This is the third of a three-part series about advertising characters in the United States. The first told the stories of the four greatest fictional characters to personify a brand and the second related the histories of the four greatest real-life television pitchmen. While doing the research for those two, I envisioned an article about animated (now computerized) characters who sold consumer products. It is no coincidence that cartoon characters were used to sell foods and other things to kids who were glued to their television sets watching cartoons on television. Here are a couple of dozen collected from over the years. How many do you remember?
Consumers are suckers for ads with animals
Writing in the Journal of Advertising Research, the Advertising Research Foundation says animals in ads can increase already-positive feelings about a brand. Lloyd and Woodside say animals help increase brand recognition and Natasha Braunwart says some animals evoke emotions that have a net positive effect for advertisers.
There are lots of talking animals selling stuff
We know that advertising executives long ago agreed that not only had irritation had become an acceptable part of advertising, but annoying people was a great way to pound their messages into our skulls. Why else would you hire Gilbert Gottfried (a comic whose shtick was having a really obnoxious voice) to provide the voice of the Aflac duck?
This stork is known for sounding like Groucho Marx while holding a pickle as if it were one of Groucho’s cigars
Robert J. Vlasic concluded a stork was the natural choice to sell pickles “because storks deliver babies and pregnant women love pickles.” One commercial said “Vlasic is the pickle pregnant women crave – after all, who’s a better pickle expert?”
The French Sardine Company of California
Fifty years ago, young Charlie Tuna was a beatnik in sunglasses and a beret. He wanted to be caught so he could be turned into a can of Star-Kist tuna but they rejected him with their signature “Sorry, Charlie.” Who thought a suicidal fish was a good idea?
Duracell was the first to use a pink bunny in its advertising
But it was Energizer that won a patent on the trademark after introducing its own pink bunny. The first pink bunny commercial had an army of them drumming along, all powered by Duracell.
The first Energizer commercial poked fun at Duracell’s drumming bunny ad by having them run down while the Energizer bunny keeps going and going and going. That ad campaign was wildly successful by all metrics except the one that counts. Sales went down and excuse-makers said it was because the ads made people go out and buy Duracell.
Bucky Beaver was created by the Disney Commercial Studios for a toothpaste ad
The character was voiced by Head Mousketeer Jimmy Dodd, who also wrote and composed the jingle, as seen and heard in this 12-second clip from the film Grease. Bristol-Myers says Bucky is being brought back to “make a positive impact on how children around the world brusha brusha brusha!” Yucka, yucka, yucka. At least I get the beaver-teeth connection.
One story says this ad character was originally based on an actual test animal
Supposedly a caged lab animal went crazy for a cereal General Mills was testing. In the ad campaign that followed, the cartoon rabbit (not the inmate) tries to trick children into giving him a bowl of the cereal, but they never do. They always admonish him, saying “Silly rabbit – Trix are for kids.”
Silly Rabbit will be temporarily replaced as corporate spokesrabbit by Cinnabun, a real rabbit who lives in Houston and has 6,000 Instagram followers. After more than 60 years of peddling sugar to kids as part of a nutritious breakfast, the Trix relaunch will have no artificial colors or favors.
Why stop with Trix?
Having learned that intense primary colors sell sugared cereals to kiddies, Kellogg’s executives made six colors of Cheerios knockoffs, had someone draw a spokesbird and hired the voice of Bugs Bunny before switching the character’s accent to British, which certainly says Froot Loops to me. Toucan Sam, like so many of the others, has undergone several cosmetic makeovers. The last one had diehard fans up in arms enough to establish a #NotMyToucan campaign.
Lizards are big these days
The little Geico gecko is everywhere. Tests show his accent adds credibility to his claims – as if anyone is going to believe an insectivorous lizard, no matter how cute he sounds. Word on the street is that the gecko was chosen as spokeslizard because that’s how most people pronounced Geico.
The Budweiser Lizards were quickly replaced by the Budweiser Frogs who quickly disappeared because the reptile/amphibian space was getting crowded. What was wrong with the Budweiser Clydesdales? Too warm-blooded?
The Valspar lizards are chameleons, actually
They are a great way for a paint, which is mostly a commodity, to show off its colors.
Neither man nor beast
The California Raisins were a singing, dancing claymation rhythm and blues troupe with their own animated television show and their own albums. As one story goes, a Foote, Cone & Belding writer, exasperated at his inability to come up with a way to pitch dried grapes, blurted out, ”We’ve tried everything but dancing raisins singing that I Heard It Through the Grapevine song.”
Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is
Speedy doesn’t just sell Alka-Seltzer – his body is an Alka-Seltzer tablet and he wears a larger one for a hat. His first name was Sparky until someone figured out speedy relief sounded better than sparky relief. Speedy got his start in magazines in the 50s and moved on to making screechy-voiced stop-motion spots for television. En España, se llama “Prontito.”
