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‘Pizza, pizza.’ ‘Where’s the beef?’: St. Petersburg adman dies at 80

Cliff Freeman was the king of one-liners. But he never forgot his local roots.
Cliff Freeman was an influential advertising executive who grew up in St. Petersburg.
Cliff Freeman was an influential advertising executive who grew up in St. Petersburg. [ HANDOUT | Handout ]
Published Oct. 25

Years ago on a visit home, Cliff Freeman walked into the Little Caesars on Fourth Street N.

He was the guy behind the famous “Pizza, pizza” slogan, he told the employees. He was even the voice.

“They didn’t believe him,” said his brother, Hunter Freeman.

But Cliff Freeman was the mind behind ads that stood out for 30 years, starting in the 1980s, from the old woman unimpressed by puny burgers for Wendy’s to a hard-to-shake jingle for Almond Joy.

Freeman died Sept. 5 of pneumonia. He was 80.

Leader, leader

The five Freeman kids grew up all around St. Petersburg. Their parents ran the Applegate Hotel on Fifth Avenue N. Their grandma and aunt ran a seasonal boarding house on 25th Avenue N, where the Freeman kids lived until their rooms got rented out. They’d relocate to the family’s other motels, Flag Ship and Sea Rocket in Redington Beach.

Wherever they were, Cliff Freeman was always in the lead.

He sold Christmas cards door to door and was a soda jerk at Tussy Drugstore. At Northeast High School, Freeman wrote his first ad.

He graduated from Florida State University with a degree in advertising and headed to New York City, where he’d find a woman to adore and an industry to shake up.

Cliff Freeman, right, is pictured in his high school yearbook. He graduated from Northeast High School and Florida State University. He has one son, Scott Clifford Freeman, from his first marriage.
Cliff Freeman, right, is pictured in his high school yearbook. He graduated from Northeast High School and Florida State University. He has one son, Scott Clifford Freeman, from his first marriage. [ Courtesy Hunter Freeman ]

Susan, Susan

TGI Fridays started out as a very popular singles bar. The original location in Manhattan brought crowds from the tri-state area who’d line up around the building to get in.

Susan Kelner was recently divorced and working as the checker and cashier on the day she noticed Freeman with three other people at a table across the restaurant.

“From the second I saw him, I was done.”

She nonchalantly walked around the room, watching Freeman in her periphery, before returning to her station. Then, someone tapped on her shoulder.

“And it’s Cliff. He says, ‘Excuse me, may I borrow a pencil?’”

“Yes,” she said.

The Freemans were married for 50 years. Along the way, his one-liners got a lot better.

Freeman and his wife, Susan Kelner Freeman, were married for 50 years.
Freeman and his wife, Susan Kelner Freeman, were married for 50 years. [ Courtesy Susan Kelner Freeman ]

Genius, genius

Before “Pizza, pizza,” there was “Where’s the beef?”

Freeman wrote that ad in 1984, and it soon found its way into the Democratic Party’s presidential primary debate.

“When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad,” Walter Mondale said to Gary Hart. “Where’s the beef?”

The audience erupted.

The now-famous Little Caesars ads that launched Freeman’s own agency, Cliff Freeman and Associates, started as a $15 million deal in 1987. Between 1988 and 1993, Little Caesars’ sales increased 138 percent, according to The New York Times. Freeman’s firm won the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Lions festival in 2001 for a Fox Sports campaign. He won dozens of Clio Awards.

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He closed his firm in 2009, Adweek reported, as new firms “were defining a new era of comedic advertising.”

“I guess you could argue, in the end, the agency was a cautionary tale of not evolving with the times,” former colleague Eric Silver told Adweek. “But, in hindsight, he was one of the very best things to happen to advertising.”

Freeman worked with Fox Sports in the 1990s.
Freeman worked with Fox Sports in the 1990s. [ Via newspapers.com ]

Natural, natural

Freeman created work that became part of the moment and, in some cases, outlasted it. He traveled around the world and worked with famous and powerful people. And he always came home, his brother Hunter said — for weddings, reunions, birthdays, to shop antique stores on Fourth Street and Central Avenue with his wife, and for a grouper sandwich at Harvey’s 4th Street Grill.

Sometimes, he just liked to drive around town and reminisce.

“Despite the publicity about his commercials, Freeman has kept a low profile by letting his company and co-workers take the credit,” the St. Petersburg Times reported in 1996. “When asked how he came up with the slogans and phrases we all know, he said they just ‘came to him.’”

“Who knows how the process works?” he said. “There is a discipline in that you ask yourself what is the main thing about this product that you’re selling. But I guess you’re either born with it or not.”

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