From frozen vegetables to packaged cake mix, from fast food to automobile tires, these carefully drawn characters are the personifications of businesses that began small but grew to become dominant brands in their fields -- thanks in large part to their famous icons.
Many of the most famous ad icons were the brainchild of one agency: Chicago-based Leo Burnett Co., which specialized in building brands through the use of enormously popular characters, including the most effective icon of all time, the Marlboro Man.
Advertising Age's list of the Top 10 ad icons of the 20th century recognizes those images that have had the most powerful resonance in the marketplace. The criteria include effectiveness, longevity, recognizability and cultural impact.
PRODUCT: Marlboro cigarettes
DATE INTRODUCED: 1955
CREATOR: Leo Burnett Co.
The most powerful -- and in some quarters, most hated -- brand image of the century, the Marlboro Man stands worldwide as the ultimate American cowboy and masculine trademark, helping establish Marlboro as the best-selling cigarette in the world.
Today, even a mention of the Marlboro Man as an effective ad icon brings protests from healthcare workers who see first-hand the devastation wrought by decades of cigarette smoking. More than any other issue, the ethics of tobacco advertising -- both morally and legally -- have divided the advertising industry.
But even those ad professionals who abhor the tobacco industry will, when pressed, agree that the Marlboro Man has had unprecedented success as a global marketing tool for selling Philip Morris Cos.' brand.
In the beginning back in the 1950s, a time when cigarettes were accepted in even the politest society, Burnett created the macho icon as a way to reposition Marlboro from a "mild as May" ladies cigarette to a product with broader appeal. The original newspaper ad from Burnett carried the slogan "delivers the goods on flavor" and it immediately sent sales skyrocketing.
By the time the Marlboro Man went national in 1955, sales were at $5 billion, a 3,241% jump over 1954 and light years ahead of pre-cowboy sales, when the brand's U.S. share stood at less than 1%.
Despite his appeal, the cowboy wasn't the only rough-and-tumble image used to sell the brand's image. Over the next decade, Burnett experimented with other manly types -- ball players, race car drivers and rugged guys with tattoos (often friends of the creative team, sporting fake tattoos). All the pitches worked.
Even with the release in 1957 of the first article in Reader's Digest linking lung cancer to smoking, the real men of the Marlboro ads kept ringing up sales ($20 billion that year), attracting new smokers of both genders. In 1964, the company revived the cowboy but this time he was in mythical Marlboro Country.
This vivid image paid off in 1971 when cigarette ads were banned from TV. The striking print shot of cowboys enjoying a smoke on horseback continued to fuel sales growth. In 1972, Marlboro became the No. 1 tobacco brand in the world.
As the anti-smoking movement has spread, the Marlboro Man has come under particular attack for his role in luring new customers to a cancer-causing habit.
As a commercial icon, he is both reviled and revered. Yet one measure of this icon's clout is that no matter how minimal the imagery gets -- reduced on occasion to little more than a saddle and splash of red -- it still remains instantly evocative of a mythical Marlboro country, of a mythical American cowboy and of the No. 1 brand of cigarettes that gave that cowboy real lung cancer.
PRODUCT: McDonald's restaurants
DATE INTRODUCED: 1963
CREATOR: McDonald's franchisee Oscar Goldstein and his local ad agency
McDonald's Corp. advertising executive Roy Bergold can testify to the reach and recognition of Ronald McDonald. But even he couldn't believe what he witnessed one day in Milwaukee.
"Ronald was visiting sick children and he came upon a youngster in a coma," recalls Mr. Bergold. "I watched as the child's eyes began to flicker as Ronald stood by his side. The boy actually regained consciousness during his visit. There's no way to explain how it happened or why, but it was nothing short of amazing."
The clown's astounding powers have certainly worked their magic for McDonald's since he was introduced in 1963. The spokesfigure helped make McDonald's the most dominant fast-food chain on the planet. He also exemplifies one of the most important qualities of an effective commercial character: He doesn't sell for McDonald's, he is McDonald's.
