Born in 1923, Butterfinger bars were soon falling from the sky, dropped from airplanes atop 40 cities in one of the brand's first marketing stunts.
But the candy -- which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year -- might have hit an even higher marketing peak decades later, with its successful "Simpsons" partnership that ran from 1988 -- before the show was even a regular series -- to 2001. In honor of Butterfinger's 90th we are highlighting one of the early spots featuring Bart Simpson as the subject of this week's Rewind.
One can only wonder if the 1989 ad -- which Ad Age listed as one of the best spots of the year -- would slip by the food police these days, with its reference to the 270-calorie bar as an essential part of a school lunch. Keep in mind that "The Simpsons," at the time, was a relatively little-known entity, first debuting as a segment on Fox's ''Tracey Ullman Show,'' before the first full-length episode aired in December 1989. Consider this story by The New York Times in late 1988, which notes that "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, then 34, was "surprised that there was commercial interest in his work" but was "pleased with the opportunity to do advertising."
The Simpsons, of course, would go on to create marketing gold. But the early Butterfinger advertising, first created by agency Lintas: New York, started it all.
By 1990, Nestle had acquired the brand from RJR Nabisco and the ad account shifted to Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor, which kept the Simpsons effort alive with the "Nobody better lay a finger on my Butterfinger" tagline. The Butterfinger account later moved to JWT' class='directory_entry' title='Ad Age LookBook'>J. Walter Thompson, San Francisco, and now resides at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Dailey of West Hollywood, Calif. The Simpsons partnership finally ended in 2001, after more than 150 spots and routine appearances by the cartoon family on Butterfinger packaging.
Nestle this year is celebrating what it is calling "90ish" years of the brand, noting that while Butterfinger was first promoted as early as 1923, Nestle holds a trademark document that is dated 1928. The anniversary promotion features a 90-day countdown on Facebook profiling Butterfinger trivia and vintage product photos, such as a shot of bite-sized Butterfinger "BBs," which are no longer sold. Other Butterfinger marketing highlights include a 2008 April Fool's Day prank that claimed Nestle was renaming the bar "The Finger." The spoof won some serious free media, including this segment on CNN.
A couple years later, Butterfinger cracked Ad Age's Viral Video chart with the "Butterfinger Defense League," featuring D-list stars such as Erik Estrada and Lou Ferrigno.
There have been a few marketing lowlights, too. Back in 1984, Ad Age put a Baby Ruth/Butterfinger spot before Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, as part of a Creative Workshop event in which the two film critics reviewed ads at random [see below]. (The two brands were once routinely promoted together.) The result: two thumbs down. Said Siskel: "Now that line, 'fresh guaranteed." How are they going to do that? Am I supposed to send in a stale Butterfinger if I get one? I think the way to sell candy is to stress how great the taste is."
But not all was lost, as Mr. Siskel professed that "I do, in fact, buy Butterfingers. I love them."
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