Near the end of the last century, manufacturers discovered that associating their products with identifiable characters helped customers remember their product names. This observation — so obvious to us now — was a major revelation to the businesses of the time. As competition increased, the need for more effective advertising also increased. Ad characters proliferated. Most characters eventually fall by the wayside when the public loses interest in them. A few, such as the Quaker Oats man, Aunt Jemima, and Mr. Peanut, have proved so effective that they are still going strong nearly a century after their introduction.
Ideally, an ad character should reflect the product it’s designed to sell. Soft and fluffy works well for toilet paper, fabric softeners, and certain food products. Fluffy isn’t a good characteristic for a creature meant to sell hand tools, and you probably wouldn’t want soft as a character attribute if your product was a remedy for impotence.
Most soft and fluffy characters spring from the animal realm, with bears and bunnies occurring most often. In nature, bunnies are the softer and fluffier of the two, but advertising has little to do with nature. Perhaps in an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to balance the scales, advertising bears tend to be softer and fluffier than their rabbit counterparts.
The representation of bears as lovable little fur-balls traces its roots to four unlikely co-conspirators: Theodore Roosevelt, a cartoonist named Clifton Berryman, and a couple name Rose and Morris Michtom. Roosevelt enjoyed killing animals for sport and expressed an interest in bear hunting while he was traveling through the South. In an effort to oblige him, the locals rounded up a bear cub for the president to slaughter. This was too much, even for a hardy death machine like Roosevelt to stomach, and he declined the offer. Cartoonist Berryman saw this gesture as a noble act and drew a cartoon saluting the incident. Upon seeing the cartoon Rose and Morris Michtom had a brainstorm. They started making little stuffed bears dressed like President Roosevelt in his bush jacket, wire-rimmed spectacles, and side-pinned Stetson, and thus the teddy bear was born.
Sleepy Bear, the Travelodge mascot, is a good example of the teddy bear reinterpreted as an ad character. With his somnambulist pose and half-lidded eyes, he conveys the message that Travelodge is a comfortable place to sack out for the night. Sleepy Bear plays off of the teddy bear’s historic association with bedtime, and the fact that bears spend the winter in hibernation. Sleepy Bear bear works well — perhaps too well; his narcoleptic demeanor is enough to start even a heavily caffeinated person nodding off at the mere sight of him. We can only wonder how many cars and trucks have run off the road as a result of Sleepy Bear’s subliminal suggestion.
The softest and fluffiest character in advertising is Snuggle, a generic-looking teddy bear who advertises the fabric softener of the same name. Soft and fluffy is all that he is; he has the personality of a bath mat. Like a vapid, handsome man, he relies entirely on his appearance to charm people. In Latin America and the U.S. Hispanic community, Snuggle has his own rhyme: “Essay-enay-oo-hey-hey-ell-ay,” which is how you spell “Snuggle” in Spanish.
The Snuggle chant, which originally appeared in commercials, occasionally turns up on Sabado Gigante, the three-hour game show cum variety show cum infomercial, which airs on most Spanish-language stations. In this show, the host, Don Francisco, gets the audience to sing along with popular commercial jingles according to who happens to have sponsored that particular segment of the show. Audience members also compete for prizes in games that are based around these products, or that feature the products as prizes.
Another favorite from south of the border is Oso Bimbo, the little white bear that touts pan Bimbo — the Mexican equivalent to Wonder Bread. He appears briefly at the end of Bimbo commercials and has yet to be exploited to his full potential.
Not all advertising bears are based on the teddy bear model. A few, such as Smokey the Bear and the Hamm’s bear, get their looks from the real deal. These critters seem more at home in the woods than Sleepy bear and Snuggle, neither of whom would last five minutes in the wild. (This conjures images of Snuggle, mauled and half-eaten, hanging from the mouth of a puma.) They are also less soft and fluffy. Smokey seems like he’d bite your hand if you tried to pet him. Aside from his occasional proselytizing on the dangers of forest fires, and a fetish for park ranger outfits, Smokey is all bear.
The Hamm’s bear is more cartoonish and more human than Smokey. He probably would let you pet him. Even so, the Hamm’s bear seldom ventures into civilization. He prefers the company of his animal pals in the great outdoors. During the Sixties and Seventies, the Hamm’s bear appeared in a series of entertaining and well animated cartoon commercials in which the bear was seen playing baseball, fishing, and getting into trouble. The theme song for the beer, “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters,” was taken from the Rudolph Friml operetta, Rose Marie. The song is part of the “Totem Tom-Tom” sequence, a light-hearted look at the effects of alcohol on the local Native Americans. (Although this absurd — and absurdly racist — sequence was in the original film version of the operetta, it is seldom shown anymore.) It is apropos that the tune eventually wound up selling beer.
