Spokescharacters can be classified on the basis of their physical form, the medium in which they appear, their origin and their role in the promotion of the product. In terms of form, characters can range from human (for example, Mr. Clean) to animal (Morris the Cat) to mythical ( Keebler's Elves). Another category called "product personification" includes such figures as the California Raisins and Dow's Scrubbing Bubbles. Characters often appear in more than one medium. Some appear in print ads, in TV spots, on package labels and on promotional merchandise.
Many spokescharacters have been created as live-action people portrayed by actors. Among the most enduring has been the laconic Marlboro Man created in 1955 by Leo Burnett Co. for Marlboro cigarettes. Other long-running live-action presenters include the lonely repairman from Maytag (also from Burnett), the elderly New England farmer for Pepperidge Farm ( Ogilvy & Mather), Mr. Whipple for Charmin Tissue (Benton & Bowles) and the waitress demonstrating Bounty paper towels, "the quicker picker upper" (B&B).
Characters also can be categorized according to origin. Advertisers can license characters that have non-advertising origins—for example, those from comic strips, TV programs and books—to promote their products. Such characters are called celebrities and include the Pink Panther for Owens Corning. Non-celebrity characters are created specifically for advertising purposes, such as the Pillsbury Doughboy, a creation of Burnett.
In fact, few agencies have developed more imaginary presenters than Burnett, starting in the early 1940s with "Chico" for the Santa Fe Railroad. Burnett developed a particular reputation for its "critters," a collection of animals and cartoon creatures that covered product categories from cereals (Tony the Tiger for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes) to banks (Hubert the Lion for Harris Bank).
Finally, spokescharacters are categorized according to their role in product promotion as active or passive. Active promotion includes speaking for the product or demonstrating it; active characters usually are featured in the ads themselves. Passive characters do not act or speak; often, they appear only on the product packaging. Characters may change from active to passive and back again over time based on advertiser needs and consumer response. For example, Elsie the Cow first appeared in ads speaking for Borden milk, then became a figurehead on the package and in the late 1990s returned to an active role once again.
There are three major reasons why advertisers choose trade characters over other ad appeals: Characters create product identification, give a product personality and provide continuity over time. Spokescharacters create product identification by forging a link between the product, the packaging and the advertising in the minds of consumers.
Beyond product identification, spokescharacters add personality and emotional appeal to a product. Characters can give a product personality by symbolizing the product's attributes or benefits. For example, Betty Crocker has come to stand for reliability, while the Energizer Bunny symbolizes endurance. Spokescharacters add emotional appeal to an impersonal brand by lending the warmth of a recognizable personality to the product. Thus, Smokey Bear provides an emotional link between consumers and the seemingly remote problem of forest fires.
Spokescharacters also appeal to advertisers because they provide continuity over time. One of the longest-lived spokescharacters is the RCA dog, Nipper, who was created in 1901. Many popular characters, such as Kellogg's Snap! Crackle! and Pop!; Borden's Elsie; and Planter's Mr. Peanut, have been used consistently for more than 60 years.
Trade characters are ideal for long-term use because, unlike their human counterparts, they do not age, change, demand more money or engage in scandalous behavior. In addition, characters are flexible, appearing on everything from billboards to the Internet to videogames.
Characters are occasionally updated to continue to appeal to consumers year after year. The Kool-Aid Pitcherman, which first appeared on the product's package in 1955, was modified in 1985 to appeal to older children. Betty Crocker's hair, wardrobe and facial features have been modernized many times since her creation in 1921.
In 1950, General Mills took the unprecedented step of extending its Betty Crocker trademark to a fully dimensional live-action personification. Actress Adelaide Hawley Cumming assumed the complete identity of Betty Crocker, not only in commercial messages but also as host of the weekly "Betty Crocker Television Show" and "The Betty Crocker Star Matinee."