The Debunker: Did Gorillas Ever Beat Up Samsonite Luggage?

by Ken Jennings

August 27, 1912 saw the first appearance of a new fictional hero: Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. “A crackerjack!” enthused the magazine. “Zowie! but things happen!” In honor of the ape-man’s 101st birthday this month, Jeopardy! know-it-all Ken Jennings swings in on his vine to debunk four longstanding misconceptions about the jungles of the world. Ungawa!

Jungle Myth #4: Gorillas Hate Samsonite Luggage.

One of the most iconic American commercials of the 1970s featured the mighty African gorilla, not in his jungle-y natural habitat but in a series of urban settings: a zoo cage, a hotel, an airport. The ape (or, in many of the later ads, the man in an ape suit) would batter a series of hard-sided suitcases. The luggage, of course, survived the assault without a scratch.

The campaign was the brainchild of ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, and it went on to win many industry awards and was even inducted into the Clio Hall of Fame. An Ad Age article in 1999 ranked it as one of the 100 most memorable ad campaigns of the century. In 1983, when the ad finally went off the air (a victim of the increasing vogue for soft-sided luggage), Samsonite told New York magazine that its brand’s identification with the campaign was surprisingly strong—and getting stronger every year. Why “surprisingly”? Because the gorilla never shilled Samsonite luggage! The spots actually advertised the durability of Samsonite’s #1 market rival, American Tourister!

I have no idea how a major American brand got so inseparably identified with its competitor’s trademark campaign. Imagine a world where most people remember Burger King as inventing the Golden Arches, or Coke sponsoring the Pepsi Challenge. It might have something to do with the fact that Samsonite was by far the luggage industry leader at the time, with twice the market share of American Tourister. People who could only think of the name of one luggage company probably assumed, in hindsight, that the biggest company must have had the best ads. In any case, American Tourister cleverly solved its branding problem in 1993 by getting bought out by Samsonite. Since then, three-story inflatable gorillas have occasionally adorned Samsonite’s corporate headquarters and retail outlets. So everything worked out for the best, didn’t it?

Quick Quiz: In February of this year, what employment website ended its long-running series of Super Bowl ads featuring chimps, which had long been criticized by animal rights groups?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.