season, (back-to-school) or audience, women (who buy them for their kids). And its serious tone was at odds with the celebratory nature of the event.

In 1997 when the company announced its retirement from the game it garnered more attention than if it had advertised. Nike incorporated its legend in their own ads in 1997. The "blink" commercial designed to be "zap-proof and snack-proof" worked because the shot lock image had become part of the culture. "The Super Bowl made our icon instantly recognized, presented our product as hero, and reinforced the key selling point, that it's tough under fire," says Melamed. "Who else has that?"

Super Plays/Take-Away
For most years it was the smallest advertiser sin the game. But Master Lock plowed virtually its entire marketing budget into a Super Bowl career. During its "working days" the lock's performance at the game made it worth a premium price and locked out competitors. It also established such a strong and haunting image that the company could run a one second commercial, almost subliminal advertising, and make its point. And it became so associated with the game that it was able to spin a publicity web even when it had retired.


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.