Rewind: Carvel's Slightly Creepy But Super Memorable Ads From the Eighties

Brand's Cookie Puss Was Embodiment of Its Low-Budget, Home-Brewed Ad Approach

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Creative types who get all dewy when talking about marketing ideas that live on in pop culture could do worse than pausing for a moment and reflecting on the genius that was -- and is -- Cookie Puss, the squelchy-voice character created by East Coast ice cream magnate Tom Carvel.

Cookie Puss, an ice-cream cake come to life, was the embodiment of the brand's low-budget, home-brewed ad approach -- appalling by just about any aesthetic measure yet incredibly memorable if not straight-up haunting and psyche-scarring.

As such, these spots burned themselves into the cultural memory, especially for people who grew up in a certain time and place: New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in the 1970s and 80s. But their impact has been much broader; Howard Stern, the Beastie Boys, "The Family Guy," Regis and Kelly, Philip Glass, Patton Oswalt and countless other comics have meditated upon or referenced Cookie Puss, to say nothing of cousin Cookie O'Puss --with his poor version of an Irish accent --or Fudgie the Whale, Hug Me Bear or Dumpy the Pumpkin.

(Holiday-themed versions were also popular. Since we're upon Halloween, here's a downright frightening pumpkin and witch cake combo ad).

Each represented a spastically designed amalgam of ice cream, cake, cones and icing, yet they were so much more. Ice-cream cakes melt, but Cookie Puss and friends live on.

By the time they hit the airwaves, company founder Mr. Carvel was already an accidental ad celebrity, known for extremely unpolished and often unrehearsed voice-overs that put his voice, at once phlegmy and gravelly, and his disastrous diction, on display. Cookie Puss, with his cheap mic-effect voice and often accompanied with a horrifying jingle, extended that tradition of hard-selling and low-end TV ads. They basically bordered on DRTV with "call for a free gift" 1-800 numbers splashed across the screen throughout many of the spots.

If it's hard to imagine Cookie Puss surviving creative processes like copy-testing, that 's because he probably didn't have to. You won't be surprised to hear that no agency was associated with the Carvel ad approach; it all came out of an in-house production studio. But that didn't make it any less effective. Mr. Carvel, who constantly had to fight complaints from franchises weary of hearing his voice, claimed that there was 4 to 1 return on its ad approach.

In the 1990s, after the brand was sold and Mr. Carvel died, agencies took over and production values improved, even if the cultural stickiness didn't. There was, for instance, a push fom TBWA that used -- yikes -- George Lucas' production company and -- double yikes -- a musical arranger from Cirque du Soleil. Focus group-tested and supported with a multimillion media budget, "Everything should be made of ice cream" was launched to great fanfare 1993. Twenty years later, it's hard to find online.

Cookie Puss, on the other hand, enjoys a strong presence on YouTube, nostalgia pages, and in the c-suite. On the Carvel website, he and Fudgie the Whale make up one-third of the management team. Their role? "Spokescakes."

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