M c C R E A A D A M S
Advertising Characters: The Pantheon of Consumerism
[Originally appeared in: Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books,1994) 359-368. Copy-edited and spell-checked: Scott Atkins, September 1995. Tagged in HTML October 1995]
Advertising characters, those people or animals that symbolize various products, have been with us for a long time. The Quaker Oat Quaker appeared in 1877; Psyche, the White Rock Soda girl, debuted in 1894. The twentieth century was only four years old when the Campbell's Soup Kids arrived. Betty Crocker was born, full-grown, in the mid 1930s.' Back in Psyche's youth, when neither advertising nor psychology were huge fields of their own, these characters were created by people trying to sell their own products. Usually someone at the manufacturing company would dream up what seemed to be an appropriate identifying symbol for their product. No one is sure, for example, exactly how the chick that symbolizes Bon Ami cleanser began, but apparently a company founder, in the nineteenth century, started wrapping soap bars in paper with a little chick design on it; the enigmatic "hasn't scratched yet" slogan was not added until later.2
Advertising characters and symbols can be seen as part of a continuum of fictions and fantasies given life by the restless, fertile human imagination. Further back than recorded history, mythical or religious beings were created and attributed with fantastic exploits and superhuman powers. Oral traditions passed down descriptions and tales of these "characters" before writing on papyrus was invented, let alone radio and television. The gods of ancient Egypt, the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, the Norse gods, and the pantheon of Nigeria's Yoruba people all are extensions of these prehistoric traditions. The gods and superheroes of Finnish mythology present an interesting similarity to modern advertising characters in that beings from ancient times and those of a much more recent era coexist in the same cycles of stories. Ad characters, too, inhabit a syncretic world in which Moe (Three Stooges) Howard stands beside Albert Einstein and where Leonardo da Vinci fumbles ineffectually in a modern, high-tech office. The ancient Romans adapted the Greek gods to their own culture, just as modern advertising adapts characters from the past, both real and mythical. And the birth of an advertising "being" can seem as mysterious and lost in antiquity as that of any mythical creature. Clarence Birdseye, for example, was a real frozen food pioneer (born December 9, 1886), but he has been in the character pantheon so long that he now seems fictitious.
The Yoruba pantheon includes a character called Eshu who frequently appears in mythology: the "trickster," that supernatural being dedicated to confusing things, to befuddling and bedeviling us poor mortals. The relationship of the trickster to advertising is too obvious to require much discussion, but suffice it to say that without illusion, trickery, and magical transformations, the power of our advertising gods would be lessened considerably. We even have a double-trickster: Joe Isuzu, the lying car salesman for Isuzu, lets us laugh at the advertising "trick" even as he sells us cars. The Yoruba pantheon also includes a god of iron, Ogun, who has evolved into the god of war and transportation; nowadays he is the god who protects a city dweller's Mercedes. As our ad characters are, Ogun is a powerful "transformer"--and, like them, he is both transformer and transformed, since he himself has changed through time.3
Unlike religions, which seek to make sense of the cosmos and create a way to deal with mortality, folk tales and their heroes evolved largely as a source of entertainment. They also, however, often typify a culture's valued qualities, such as strength or mental agility. They represent the oral tradition in a secular context with fables of giants (such as Jack's nemesis atop the beanstalk), mythical animals, heroes such as Paul Bunyan, and tales of witches and fairies. Now, in the world of television, we have the Jolly Green Giant and the Keebler elves, ably personifying the apparently valued ability to invent new frozen foods and cookies. Television, in effect, has provided us with an artificial, electronic oral tradition, entering our minds through visual and audio stimuli.
Ellen Weis is the director of San Francisco's Museum of Modem Mythology, which has a collection of over three thousand artifacts, including an eight-foot plastic Jolly Green Giant and a motorized Buster Brown display from 1915. "Every society has mythology," Weis says. "In some societies it's religion. Our religion is consumerism."4 She points out that some mythical beings were half man, half god, and that advertising characters are half man, half product. Both are "given enormous credence in their society. Just look at Cap'n Crunch." When she says that one "can really learn a lot from an original drawing of Elsie the Cow," many things come to mind--fertility, the milk of human kindness, the relationship between humans and nature, and perhaps even the fact that Hindus hold the cow to be sacred.