Ronald was first introduced by McDonald's Washington franchisee Oscar Goldstein and a local ad agency in 1963 . Since then his name has been attached to a major charitable organization, the Ronald McDonald Foundation; he's starred in films; and he's even danced with the New York City Rockettes.
After a brief flirtation with acting adult in ads for McDonald's failed Arch Deluxe sandwich in the mid-1990s, Ronald returned to his roots and continues to be used mostly as a fast-food ambassador for kids. His face is recognized by nearly 96% of American children, and sells for the fast-food chain in more than 25 languages.
Jolly Green Giant
PRODUCT: Green Giant vegetables
DATE INTRODUCED: 1928
CREATOR: Minnesota Valley Canning Co.
The Green Giant's national ad debut in 1928 was disappointing.
Minnesota Valley Canning Co. developed the Giant as a product trademark, but in his earliest days he was stooped and scowling, wore a scruffy bearskin and looked more like the Incredible Hulk than the grand old gardener he is today.
Enter ad agency Erwin, Wasey & Co. The assignment for the Giant's transformation was tackled by none other than young Leo Burnett, who improved the Giant's hunched posture, turned his scary scowl into a sunny smile and clothed him in a light, leafy outfit.
He also gave the tender tall guy a new backdrop -- a valley of crops that highlight the Giant's height.
When Mr. Burnett opened his own agency in 1935, Minnesota Valley was one of its first clients. The Burnett agency soon added the word "Jolly" to the giant's name, and by 1950, Minnesota Valley changed its name to Green Giant Co.
The Giant's early TV appearances, in 1958, however, were not as stellar. Bob Noel, a writer at Burnett, once made these comments about the Giant's early TV appearances: "They tried men painted green," a puppet figure and animation. The problem is "when you try to move the Giant around and really show what he looks like, he comes off a monster. The baby cries and the dog goes under the bed."
Mr. Noel devised an ingenious solution: ads that showed just enough of the Giant to establish his presence but not too much to send customers running for cover. The problems that arose ultimately brought the creative staff to a new understanding about the big guy. The Giant was most effective either in silhouette or partial view. To lighten up the Giant's image, Mr. Noel dreamed up his signature "Ho, ho, ho" and lilting "Good things from the garden" song.
NAME: Betty Crocker
PRODUCT: Food products including cake mixes, frostings, microwave popcorn and biscuit mixes
DATE INTRODUCED: 1921
CREATOR: Washburn Crosby Co., a forerunner of General Mills
Long before Martha Stewart, there was Betty Crocker.
Betty was created in 1921 after a promotion for Gold Medal flour flooded Washburn Crosby Co. with questions about baking. To answer customers in a more personal manner, the company created a fictitious kitchen expert, pulling the name "Crocker" from a recently retired director of the company and adding the first name "Betty" because it sounded friendly.
Washburn Crosby's female employees were asked to submit handwriting samples for Betty's signature and the one selected as "most distinctive" is still Betty's signature today.
From these humble home-ec beginnings, Betty went on to become one of the first multimedia superstars. Beginning in 1924, she hosted the country's first radio cooking show, "Betty Crocker School of the Air," first on a local Minneapolis station and later on the NBC radio network.
During the 1930s she helped advise a cash-strapped nation on how to cook tasty budget meals. She was voted the second-most- famous woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt, according to Fortune in 1945. It was only a matter of time before she wooed consumers on television.
After numerous guest appearances on CBS and NBC, where she taught stars such as George Burns and Gracie Allen to cook, Betty got her own show, "The Betty Crocker Search for the All-American Homemaker of Tomorrow." The series, featuring a variety of actresses playing Betty, ran from 1954 to 1976.
Meantime, behind-the-scenes Bettys were authoring cookbooks. Since the 1950s, more than 200 Betty Crocker cookbooks have been published. Betty also developed her own line of food products, starting with the famous Betty Crocker cake mixes.
Along the way, Betty's image was refined to reflect the changing image of women. Over the years she has had eight different "looks," from the first stern gray-haired, older woman in 1936 to today's olive-skinned, dark-haired Betty, a product of computer morphing.
PRODUCT: Eveready Energizer batteries
DATE INTRODUCED: October 1989
Say what you will about his long ears and drumming hands, the Energizer Bunny is one icon who's got legs.
