Life Is Sweet for Jack Dowd as Spielberg's Hit Film Has E.T. Lovers Picking Up the (Reese's) Pieces

updated 07/26/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/26/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The alien stretches out a clenched tan fist, palm down. Elliott's heart races; does it hold a weapon? The long fingers open, and down cascade...candies. They are the brown, yellow and orange pebbles the boy had been distributing all day through the woods in hopes that the famished space traveler would follow them to his home. Elliott smiles. It is the beginning of an intergalactic friendship (not to mention the summer's blockbuster movie), all made possible by a mutual love of Reese's Pieces—and not what Jack Dowd tactfully refers to as "the other company's product."

He should know. It was Dowd, 60-year-old VP for new business development at Hershey Chocolate, where Reese's are made, who engineered the E.T. tie-in. Still, many moviegoers are leaving theaters with the impression that the peace offerings in Steven Spielberg's megahit are M & M's.

No matter. E.T. has sent sales of Reese's Pieces soaring. Within two weeks of the film's release last month, Reese's sales tripled. "It's been beyond our belief," Dowd concedes.

He was skeptical in the beginning. When a merchandising representative for Universal Studios called Hershey last October and explained that the little boy in Spielberg's work-in-progress used their product to befriend an alien, Dowd was dubious about pouring his company's money into a joint promotion. He reasoned that the folks at Hershey would be reluctant to associate with a monster that might turn consumers off. It took a trip to Universal's Hollywood studios to persuade him that E.T. was lovable enough to be a spokesthing for the sweets.

Once convinced, Dowd launched the biggest PR offensive for a single brand in Hershey's history. Posters and stickers proclaiming Reese's Pieces as "E.T.'s favorite candy" rolled off the presses, ready to be bartered away to consumers for proof-of-purchase seals. And the confection, never before sold in cinemas, suddenly popped up in the display cases of 600 theaters scheduled to premiere E.T.

The most remarkable facet of the promotion, however, was the size of Hershey's gamble: $1 million spent over six weeks, coinciding with the opening of a film that neither Dowd nor anyone else at the company had seen in its entirety. "It was a lonely trip for a while," says Dowd. "We knew that this was the same Spielberg who directed Jaws, Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark. We also knew," adds Dowd, referring to another of the director's less memorable efforts, "that it was the same Spielberg who had done 1941. It's very hard to work when you've got your fingers crossed."

He can now uncross them. One Midwestern distributor for the candy was forced to reorder four times in a 14-day period. Moviehouse owners have devised gimmicks of their own, such as guess-how-many-Reese's Pieces-in-the-jar contests and the "extraterrestrial cookie" studded with you-guessed-its. Dowd predicts the E.T. tie-in could add up to millions a year in extra sales. "We're delighted," he says.

The executive was born in Hartford, Conn. and graduated from Harvard Business School with an MBA before starting a 34-year career in marketing and advertising. In 1966 Hershey plucked Dowd from his job at Kenyon & Eckhardt in Boston and 13 years later made him corporate midwife to its new products. His biggest success before E.T. was the promotional blitz that made Reese's Peanut Butter Cups ("Two Great Tastes in One") one of the country's five best-selling candies. The father of two grown children, and a ham radio buff, Dowd admits that E.T. was a piece of luck. "We didn't decide to put Reese's Pieces in it; Spielberg and his people did," he says. "We were very lucky to get the opportunity; we were smart enough to take advantage of it, and professional enough to do it right."

There remains, of course, the M&M's problem. Even William Kotzwinkle, author of the film's novelization (PEOPLE, June 28), was fooled. The candies specified in the screenplay Kotzwinkle worked from actually were M&M's. That was changed when M&M/Mars, their producer, declined to bankroll an E.T.-oriented publicity drive.

Dowd is philosophical about the mix-up, noting that "one of the things we hope to do with the promotion is make people aware" of the distinction. (The similarity, in any case, is only skin-deep: Whereas M&M's have either chocolate or peanut insides, Pieces are all peanut butter-flavored.) To reviewers such as Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle, who confused the two brands in his column, Dowd sends a pack of Pieces, a promise of an E.T. T-shirt and a note pleading, "In the words of E. T. 's Drew Barrymore, 'Give me a break!' "

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