ANALYSIS;CHARACTER FASCINATION

By Published on .

Speedy Alka-Seltzer. Mr. Clean. Chiquita Banana. Ah, those were the days. Friendly, wholesome icons you could trust, though Mr. Clean always did seem a little, uh, weird. A preview of "What a Character!: 20th Century American Advertising Icons," a profusely illustrated, $16.95 paperbound nostalgia fest to be published next month by Chronicle Books, San Francisco, puts us in mind of how times have changed in icon land.

The Bud Ice penguin is malevolently humming "Strangers in the Night" as he stalks people in their own home and terrifies them into handing over their bottles of beer. The Duracell Puttermans could scare the hell out of small children, and frequently do. Chester the Chee-tos Cheetah has an eating disorder. Putz-faced Joe Camel is desperately trying to be cool, which is no easy task when you've got a putz on your face. Even the Kool-Aid pitcher wears ripped jeans and listens to rock.

While many ad characters are rooted in campaigns that hark back decades, few have made the transition to the '90s unscathed. With icons like Joe Camel, "There would have been talks in Congress about them if they'd appeared in the '50s," says "What a Character!" co-author Jim Morton, who's publisher and editor of Pop Void, a San Francisco-based pop culture magazine. For instance, Morton says, the original Joe Camel was a circus animal irritably posing for the camera. "Old Joe is a pretty pissed off camel," Morton says. "Now, he's Mr. Suave Penis. There's a quantum shift with the development of TV that gave characters personalities. They're hipper than they used to be," he adds, pointing out how characters like Pillsbury's Poppin' Fresh grew from an introverted, pasty schmendrick into a mensch who belts out harmonica tunes in one recent CGI-enhanced spot.

The parade of ad characters peaked in the '60s, when every product seemed to merit one. The book features a wide sampling of these icons culled from the collection of co-author and pop culture historian Warren Dotz. Check out such oddities as the Ritalin man, who looks like Mr. Potato Head on Prozac, or Tommy Tagamet, a feisty dude with a stomach-shaped body, his fists raised in ulcer defense.

Yet, advertisers are constantly mystified as to why some ad characters vanish while others transform into ad icons. In the case of Nipper, RCA's famous fox terrier, the beloved dog started as a simple b&w logo and now stars in commercials for RCA's Color Trak TVs with his son Chipper, which Ammirati & Puris/Lintas created as a sidekick five years ago. Creative directors Tod Seisser and John Stingley, who oversee the campaign, say they've tried to keep true to Nipper's nearly 70-year-old persona of playful curiosity, updating it only by adding a sense of humor and technological savvy to the pooch. "You already have the likability built into the character," Seisser says, explaining how Nipper has become a "straight man" for his puppy, allowing them to build more interesting storyboards.

Tinkering with the cherished icon isn't always a wise idea though, something that Walter Maes, group creative director at Leo Burnett, says he's found out the hard way. Working on various character campaigns for the last 26 years, Maes observes, "characters have changed less than you think." While Poppin' Fresh is now CGI-animated, with Tony the Tiger, "we've tried him in CGI, but he's not the same old Tony we love," Maes says. "The feeling wasn't the same. They've yet to create computer techniques to emulate the fur on Tony or the feathers on Toucan Sam."

To understand the handful of new characters born in the '80s and '90s, it's important to examine the emergence of character advertising. Back in radio days and the golden age of television, characters had a naivete about them that reflected the innocent optimism of the era. "Everything was more b&w then," Stingley says. "I think character advertising grew out of hero worship, and the idea of a hero has been tarnished."

Hence the characters that have been successfully launched in the last decade tend to be more realistic, with human flaws, or they're cynical about the very commercialism they represent. Consider the Bud Ice penguin, whom Goodby, Silverstein & Partners art director Emil Wilson describes as "funny-mean." Come on, Emil-he's worse than Spuds MacKenzie on angel dust. And Spuds didn't make it; he partied too hard."We really liked the idea of an anti-spokesman," Wilson says. "I don't think he'll murder for beer, but he'll make situations uncomfortable." In future episodes, Wilson says they're looking for ways to flush out the penguin's personality.

Personality is not a problem with Duracell's Putterman clan. Hated by some, misunderstood by many, this dysfunctional plasticine family, created by Ogilvy & Mather/New York in 1994, and still going, taps into the darker side of sitcom family life a la "The Simpsons" and "Roseanne."

"My partner and I base the whole family on people we know and we're related to," says art director Mac Demonteverde.

At the same time, Demonteverde adds, "we also wanted to create a world where these characters are obviously not human, because sometimes batteries fail."

Ironically, one of the most successful ad icons in the last two decades is the Energizer Bunny, which borrowed part of its identity from Duracell's old wind-up toys campaign. "It was disrupting commercials that the American public hoped would be disrupted," says TBWA Chiat/Day president Bob Kuperman, the creative director on the initial campaign, trying to explain the Bunny's longevity. The trick to preserving his popularity, he says, is to keep him in entertaining situations and to not overdo the media buy. Apparently, too much bunny ain't funny. But so far, the pink pest, which Dick Sittig brainstormed in the initial pitch for Energizer, has wildly exceeded all expectations, showing up in political cartoons and turning into a pop catchphrase for nonstop energy.

Many characters, such as the Puttermans and Snap, Crackle & Pop, have already found renewed life on the Internet, where those too young to have been infected the first time around may get a chance to relive advertising's glory years. Maybe Deutsch's Mr. Jenkins will make it, Seisser says of the suave Tanqueray print spokesman, who wears ascots and the same face all the time as he tips back martinis at endless hipster parties. "But," he jokes, "I have serious doubts

In this article:
Most Popular