The Mad Men of Expo 67

By Julie Barlow & Jean-Benoît Nadeau (translated by Emilie Gosselin)

Photo credit : Library & Archives Canada

Expo 67’s legacy is one of tremendous crowds, endless lineups and overflowing restaurants. While the organizers had hoped for 200,000 visitors on opening day, 330,000 walked through the turnstiles. The millionth visitor arrived on the third day among a record crowd of 570,000 people. 50 million people came that summer, the half of which from America.

This marketing triumph is particularly impressive considering that four years prior, the organizing committee was having great difficulty selling the project to the Canadian public. They just didn’t really know how. “In Canada, we’d never seen a gathering of 200,000 people,” says Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien, the Director of Operations.

The media, especially the Canadian media, we’re negative and even hostile towards Expo 67 in the years leading up to it. Many Canadians didn’t think that strangers would be interested in a “subarctic country, uncertain of its own identity,” as journalist Peter Newman described. Strangers, particularly Americans, couldn’t see why they would possibly come to Canada.

The team in charge of marketing Expo took a series of brilliant decisions very early on, starting with its name. In 1962, Mayor of Montreal is already talking of Expo – the expression spreads quickly. “The official name was the  ‘1967 International and Universal Exposition, First Category, Montreal, Canada.’ A ridiculous name. Ridiculous!” recalls Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien.

Photo credit : Library & Archives Canada

The Bureau international des expositions (BIE), supervisors of these universal exhibitions, are hesitant toward this abbreviation, “Expo.” But the organizing committee insists: the idea isn’t to dilute the concept of a universal exhibition. It’s to show the North American public, who has only seen commercial fairs, that the event being prepared in Montreal will be completely new for the entire continent, with an educational, cultural, scientific and humanistic vision. The BIE finally accepts: it will be called Expo.

While Expo only exists on paper and a part of the site is still underwater, the Directors of Expo are already looking to impose an image. Giant concrete letters reading E-X-P-O emerge across the water and the mock ups multiply. By 1964, they’ve organized paid visits for the press, by helicopter when the site is inaccessible, then by bus and on foot. On Sundays, the grounds are even open to the public, who also have access to a ten-story wooden observation tower.

Photo credit : Library & Archives Canada

Aside from traditional campaigns on brochures, posters and souvenir items, they create their own information medium called Expo Digest, distributing over 100,000 copies. They shoot a series of brief ads featuring international stars – singer Maurice Chevalier, TV show host Ed Sullivan, British actor James Mason and Russian cosmonaut Youri Gagarine – invited the public to Montreal. American television is so pleased with the result they broadcast it for free.

“It was the first time this kind of event was being sold as a destination rather than a simple exhibition,” recalls Diana Nicholson, working for protocol, operations, and as a spokesperson for Expo at the time. The idea of “traveling to Expo” reaches its peak with then revolutionary idea of a “Passport for Man and His World.” This seasonal pass, in the form of an actual passport, will invite its user to visit all the pavilions, which will each have they own stamp! Fifty years later, hundreds of thousands of Expo Passports are still found in the memorabilia boxes of Canadians.

Photo credit : Library & Archives Canada

5,000 or so audiovisual conferences are given by the organizing committee and its representatives to recruit valuable allies. One of which calls Yves Jasmin, Director of Public Relations: the Vice-President of Marketing from Macy’s in New York City in November 1965. John Blum tells him his plan point-blank to build an 8 meter mock-up of Expo which will be set up on the fourth floor at Macy’s. “He told me: American Express will sell your passports and we will advertise you in all of our windows!”

The tipping point arrives at the end of 1966. The first glowing articles from the American press are published and Canadians are starting to believe them. “I saw a important change in attitude,” says Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien. “All of a sudden, the public stopped resisting. They wanted to know what was going to happen and how it would be.”

The Mad Men of Expo win the bet.

Discover the documentary thriller Expo 67 Mission Impossible

*Now available on DVD at our online Shop*