With Further Ado #017: When Steve Rude Almost Saved Christmas

Back in the early 90s, we needed to save Christmas and I almost got Steve Rude to do it.

I was in brand management when I was starting out my marketing career. I had the great fortune to be assigned to Nabisco’s OREO brand.  It was a lot of fun.  I worked on the launch of Mini OREO, introduced the Halloween OREO and a Christmas variant with red crème.  In those days, changing anything about Nabisco’s brand was a serious exercise only undertaken with the most serious thought and planning.   This is in stark contrast today, when every season there are several more flavor variants to the brand.

Christmas and cookies always go together, and one of the annual traditions for the brand was to create a collectible OREO tin. These were tins with a wistful, family-focused Rockewellian painting that would be sold with a 16 oz.  package of OREO inside it.  From a marketing perspective it served many purposes: it was one more reason for someone to buy OREO, the retailers had an excuse to build a display and we even had fans who collected them each year.

We typically hired a commercial illustrator to provide the painting of a family eating OREO cookies by the Christmas Tree. They were perfectly fine, but I had the idea that I wanted to step it up with one of my favorite artists.

Steve Rude had burst onto the scene the decade before with his brilliant Nexus series and other comics work.  His work was always exciting and fun to look at fun to look at, but one couldn’t help but be struck by both his brilliant design sense, and his ability to render expressive figures.  Many of the covers would be painted, while the interiors would showcase his impressive traditional comics work.  His paintings are what sparked my idea. 

Rude was also a master at infusing his work with a sense of awe and wonder, and I just knew he’d be perfect for OREO. At that time, the tagline was “Unlock the Magic” referencing both the unique opportunity to twist the cookie apart and the nostalgic history that it held for many young parents.

Oh, and at this point, I will also tell you that I’m also proud of the fact that I was the guy who took the lard out of OREO. Well, I signed the papers and led the project. And yes, I do mean lard.   I’m not saying OREO is health food, but we were trying, you know?

One of my co-workers at Unilever, where I worked just before coming to Nabisco, had introduced my to one of her friends who worked at Marvel Comics. He was a great guy named Richard Ashford and was in the editorial department. His books included the Conan titles and traditional Marvel superheroes like West Coast Avengers.  I was grateful and I just loved visiting Richard at Marvel’s offices for an inside look at things.  Little did I realize where my career would later take me.

But at that time, Richard was important because he was the only guy I knew in comics.  And as this was pre-internet, finding a way to contact Steve Rude was tough.  I told him my idea for the OREO tin and he probably thought I was nuts. But he said he would work on getting me Steve Rude’s phone number. 

After about a week, Richard came through.  I called Steve Rude from Nabisco and I don’t think he knew what to make of me.  I was, admittedly, a strange mix of fanboy and professional marketing guy.  I knew all about his work and I think, except for one other great marketer/fan named Greg Price, I was the only guy at the company who had any idea who Steve Rude was.

Steve was a prince of a guy then, and I should note that he’s been a prince of a guy to me many times through the years since.  He’s been very encouraging with all my geek culture efforts (Captain Action, Bonfire, etc.) and all the while I’ve been astonished at his art. 

For this tin project, we had the budget and we had the time.  But when I explained to Steve that I would need his portfolio in order to gain approval / buy in from the powers that be, the conversation halted with an uncomfortable thud.  He didn’t have a portfolio, he explained. He was getting plenty of work then without a traditional commercial illustrator’s portfolio.

Was there any way around this? Was there anything we could do?

Alas, there wasn’t. I was “this close”, but he was just too busy then.   Maybe if he like OREO cookies better it would have motivated him, I dunno.

<As an aside – years later, I did get another favorite comic artist, Chris Sprouse, to create artwork for Nabisco tins, but that’s another story.>

So that year, I ended up with a perfectly fine artist to create perfectly fine painting for perfectly fine OREO Holiday Tins. But if I had only been successful in recruiting Steve Rude -it would have been something really magical.

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Oh by the way – Steve Rude is much more accessible today and now has even more wonderful art. Without reservation, I’d still give his work my highest recommendation…. so don’t be shy about doing a little Holiday shopping on his site here: https://www.steverude.com