Some ad characters do not fall into neat categories. In his original form, Sugar Bear fell somewhere between a real bear and a teddy bear. He was a cute little fellow who appeared on boxes of Sugar Crisps, Post’s pre-sweetened, puffed wheat cereal. In the sixties, Sugar Bear went from a lovable little nobody to Mr. Cool. Unflappable, Sugar Bear sauntered through life singing: “Can’t get enough of that Sugar Crisp,” while various meanies failed miserably in their attempts to defeat him.
In the mid-Seventies, Kellogg’s and other cereal companies responded to the increasing awareness of having too much sugar in one’s diet by removing the word “sugar” from the names of all their cereals. Sugar Pops became Corn Pops, and Sugar Frosted Flakes became simply Frosted Flakes. This is not to say that there was any less sugar in any of these products, but Kellogg’s realized that some things are best left unmentioned. Sugar Crisp became Super Golden Crisp, but Sugar Bear’s name remained the same, probably because Super Golden Bear doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Another type of bear that appears in advertising is the polar bear. These bears aren’t particularly soft or fluffy, but they are good for selling chilled or cold products. Coca-Cola is currently using polar bears in their series of computer animated commercials. Other polar bears include Teddy Snow Crop for Snow Crop frozen orange juice, and Icee Bear. Both are cute characters, but without much personality.
In nature, few creatures are softer and fluffier than rabbits, yet rabbits in advertising rarely take advantage of these traits. The Trix Rabbit is neither soft nor fluffy, but he is no less appealing because of it. The Trix Rabbit has only one goal in life: To eat a bowl of Trix cereal. Unfortunately, every time the rabbit gets close to munching on some of the multi-colored corn puffs, a gang of vigilant and mean-spirited children step in, taking the cereal from him, and chiding him with the now famous line: “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.”
The Trix Rabbit was created by Stanley Baum at the DFS advertising agency. He first appeared in 1959 and has been going strong ever since. During the mid-Eighties, the rabbit actually managed to get a bowl of his favorite food, but the victory was short-lived. It was only a momentary reprieve for the sake of ratings.
He is a good example of a “lovable loser.” These are characters who invariably receive the short end of the stick. Charlie the Tuna (Starkist Tuna), Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (Cocoa Puffs) and the Lucky Charms Leprechaun are all examples of lovable losers. Charlie and Lucky, like the Trix Rabbit, are victims of the whims of others, while Sonny’s biggest enemy is himself and his inability to control his passion for Cocoa Puffs.
The lovable loser is a direct result of the development of television. Prior to that, most ad characters were only pictures in magazines and on packages. Television allowed advertisers to breath life into their characters. At first, all the televised characters were strong or noble or good, but the ad agencies quickly learned that the public remembered the losers and bad guys longer than they remembered the heroes. For example, the Raid spray can may be the hero of the insecticide’s commercials, but when it comes to merchandising, it’s the bad guy bugs that sell.
Another rabbit version of the lovable loser is the Quik Bunny. He is softer and fluffier than the Trix Rabbit, and while he does not get shafted as often, he is even more of a sad sack. The only thing that seems to cheer him up is a glass of Nestlé’s Quik. Clearly this bunny is a candidate for a twelve-step program. The Quik bunny is not the first rabbit to promote a chocolate drink product. In the fifties, a popular chocolate-flavored syrup called Bosco sat in the refrigerators of many homes. Bosco advertised itself as a “milk amplifier” — whatever that means — and came in a bottle shaped like a rabbit. The connection between rabbits and chocolate defies scrutiny. (Perhaps it has something to do with those chocolate rabbits we received as children at Easter time.) In the case of the Quik Bunny, he is, at least, cocoa brown, but the Bosco rabbit came in several colors, including pink.
Less soft and fluffy then either the Quik Bunny or the Trix Rabbit (but, in some ways, more rabbit-like) is the Playboy Bunny. The Playboy Bunny may seem like a stroke of genius, but he was actually a happy accident. When Hugh Hefner started his magazine, he hired cartoonist Arv Miller to create a character that would represent the publication. Hef had planned to call his magazine Stag Party, but when Stag magazine threatened to sue, he quickly changed the name of the magazine to Playboy. Miller had already finished his drawing, which depicted a debonair-looking stag wearing a smoking jacket, pipe in mouth, and drink in hand, standing in a modern bachelor pad. Rather than start over, Arv Miller simply replaced the stag’s head with that of a rabbit. The rabbit was a hit and has appeared on the cover of every Playboy since issue number two.
The most recent addition to the pantheon of rabbit characters is Bernie, a stuffed toy rabbit that advertises Annie’s Natural Macaroni and Cheese products. Bernie has more in common with Snuggle than he does with the other rabbit ad characters. His personality is a side-effect of his appearance. He is inherently soft, plush and cute, but little else. It is too early to tell whether or not this character (who is, admittedly, cute) has any staying power.
