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On mascots, characters and spokespeople.

In the heyday of the “Burger King” the fast food franchise managed to take creepiness to a whole new level as its vaguely disturbing mascot jumped out at you from behind doors, disrupted football games and showed up in your bed. Yet, during the reign of the King (he was finally retired late last year in favor of a “food-centric” marketing approach), Burger King thrived, posting healthy gains in same-store sales, well ahead of McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Which begs the age-old question: what the hell?

The Burger King mascot has actually been around since 1955, although the original version was decidedly more benign.

Over the past half-century this iconic character progressively evolved from the cute illustrated version to the friendly animated persona to the innocuous live variation (BK’s answer to Ronald McDonald) to the caricatured freak that unnerved us for nearly a decade. He caught on with consumers, becoming a pop culture icon and propelling the company’s bottom line. And while there was more going on during his reign than just The Burger King character (kid-friendly Sponge Bob promotions, new value-menu offerings, etc.), His Creepiness still stood for years as the primary plank of the chain’s branding platform.

The point is, in today’s cultural environment, likeability and good taste are not necessarily prerequisites for success as an advertising mascot. Or a celebrity. In our media saturated and wired-in world, it’s all about gaining attention; how you do it is secondary. Whether you awe us with your otherworldly athleticism, stun us with your stupidity or just get in our face and refuse to go away, we are culturally conditioned to pay attention. So Kim Kardashian becomes important, Tiger Woods becomes a brand, and The Burger King becomes a phenom. It’s all about what sells.

Characters, mascots and spokespeople have been used since the beginning of advertising to speak for, personify, or otherwise help create a brand. From the Frito Bandito to the Geico Gecko, advertising characters have always been there to whack us over the head, touch our hearts or otherwise get our attention. Why? Because it works. As a general device, the use of a mascot or spokesperson adds another layer to the communication, making it richer and more interesting. In the case of a celebrity spokesperson, it can transfer credibility. Until your spokesman does something really gauche like, say, slashing his ex-wife and her boyfriend to death on the front porch. Well, to paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mom, creepy is as creepy does.

So anyway, here’s my top-ten advertising characters of all time, in no particular order:

The Aflac Duck. Sure, this compelling quacker grabs your attention, holds your interests and entertains you, but so what? The real brilliance here is that he does it all by never letting you forget the brand name that hatched him.

Bartles & James. Remember these guys? Their down-home delivery and quaint likeability almost single-handedly created a market for a product that was never that good.

Energizer Bunny. Although the strength of this ubiquitous drum pounder is primarily in the context in which he appears (unexpectedly), he pays off every gag with unique consistency.

Charlie the Tuna. You really didn’t like Charlie. In fact, you kind of wanted him to end up in the can. But you did remember that he wasn’t good enough for Starkist.

Tony the Tiger. This friendly, colorful, nearly manic friend of every kid in America put the word “Grrrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeeat” in our lexicon while convincing us that Frosted Flakes are edible.

Budweiser Lizards. These two took an old formula to new places and we all went along for the ride.

Kool-aid Man. I dunno. There was just something about the way he sang that song . . .

Alfred E. Neuman. Okay, he wasn’t technically an advertising character, but as the lopsided face of Mad Magazine he was, and remains, unforgettable.

Crash Test Dummies. Yep, you can learn a lot from a dummy. These guys memorably demonstrated the effects of high-speed collisions on the human body with a touch of good humor that belied, and amplified, the seriousness of their message. Irony at its best.

Smokey Bear. Although the pressure of believing I was the only one on the planet who could prevent forest fires nearly ruined my childhood, I’ll never forget Smokey Bear.

California Raisins. They sang Motown with style, then spun their shtick off into studio albums, TV commercials, and a Saturday morning cartoon series. Not bad for a bunch of anthropomorphized dried fruit.

And you? Who are your favorite advertising characters?

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