Whiteout first appeared April 16, 1987, as the Jets’ counter to Calgary’s ‘C of red’
As retailers struggle to keep up with demand for Jets whiteout gear, there’s one Winnipegger who can’t help beaming.
Rod Palson is the advertising brain behind the playoff tradition that began in the city 31 years ago and has become legendary in sports circles.
Many teams in many different sports have attempted to mimic the idea of the whiteout — encouraging fans to dress up in one unified colour — but none has been able to equal the passion the Jets’ fans have shown in embracing it.
“It’s just so gratifying and it’s exhilarating,” said Palson, who was creative director at Palmer Jarvis Communications in 1987 when the company got an urgent call from the Jets, who needed a playoff campaign.
The team was facing the Calgary Flames in the first round of the Stanley Cup post-season and Flames fans had taken to wearing red for their team and calling themselves “the C of Red.”
“I think the Jets’ marketing department was feeling a little intimidated by that, that they didn’t have a counter-statement,” Palson said. “That was the reason for the meeting that was called.”
Initially, the team pitched an idea to encourage fans to wear the Jets’ three main colours — red, white and blue.
Not only would it be difficult for people to find multi-coloured clothes, it wouldn’t be very bold, Palson thought. It would just look like a regular crowd of people with all those different colours.
“That wasn’t going to make any kind of statement. How could it?” he said.
He suggest simply asking fans to wear a white T-shirt, the main colour at the time of the team’s home jersey.
There was also a need for a very quick turnaround because the game was less than a week away. Palson figured a white tee was likely something many people already had.
He can still vividly recall heading to the game on April 16, 1987, and wondering if the marketing campaign was going to work.
With his own family dressed in white as they drove to the old Winnipeg Arena, Palson started seeing more people in other cars with the same theme.
At least there will be a few, he thought. Then he walked into the arena and…
“It was mind-blowing,” Palson said.
The seats were filled 90 per cent by people in white — whatever white they could find.
“People jumped on it immediately and it was an overnight success,” he said.
The Jets went on to win the series four games to two but were swept from the post-season by the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in the second round.
The tradition, however, was cemented.
During his career, Palson was involved in developing advertising for numerous clients. Many of those campaigns won awards and caught a lot of attention.
“But are they remembered today? Probably not,” he said.
“The whiteout? It has endured.”
Despite going into a hiatus for about 18 years — between the time the original Jets franchise left for Phoenix and when the Jets 2.0 made it to the post-season in 2015 — the tradition has remained strong. Maybe even grown stronger.
“It reappeared with a vengeance, with a celebration that’s almost hard to fathom,” Palson said.
On Wednesday, during the Jets’ 3-2 victory in Game 1 of the first round of the 2018 playoffs, the 15,321 fans inside Bell MTS Place were draped in white. They came dressed in coveralls, tutus, suit jackets, dresses, wigs, masks, costume ears, helmets, beards and a wide variety of other white attire.
Another 5,100 gathered outside, on a blocked-off street next to the arena, to watch the game on a big screen. Again, the vast majority were in all white.
“Since that first whiteout, there’s a whole generation, and maybe more, of people who are now buying into this. It means a lot,” said Palson.
“How many ad campaigns out there still have the enduring passion attached to them that the whiteout does? I can’t think of many.”
Even if the Atlanta Thrashers hadn’t been renamed the Jets after their relocation to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season, and even if the team’s owners had chosen to ignore the whiteout, it still would have happened, he said.
“The fans would have done it anyway. That’s just how strong the passion is. And it feels great.”
While the idea was Palson’s, there was a team behind the campaign’s launch. Palson is quick to give full credit to Palmer Jarvis’s designers and writers, as well as the Jets’ marketing department for jumping on board and “working it to the max.”
“We made it happen very quickly. It was a team effort,” he said.
Unfortunately for Palson, he might not be able to witness his creation in person this post-season. He hasn’t able to get any playoff tickets to the hottest show in town.
“But I am certainly seeking out all opportunities,” he said.