The most popular rabbit around today — and one of the most popular ad characters of all time — is the Energizer Bunny. This character got his start in a series of clever commercials in which the bunny’s batteries proved so powerful that he marched right off the sound stage at the end of the first commercial. “It keeps going and going and going…” the narrator interjected while somebody else asks: “Will somebody get the bunny?” That commercial was then followed by an advertisement for a fake product. Halfway through the phony ad, the bunny came marching along, pounding his drum. “…and going and going and going,” the narrator added. The commercial floored people and was an immediate hit. Over the next year, the bunny marched his way across a dozen fake advertisements. The set-up commercial was no longer necessary; people got the joke immediately. After awhile, the fake commercial idea ran out of steam, but not the bunny. Today, the Energizer Bunny battles the likes of Wile E. Coyote, King Kong, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West.
True to his image, the Energizer Bunny keeps going and going and going. Energizer Bunny paraphernalia probably outsells the batteries he was originally designed to promote. Energizer Bunny plush dolls, T-shirts and marching toys are sold in novelty stores and the bunny also appears as part of an intentionally annoying computer screen saver that sends the bunny marching across the screen of every computer on a network. He has become so much a part of our cultural landscape that he was parodied in the advertising for Naked Gun 33-1/3, with Leslie Nielsen’s head replacing that of the bunny. The folks at Energizer weren’t too happy about this and tried to sue the filmmakers, but a judge ruled that it was fair use. The Leslie Nielsen bunny also shows up in the network-pestering computer program.
He may not be fluffy, but is there any character softer than Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy? Originally designed to sell Pillsbury’s line of refrigerated rolls and biscuits, Poppin’ Fresh was an instant hit with TV viewers. He was created by Rudi Perz, who worked for the Leo Burnett ad agency. Not coincidentally, Leo Burnett got his start at Pillsbury, taking their lackluster ad character (a brutish looking giant), revamping him and turning him into the Jolly Green Giant. Leo Burnett’s agency rules the “critter” market. Critters are what Burnett calls his advertising characters. The Funny Face characters, Little Green Sprout, and the Keebler Elves were all created by the Leo Burnett Agency.
Paul Frees, the man who did Poppin’ Fresh’s voice, is better known as the no-nonsense narrator of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. From the mid-Fifties until his death in the Eighties, he was responsible for hundreds of voice-overs in commercials and films. He also did voices for the aliens in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and he appears on the Abominable Doctor Phibes soundtrack singing several songs in the styles of famous celebrities (for example, Humphrey Bogart doing “One For My Baby”).
Poppin’ Fresh became so popular that by the early Seventies you could purchase soft vinyl dolls of Poppin’ Fresh and every other member of his family, including his pet dog and cat, and his Uncle Rollie, who came with his own car. You could also buy a house-shaped carrying case, with a compartment for each member of the Poppin’ Fresh family. Out of production since the late seventies, the Poppin’ Fresh dolls have become highly collectible with Uncle Rollie (because of his rarity) being the most valuable of the bunch.
The Pillsbury refrigerated doughs come in eight-inch cardboard cylinders. The original design required a sharp rap on the counter to open (the newer tubes open automatically when you peel off the label). In the early advertisements Poppin’ Fresh sprang out of a cylinder after a housewife whacked it on the counter.
Initially, Poppin’s Fresh was a shy little fellow, who giggled and blushed when the housewife poked his belly. Today’s Poppin’ Fresh is less bashful. He occasionally rocks out, playing the harmonica and electric guitar. The intent is to make him hipper, but the effect is unsettling, like seeing your mother in a mosh pit. He is darker now as well. Instead of the milky-white he once was, Poppin’ Fresh is now a buttery-brown. Whether this is an attempt to further ethnicize him or merely make him look more appetizing (a strange concept!) is hard to say; Pillsbury prefers not to comment on such issues. Also, since Paul Frees died a few years back, the Doughboy’s voice is now done by someone else, who — although talented — sounds different enough from Frees to make it seem like we’re not watching the real Poppin’ Fresh, but some strange impostor spawned from an alien pod.
The original Poppin’ Fresh was animated by Jim Danforth, one of the best stop-motion animators in the business. Danforth’s film credits include the low-budget schlock classic, Equinox, Ringo Starr’s prehistoric Caveman, and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, for which he won an academy award. Although stop-motion animation is still used to move Poppin’ Fresh, most of the little doughboy’s motion comes from a computer now. His amorphous shape and simple design are well adapted to this technology.
Ad characters — as cute and lovable as they may be — are the bastard children of free-market economics. They exist for one purpose, and one purpose only: To get you to buy some product that you might otherwise pass up. No matter how cute Poppin’ Fresh is, no matter how cuddly Snuggle is, and no matter how engaging the Trix Rabbit is, they are born of money to make money.
author: bunny hop