Marketing microcosm at Suffolk Center

Published 8:48 pm Monday, September 16, 2013

It’s hard for most folks to imagine the kind of marketing genius that Amedeo Obici apparently had.

My preview visit last week to the exhibit at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts marking the 100th anniversary of Planters in Suffolk left me in awe. The exhibit is open now through Nov. 2.

The vast array of Planters and Mr. Peanut memorabilia curated by Nancy Kinzinger from several East Coast collectors is almost overwhelming. The children’s toys, baby rattles, cookie cutters, clocks, spoons, toothbrushes and just about every household item imaginable with Mr. Peanut’s image on them must have given Planters a mid-20th-century ubiquity rivaled these days only by Facebook.

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I have read up on Obici’s life recently for several different stories surrounding the 100th anniversary. I was inspired by the story about how he taught himself about marketing as a boy in Pennsylvania, when he experimented with how different arrangements of fruit on the street stand where he worked would increase or decrease sales.

Most folks have heard the story about when his peanut business got going and he put various letters of the alphabet into bags of peanuts, promising free products to anyone who could cobble together the letters of his last name. One imagines the O’s, B’s, I’s and C’s showed up among the peanuts somewhat less frequently than the other letters.

For all of Obici’s marketing prowess, perhaps his best move was to sponsor a contest for someone else to do the work — specifically, for local kids to design a mascot for the company.

Suffolk boy Antonio Gentile answered the call with a rough sketch of what would eventually become Mr. Peanut. Many people may not know that although Gentile got only a modest cash prize for winning the contest, Obici later paid Gentile’s way through medical school.

In addition, on Oct. 19, the Peanut Pals collectors’ group will have its swap meet at the center. It is open to the public and is rumored to be including that original drawing by Gentile.

The exhibit at the Suffolk Center is a look at the life of Obici, the evolution of Mr. Peanut as a marketing icon and Planters as a brand, and how Suffolk has grown along with the company that put it on the map. I would encourage anyone to attend.

The Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Call 923-0003 for more information.