While advertising mascots associated with breakfast cereals proliferated in the late Twentieth Century, even then they were nothing new. Whether peddling food or gasoline, advertising mascots had been around for a long time before Tony the Tiger ever appeared on a box of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes.
Among the oldest is Mr. Peanut, the Planters Nuts mascot. In 1916 Planter's Nut & Chocolate Company of Sulfolk, Virginia held a contest for the right image to promote their product. Antonio Gentile, a 14 year old from Virginia, won the award of $5 for his simple design of a "peanut person" standing cross legged. A commercial artist expanded on his design, adding the familiar top hat, monocle, white gloves, and cane. Mr. Peanut underwent some changes over the years, for much of his history looking like a somewhat realistic presentation of a peanut. In 1960 he was re-designed as a more cartoonish character, closer to the Mr. Peanut we know today. Over the years a huge number of promotional items bore his likeness (everything from salt and pepper shakers to dolls). And he has long been a fixture on television, making his first appearance in commercials in the Fifties.
Mr. Peanut was preceded a few years by another advertising icon, the Morton Salt Girl. The Morton Salt Girl was introduced in 1911 along with their popular slogan, "When it rains, it pours." The image of the Morton Salt Girl has always been that of a girl between seven and nine in the rain with an umbrella and a salt container with its contents pouring onto the ground. She has undergone changes over the years. The original Morton Salt Girl simply stood in the rain. When the character was revamped in 1921 she was shown as walking, which she has been doing ever since. The Morton Salt Girl would be updated in 1933, 1941, 1956, and 1968 (she's stayed the same since then). She is one of the few advertising mascots to undergo fairly drastic changes over the years.
Other old advertising mascots are Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo, the mascots of Cracker Jack Candied Popcorn and Peanuts. Introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, Cracker Jack did not gain its familiar mascots until 1918. The two characters were initially modelled after Cracker Jack inventor and founder Frederick William Rueckheim's grandson and his dog. Like Mr. Peanut and the Morton Salt Girl, Sailor Jack and Bingo have been made over from time to time.
The Campbell Soup Kids are even older than Mr. Peanut, the Morton Salt Girl, and Sailor Jack. They were created by cartoonist Grace Wiederseim Drayton (whose most famous comic strip was the The Pussycat Princess) for a streetcar advertising campaign. Pictured as a pair of chubby, rosy cheeked twins, the two were an immediate success and would make their way into a number of promotional items, including pinback buttons, dolls, postcards, and so on. In the Fifties they made their television debut, singing the familiar jingle "M'm! M'm! Good! M'm! M'm! Good!, That's what Campbell's soups are, M'm! M'm! Good! (itself dating to the Thirties)." The two stopped singing in 1958, but they would remain Campbell Soup's mascots to this day. For the most part they have remained unchanged, although in 1998 the Campbell Soup Kids became less chubby and more slender due to changing conceptions of health.
Not as old as Mr. Peanut, Sailor Jack, or the Morton Salt Girl is the Jolly Green Giant. That having been said, the big emerald man has been around for awhile. In 1925 the Minnesota Valley Canning Company introduced the Giant as part of the commemoration of a new variety of pea. Originally the giant was the same colour as human beings of European descent and dressed in a shabby bearskin. In 1930 both he and the bearskin were coloured green. He was changed again in 1936, given a more sophisticated look and his familiar leafy wardrobe. It was also in this year that he officially became, well, "jolly." The Jolly Green Giant would be updated again in 1960, 1976, and 2003. Through the years he remained popular, although his first TV commercial was not a rousing success. First airing in 1953, the commercial featured rough stop motion animation with the Giant moving through the countryside. It was decided that the commercial was too frightening for children. Thereafter the Jolly Green Giant (played by Olympic long jump skier Keith Wegeman in the Sixties) would simply stand over the valley and utter his trademark, "Ho! Ho! Ho!" Len Dresslar (who was also the voice of Snap of Rice Krispies fame) provided the Giant's voice. In 1973 the Green Giant was given a sidekick in the form of Little Green Sprout. Arguably, the Green Giant is one of the most successful mascots of all time. In 1950 the Minnesota Valley Canning Company changed its name to "Green Giant." In 1978 Blue Earth, Minnesota erected a statue of him.