Carmen Miranda was a 5-foot tall Brazilian bombshell singer and over-the-top movie star famous for her outrageous hats. At the peak of her career in the 1930s, she was the highest-paid woman in Hollywood. Her flashy, exotic look was wildly popular in the United States, so the United Fruit Company designed a mascot with Carmen in mind, calling her Chiquita Banana.
Jars shaped like women
Have you heard the rumors about a new Mrs. Butterworth bottle? My sources say it will be a tie-in with Barbie, hold a fraction of the syrup and be lots easier to tip over.
Some people say the character was modeled on a U.S. Navy sailor, but that’s just scuttlebutt. I was able to trace Mr. Clean’s history back far enough to find someone over at P&G took the time to make up a very creepy origin story. Get this – a farmer and his wife discover a bald baby scrubbing their front porch because he’d rather clean up messes than make them. Naturally, the couple adopts him and he goes on to make the world a cleaner place. Really? An obsessive-compulsive alien baby?
A guy in a striped shirt and a straw hat offers a glass of red liquid to a tourist
He holds out the glass and says, “Hey! How about a nice Hawaiian Punch?” The unsuspecting victims say “Sure!” and Punchy (that’s his name) punches them in the face – get it? Really – your brand ambassador assaults tourists, then skips merrily away, leaving them lying unconscious on the ground?
Voiced by comedy team Bob and Ray, these roughly sketched characters were named Bert and Harry Piels
Commercials always had the tall, soft-spoken Harry calming the short loudmouth Bert. An 81-day brewery strike in 1949 pretty much put an end to this regional brand that got shoved aside by the big boys.
The little bald man in a toga says only “Pizza, pizza!”
Wikipedia says that in 1998, Little Caesars delivered an order for 13,386 pizzas to the VF Corporation of Greensboro, North Carolina.
The large and small of it
The Minnesota Valley Canning Company sold canned and frozen vegetables. Their first giant was a scowling caveman in a bear suit. Leo Burnett changed the bear suit into one made of leaves, changed the giant’s expression to jolly, painted the big guy green and sent him out to star in ads that sang “From the valley of the jolly – ho, ho, ho – Green Giant!”
The Jolly Green Giant Museum in Blue Earth, Minnesota has what they say is the largest collection of Jolly Green Giant memorabilia in the world – and why wouldn’t they? The Kingsmen had their second biggest hit with their song The Jolly Green Giant. If you’re dying to hear it, click here. Did you know the Jolly Green Giant was the name soldiers gave the HH-3E helicopter used as a rescue ship for downed American pilots in the Vietnam War?
The company says they bake their cookies and crackers in magic ovens inside a big hollow tree
Leo Burnett (it’s that man again) created the Keebler elves during the age of ad agencies making up fanciful things.
Leo had a thing for elves
In 1933, Burnett put three of the little guys on a cereal box. Their onomatopoeic names came from a radio ad: “Listen to the fairy song of health, the merry chorus sung by Kellogg’s Rice Crispies as they merrily snap, crackle and pop in a bowl of milk. If you’ve never heard food talking, now’s your chance!” How’s that for unmemorable?
Are you kidding me?
Until researching for this article, I did not know that in physics, the terms snap, crackle and pop are used to describe the fourth, fifth and sixth time derivatives of position. The first derivative is velocity, the second is acceleration and the third is jerk.
In 1952, Tony beat out three other alliterative finalists (Elmo the Elephant, Katy the Kangaroo and Newt the Gnu) and won the spokestiger gig. Later in life, Tony became an Italian-American with a family. He dedicated his life to peddling refined sugar for the kiddies.
The Spanish word for bandit is Bandido
But they changed it because it doesn’t rhyme with Frito. The Bandito was drawn by the same guy who did Bugs Bunny. Hoy, el Frito Bandito es muerto, consigned to the graveyard of characters that haunt indignant activists. Foote, Cone & Belding designed the Mexican revolutionary who wore two pistols with crossed cartridge belts, spoke broken English and robbed people at gunpoint. Fritos? We don’t need no stinking Fritos!
Honorable Mention: U.S. Forest Service Public Service Announcements
People who study such things like to ask “Is Kool-Aid the pitcher or the drink?” Few know Kool-Aid was originally called Fruit Smack or that Edwin Perkins, the inventor, got his start selling smoking cessation products door to door before coming up with idea of drinkable jello. Hastings, Nebraska has a three-day Kool-Aid festival every year that features Kool-Aid chugging contests and the crowning of “Miss Kool-Aid Days.” This year’s Kool-Aid Days festival will be at the Adams County Fairgrounds from August 19th to 21st.