Marketing experts call it the "ultimate product demo" because it does such an effective job of showcasing the product's unique selling proposition -- long-lived batteries -- in an inventive, fresh way.
"The Bunny has become the ultimate symbol of longevity, perseverance and determination," says Mark Larsen, communications category manager for Energizer. During the past decade, everyone from politicians to sport stars used the Energizer Bunny to describe their staying power.
The Bunny's incarnation by Chiat/Day was actually a continuation of an idea developed by DDB Needham Worldwide for Energizer, with a spot that featured drumming pink bunnies in a jab at archrival Duracell's battery-powered toys. Chiat/Day, after gaining the account, took the bunny to the next level when it launched a series of commercials that parodied spots for other products and were interrupted by the powerful pink Bunny -- going and going and going. The Bunny has appeared in over 115 spots in English and Spanish with new commercials debuting twice a year on average.
Pillsbury Doughboy (aka Poppin' Fresh)
PRODUCT: Assorted Pillsbury foods, including refrigerated dough, bakery mixes, rolls
DATE INTRODUCED: 1965
CREATOR: Leo Burnett Co.
Burnett creative director Rudy Perz was sitting at his kitchen table in the mid-1960s when he dreamed up the idea of a plump, dough figure that would pop out of a tube of refrigerated rolls. Since then, Pillsbury has used Poppin' Fresh in more than 600 commercials for more than 50 of its products.
Although Perz had originally conceived His Doughness as an animated character, he changed his mind after seeing a stop-action tilting technique used in the opening credits for "The Dinah Shore Show."
The decision was made to create a 3-D Doughboy doll of clay at a cost that seemed like a small fortune 34 years ago -- $16,000.
Finding the right performer to be the voice of the Doughboy was the finishing touch. After auditioning more than 50 top actors, the role was awarded to Paul Frees (the voice of "The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky's" Boris Badenov). After Frees' death in 1986, Jeff Bergman, who also did the voiceover for Charlie the Tuna, took over. Today, the high-pitched giggles are handled by JoBe Cerny, the mustachioed on-camera star of Burnett's Cheer detergent campaign.
The Doughboy was an instant success with consumers. His round body and signature belly poke quickly endeared him to adults and children. When Pillsbury issued a Doughboy doll, the toy became so popular, Playthings Magazine named it "Toy of the Year" in 1972.
PRODUCT: Aunt Jemima pancake mixes and syrup
DATE INTRODUCED: 1893
CREATOR: Chris Rutt/Davis Milling Co.
Few commercial icons deserve to be called "cultural touchstones" of significant political and social change. But the Aunt Jemima trademark is one of them.
The image of the smiling black woman first appeared on thousands of boxes of pancake mix in the early 1890s, but throughout the 20th century, Aunt Jemima's trademark mirrored America's changing perceptions of African-American women.
The idea of Aunt Jemima was first conceived by newspaperman and entrepreneur Chris Rutt, according to the Afro-American Almanac. Mr. Rutt and his partner, Charles Underwood, had developed and packaged a ready-mixed, self-rising pancake flour but they had not settled on a name or brand positioning.
One evening Mr. Rutt attended a vaudeville show and heard a tune called "Aunt Jemima" sung by a black-faced performer clad in an apron and bandana headband. The melody was such a hit, Rutt decided to use the song's title as the name for his pancake mix.
When Rutt and Underwood later sold the business to Davis Milling, the company hired Nancy Green, a 59-year-old former slave, to serve as the living trademark for the mix. The image of Aunt Jemina, however, is an artist's rendering and has appeared on Aunt Jemima products -- now marketed by successor Quaker Oats Co. -- ever since.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Aunt Jemima logo started coming under criticism that its image of a black "Mammy" in a kerchief was an outdated and negative portrayal of African-American women. During the 1950s and '60s the trademark was gradually modernized, with the most recent changes being made in 1989.
Today, Aunt Jemima's face beams from beneath a full head of dark hair -- sans kerchief -- but her sparkling eyes and warm smile remain the same.