While many advertising mascots are associated with food, the petroleum industry has had its share of mascots as well. I've already written about Dino, the dinosaur mascot of Sinclair Oil in this blog, but Dino was not the only such mascot. Esso (now known in the U. S. as Exxon) has long been associated with the tiger. The association began in the early 1900s when Esso stations in Norway featured tigers on their gas pumps. It was in 1936 that Esso in the United Kingdom started featuring a tiger in their newspaper advertising. The campaign ended with World War II, when petrol rationing was the rule of the day. The tiger made a comeback, this time in the United States, in 1953. That year Esso started featuring tigers in its ads. Eventually, in 1959 to be exact, this would result in the company's famous slogan: "Put a tiger in your tank." By the Sixties realistic looking tigers had given way to a cartoon character, who would continue to appear until 1973. Since then Esso/Exxon in the States has been associated with tigers. In fact, they would even bring back the cartoon character in 1996 as part of their campaign for their TigerMart convenience stores. This resulted in a lawsuit from Kellogg's insisting this infringed on Tony the Tiger, even though the Esso Tiger looks nothing like Tony and the two had co-existed since the Sixties.
If it seems odd for gasoline companies to have advertising mascots, then consider that for many years the electric power industry had its very own spokesman in the form of Reddy Kilowatt. Reddy Kilowatt was an antropomorphic lightning bolt with a light bulb for head, created by Ashton B. Collins Sr. for the Alabama Power Company in 1926. The character was quickly licensed to other power companies and proved very popular. The character appeared not only appeared in ads, but promotional items (including comic books) and animated, educational films often shown at schools. He was more or less retired in the Seventies with the Energy Crisis, but has maintained a high degree of popularity ever since.
The Fifties and Sixties were not only the Golden Age of cereal mascots, but of advertising mascots in general as well. Much of this was no doubt due to television, a medium which was suited to whimsical and humourous characters. Certainly, the mascot for Alka-Seltzer, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, was perfect for TV. First introduced in a magazine ad in 1952, by 1953 he was appearing in commercials that mixed live action with Pixilation (a form of stop motion animation), alongside the famous jingle, "Plop, plop, Fizz, Fizz Oh, what a relief it is!" Speedy Alka-Seltzer proved to be a big success, although he would be retired in 1964. Since then he has been revived from time to time.
Just as Quaker Oats sought to create a product with a built in mascot in the Sixites (namely, Cap'n Crunch), so too did Proctor & Gamble in the Fifties. The company wanted to enter the liquid cleanser market and hired the firm of Tatham-Laird, Inc to develop an advertising campaign. The end result was a character named "Mr. Clean," a bald man in a T-shirt with an earring in his left ear (many have presumed he is a sailor). The character was designed by animator Hal Mason, perhaps best known for his work at Walter Lantz Studios. Mr. Clean made his debut in a TV commercial in 1958, alongside his famous jingle (which begins "Mr. Clean gets rid of dirt..."). Mr. Clean has changed very little over the years and his jingle has even survived, appearing as recently as this year.
In 1961 Charlie Tuna, the spokesman (spokesfish?) for Starkist Tuna, was introduced. The character was created by legendary ad man Tom Rogers of the Leo Burnett Agency, who also took part in creating the Keebler Elves and Morris the Cat. Charlie Tuna was portrayed as a hip fish wearing a beret and glasses who, for whatever reason, wants to be canned as tuna for Starkist. Thinking that he has good taste, Charlie was always disappointed when told,"Sorry, Charlie" and that Starkist doesn't want tuna with good taste, but tuna that tastes good. In commercials Charlie was voiced by character actor Herschel Bernardi, perhaps best known for his role in the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. Charlie would be retired in the Eighties, although he would return in 1999. He has been a spokesfish for Starkist ever since.
Of course, as legendary as the creator of Charlie Tuna was, he could not match a claim held by the creator of the Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy. In 1940 Martin Martin Nodell, with writer Bill Finger, created the superhero Green Lantern for All-American Comics. Having created one of the most popular superheroes of all time, Nodell was set to make history again in 1965. C.A. Pillsbury and Company wanted a stop-motion character for their commercials. Copywriter Rudi Perz at the Leo Burnett Agency came up with the initial idea for Poppin' Fresh, while art director Nodell and his team developed the character's design. The character made his television debut in October 1965, his original voice being voice actor Paul Frees. Attempts were made to give Poppin' Fresh a family, from Poppy the Pillsbury Doughgirl to Flapjack the Pillsbury Dog, but none of them proved the lasting success that the original Pillsbury Doughboy did. He continues to appear in commercials to this day.
As successful as the Pillsbury Doughboy is, his success may be dwarfed by Ronald McDonald, the clown who serves as spokesman for McDonald's. Two different stories exist regarding the creation of Ronald McDonald. In one he was created as a promotion at a Los Angeles McDonald's by a professional clown. In the other he was created for TV spots by a Washington D. C. McDonalds franchise, with Willard Scott (best known as weatherman on Today) first playing the role. Regardless, the two stories agree on this much. It was a local franchise rather than an advertising agency or McDonald's Corporation itself that created Ronald McDonald, making him rather unique among advertising icons. Willard Scott's appearance as Ronald was not that far off from that of Bozo the Clown (whom he also played), but it would not be long before the clown would take on the look by which he is known today. Regardless, by the mid-Sixties Ronald McDonald was appearing nationwide and has been a McDonald's mascot ever since.
It would be in 1967 that the Keebler Elves were created by the Leo Burnett Agency for United Biscuit Company's Keebler line of products. According to the commercials, the Keebler Elves bake cookies in a hollow tree. Their leader, dressed distinctively in green, yellow, and red, is Ernie the Elf, originally voiced by Parley Baer (who played Chester Gunsmoke on radio and Mayor Stoner on The Andy Griffith Show). Over the years a number of other elves have appeared, including Doc (the elves' physician), Flo (their accountant), Fryer Tuck (spokesman for Munch 'ems), and Elmer, an apprentice baker. The Keebler Elves are featured in commercials to this very day.
While many advertising mascots are created by ad agencies and the companies themselves, many were actual people. Contrary to recent urban legends, Chef Boyardee was an actual person, Ettore Boiardi. He served as the spokesman of his company for decades. Harland David Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, gained fame as Colonel Sanders. To this day his image is associated with the company. Both Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's, and Orville Redenbacher, founder of Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popcorn, also served as the mascots of their respective companies.
Of course, there are times when advertising mascots invite controversy. Aunt Jemima, Rastus of Cream of Wheat fame, and Uncle Ben have all come under fire as ethnic stereotypes. Perhaps the most notorious example of a controversial advertising mascot was the Frito Bandito, a spokesman for Frito Corn Chips and a character lingering in the memory of many younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers. The Frito Bandito was developed by the advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding, but was given life by two legends of animation. It was legendary animator Tex Avery, veteran of both Warner Brothers and MGM, who designed the Frito Bandito and Mel Blanc, voice of the classic Warner Brothers characters. who provided his voice. The Frito Bandito was the sort of Mexican bandit seen in numerous Westerns. He was heavily armed with bandoliers and pistols, unshaven, and his smile prominently featured a gold tooth. Debuting in 1967, he ended his first commercial by drawing his guns and demanding the audience hand over their Fritos Corn Chips. Needless to say, many Hispanics were not amused. Frito-Lay gave into the outcry and cleaned the Bandito up. He was given a shave, his teeth were fixed, and he no longer held people up for their Frito Corn Chips, but instead tried to get their Frito Corn Chips through guile and trickery instead.
Unfortunately, for Frito-Lay, this did nothing to assuage the anger of various Hispanics. In 1968 two activist groups formed to fight ethnic stereotyping in the media: the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (NMAADC) and Involvement of Mexican-Americans in Gainful Endeavors (IMAGE). Both groups launched an attack on the Frito Bandito. Initially they approached broadcasters, actually succeeding in convincing KNBC-TV in Los Angeles and KRON-TV and KPIX-TV in San Francisco to boycott the Frito Bandito's commercials by December of 1969. That same month the NMAADC announced that it would file a complaint with the FCC. By February 1970 Frito-Lay announced that they would stop using the Frito Bandito as a spokesman. This appears to have simply been a stop gap measure, however, as new Frito Bandito commercials continued to air into 1971. The NMAADC then announced that it would file a $610 million lawsuit against Frito-Lay for "for the malicious defamation of the character of the 6.1 million Mexican Americans in the United States." Threatened with a lawsuit, Frito-Lay at last retired the Frito Bandito. In the Nineties, Taco Bell would also come under attack for their mascot, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, whom some Hispanics saw as a thinly veiled stereotype.