PRODUCT: Michelin tires
DATE INTRODUCED: 1898
CREATOR: Idea conceived by Edouard Michelin; artist's rendition created by O'Galop; DDB Needham Worldwide handled later executions
Andre Michelin commissioned the creation of this jolly, rotund figure after his brother, Edouard, observed that a display of stacked tires resembled a human form. The artist's sketches of a bloated man made of tires was exactly what the brothers had in mind.
One in particular, picturing the character lifting a beer glass and shouting, "Nunc est bibendum! (Now is the time to drink!)" seemed to embody Michelin's slogan at the time, "Michelin tires swallow up all obstacles."
The artist reworked the hulking figure, replacing the beer bottle with a goblet of nails and glass that the character rose in a toast to all road hazards.
Today, the Michelin Man is one of the world's oldest and most recognized trademarks and it represents Michelin in over 150 countries.
Tony the Tiger
PRODUCT: Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes (later Frosted Flakes)
DATE INTRODUCED: 1951
CREATOR: Leo Burnett Co.
Only one famous feline (sorry, Morris) can rightfully claim he's the cat's meow of commercials: Tony the Tiger.
Adland's premier promotional pussycat was born in 1951, when Burnett was hired to create a campaign for Kellogg's new cereal, Sugar Frosted Flakes. Tony was originally one of four animated critters created to sell the cereal, but he quickly edged out Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu and Elmo the Elephant to become the sole star of the cereal maker's ad efforts.
Tony's original designer, children's book illustrator Martin Provinsen, first created an orange cat with black stripes and a blue nose who walked on all fours. But like most celebrities, Tony has undergone extensive cosmetic changes over the decades.
The most dramatic alteration occurred early in his career, when Tony's football-shaped head was replaced with a rounder, softer form. That was followed by a series of other minor face-lifts such as an eye color change from green to gold and the addition of "whisker bones" and contours.
When America started heading for the health clubs, Tony also got a slimmer, more muscular physique. He's also risen in stature from a scrawny, cereal-box size pussycat who ambled on all fours to a 6-foot figure with a towering, upright stance.
One thing that remained constant for much of Tony's life was his voice. Thurl Ravenscroft provided the sole voiceover for Tony and his trademark growl: "They're Grrrreat!" In 1952, Tony's son, Tony Jr., was introduced into the campaign. And in the early 1970's, Mama Tony, Tony's wife; and Antoinette, Tony's daughter (born in 1974, the Chinese year of the tiger), also came on board. The expansion of the Tony family broadened his audience appeal.
Elsie the Cow
PRODUCT: Borden dairy products
DATE INTRODUCED: 1939 (first general magazine ad)
CREATOR: Stuart Peabody, Borden's director of advertising
Elsie started out as one of four cows (Mrs. Blossom, Bessie and Clara were her sidekicks) that appeared in a 1936 cartoon series featured in medical journals -- just four friendly bovines chatting together in a pasture. The ads were a big hit and doctors ordered reprints for their offices.
One day a radio commercial writer penned a letter supposedly written by Elsie and directed it to commentator Rush Hughes, who read it on the air. The gimmick proved popular and additional letters were read in subsequent broadcasts.
By 1939, Elsie was being featured in her own magazine ads and her campaign was voted the best of the year by the Jury of the 1939 Annual Advertising Awards. With the World's Fair approaching, Borden decided to feature a live Elsie in its exhibit, so company executives looked at 150 cows before settling on a 7-year-old Jersey named "You'll Do Lobelia."
The Brookfield, Mass., native was not only a beauty, she had a flair for drama. By the end of that year, more than 7 million people had caught one of Elsie's personal appearances.
After her smashing success at the 1939 World's Fair, Elsie went on to book even tonier events. She headlined a Bovine Ball at the Seventh Regiment Armory, hosted a private dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel for members of the press, and even appeared in a four-poster bed at the exhibit at the World's Fair in 1940. Her next stop was Hollywood, where she went on to star as Buttercup in the film "Little Men."
After a brief stretch out to pasture in the late 1960s, Elsie was resurrected as the Borden symbol. Today the picture of the dew-eyed cow with the sweet face and