Controversy of a different kind was created by Joe Camel (officially "Old Joe"), the anthropomorphic camel who served as the mascot of Camel cigarettes. Initially conceived for a T-shirt campaign in the Fifties, Joe Camel was revived by R.J. Reynolds in 1988 in an effort to make the brand appeal to a younger crowd. The strategy backfired insofar as many viewed the use of a cartoon character as a means to entice children into smoking. An American Medical Association study even claimed that more children recognised Joe Camel than Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone (I've always doubted the validity of this study, as most children I knew at the time had no idea who Joe Camel even was...). In 1992 a San Francisco lawyer, Janet Mangini, even sued R. J. Reynolds for targeting minors through Joe Camel. Coming under fire from activist groups and even Congress, R. J. Reynolds settled the suit in 1997. They also voluntarily retired Joe Camel.
While Joe Camel generated a great deal of controversy, he was not the first cartoon character to sell cigarettes. Indeed, if the anti-smoking lobby was angered by Joe Camel, they would have been terrified by Willie the Kool Penguin. With the introduction of Kool cigarettes in 1933, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company decided to use penguins in marketing. That year penguins appeared in ads for the cigarettes. It was the following year, 1934, that a cartoon penguin first appeared. Created by the Ted Bates Advertising Agency and eventually called "Willie," the penguin changed over the years, growing more cartoonish as time passed. He also produced a large number of promotional items, including salt and pepper shakers, countertop figures, and match holders among other things. From April 1952 to April 1953 there was even, horror of horrors, a Willie the Penguin comic book published by Standard Publications! Willie made his television debut in commercials in 1954. In 1960, after 27 years of serving as the mascot for Kool cigarettes, Willie the Kool Penguin was retired. Although largely forgotten today, he would have a lasting impact on pop culture. An image of Willie in a top hat and monocle inspired Bob Kane to create Batman's enemy, The Penguin!
In the past few years it seems as if only a few advertising mascots have lasted. The Taco Bell Chihuahua was retired after only three years. The Dell Dude (played by actor Ben Curtis) lasted only three years (although his arrest for possession of drugs probably had more to do with the Dell Dude's career ending than anything else). Of mascots, I can only think two in recent years that have lasted some time: the Snuggle Bear (since 1983) and the Energizer Bunny (since 1987). It is left to see whether advertising characters of more recent vintage will last or not.
That having been said, it does seem to me that lately it is insurance company advertising mascots who are the most popular. While neither the AFLAC Duck nor the GEICO Gecko have the sex appeal of Erin Esurance, they have both proved successes. The AFLAC Duck (AFLAC stands for American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus, for the curious--the company was founded in 1955) first appeared in 2000, the creation of Amico and Eric David of the Kaplan Thaler Group. The Duck himself was designed by special effects company Stan Winston Studio (that's right--he's not a real duck). In his commercials the Duck has appeared with Yogi Berra, Chevy Chase, and basektball player Yao Ming.
The GEICO Gecko is as well known as his rival at AFLAC, although he was created out of necessity more than anything else. The GEICO Gecko (GEICO stands for the Government Employees Insurance Company, founded in 1936) was created by the Martin Agency during the 1999 Screen Actor's Guild strike (which prohibited live actors from appearing in commercials). Originally voiced by Kelsey Grammer, in his first spot the Gecko complained about people confusing Gecko with GEICO. The Gecko soon lost Kelsey Grammer's cultured tones. Initially, it was thought it would be funnier if the Gecko spoke with an Australian accent. Voiced by Richard Richard Steven Horvitz in one spot, it was Irish actor Dave Kelly who provided the Gecko's Aussie voice. More recently, he has shifted towards a more working class, British accent, now being voiced by English actor Jake Wood. Regardless of his voice, the GEICO Gecko has remained popular, so much so that part of the GEICO website is dedicated to him.
Advertising mascots have been in use in America for well over 100 years. Some have become lasting successes (Mr. Peanut and the Campbell Soup Kids). Some have been abject failures (anyone remember Herb, the mascot for Burger King for less than a year?). Some have even generated a great deal of controversy (I don't think the Frito Bandito or Joe Camel will be back any time soon). Regardless, advertising mascots are definitely here to stay. It will be interesting to see which ones are still around in one hundred years.