Psychologist Carol Moog, who does "psychological semiotics" for advertising agencies, similarly has explored the meaning of Lever Brothers' Snuggle fabric-softener teddy bear: "The bear is an ancient symbol of aggression, but when you create a teddy bear, you provide a softer, nurturant side." This combination is the "perfect image for a fabric softener that tames the rough texture of clothing," according to Moog.5 She advised Lever Brothers to keep Snuggle genderless and avoid mixing Snuggle with live humans in ads. "To keep the magic, it has to be just Snuggle and the viewer communicating. The teddy bear acts as a bridge between the consumer's rational and more instinctual, emotional side." Notice the supernatural overtones and the intimation of a sort of prayer. Another media observer, perhaps only half-jokingly, went so far as to call Snuggle "the anti-Christ."6 Ellen Weis again: "These images get into our subconscious and stay with us for life. It's very important to be aware of how powerful they are." Not everyone agrees with these sorts of evaluations; as George Lois, chairman of Lois Pitts Gershon Pon, puts it, "These psychologists tend to be overly intellectual and a little tutti-frutti."
An early phase of advertising in the United States that might be termed "protoadvertising" evolved during the nineteenth century. Prime examples include the "Wild West" show and the hundreds of tonics and elixirs identified with a "doctor" who had supposedly created them to cure whatever ailed one. Here again are links with myth and power. In the first case, the reality of "the West" blurs into a re-creation of it, with some of the real characters (Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody themselves--now trickster figures--helping to smudge the lines between reality and legend, person and performer. In the second, a fabricated character ("Dr. Whoever") is presented as the inventor of a patent medicine.
As the twentieth century progressed, radio and then television became came filled with advertisements, and newspapers and magazines continued to bombard us with them; the streets filled with billboards, and the sky with skywriting and banners. Something had changed. There were too many gods in the pantheon and too many doctors selling us tonic As advertising became a billion-dollar industry and television entered nearly every American home, the messages of advertising and the varied characters and symbols used to convey those messages multiplied almost beyond comprehension. Life in the information society is now clutter with sensory input of all kinds, and advertising is the most unrelenting demander of our attention. Rhetoric has been dubbed "the art of saying nothing finely," but the rhetoric of advertising is the art of saying nothing incessantly. We try our best to screen it out, turn it off, scoff at it, curse at it, laugh at it. But it is pervasive, and its characters--real, unreal, alive, animated--invade our consciousness, invited or not.
Because of this invasion, the lines between reality and fiction longer seem very clear Actors sell products as themselves, as anonymous pitchmen, or as created characters, and what's the difference? They all transformed into tricksters before the camera. ("I'm an actor," John Carradine once intoned in a bank commercial, "but I'm not acting now.") Politicians in turn sell themselves as products--packaged, prepared characters. How much difference is there really between the Ronalds, McDonald and Reagan? Quite possibly the viewer, or reader, or consumer no longer notices or cares what is real and what is not. Television, in particular, streams on endlessly, real and unreal side by side in a funny and terrible jumble of images and sounds, all trivialized by the constant yammering of commercials.
The pantheon of advertising characters contains far more beings we can recall at one time. Some have been short-lived, others have lasted for ninety years or more. Juan Valdez grows our coffee and Mrs. Olson brews it, although Joe DiMaggio and Mr. Coffee have given her some competition. Madge tells us how to have younger-looking hands; Mr. Clean and the Brawny man help us mop the floor. The lonely Maytag repairman waits for a phone call. Mr. Goodwrench fixes the car, Mrs. Paul makes fish sticks, Aunt Jemima serves pancakes, and Joe Isuzu lies.
Some distinctions can be drawn among the various types of advertising characters and spokespeople, provided we bear in mind that such classifications are not as clear and clean as they might at first appear. One basic distinction is between representations of real people and depictions of created characters. Within the "real" category are celebrities as them- selves, corporate spokespersons as themselves, and "person-in-the-street" testimonials. Within the "created" realm are actors strongly identified with particular characters (e.g., Charmin's Mr. Whipple); actors representing a character with no unique actor identification (the Marlboro Man, for example); and actors as unnamed people shown doing things in commercials--primarily various versions of having fun. There are also cartoon characters, both still and animated (a classic is Speedy Alka Seltzer).
Characters frequently transcend the boundaries between categories, however. Mr. Whipple is played by a live actor but has also been turned into a drawing used on packaging; conversely, symbols spawn actors to portray them. The haziest division perhaps is between created characters and "real" celebrities. The fictional Rosie of Rosie's Diner, for example, appears in an ad with Rosey Grier, making jokes about what a good name Rosie is and teaching him that Bounty really is the "quicker-picker-upper."
Cartoon characters, as well as live characters, can be either created specifically for a product or appropriated from elsewhere. Cap'n Crunch was created by Jay Ward's animation studio specifically for the cereal itself (as was Tony the Tiger, by a different studio, for Sugar Frosted Flakes). Hanna-Barbera's Flintstones, on the other hand, have been taken from their "real" world of Bedrock and used as pitchmen for at least two wildly divergent products. The first, strange as it may seem today, was Winston cigarettes, back when Winston cosponsored the original TV show in the sixties; another, more recently, has been their namesake, Flintstones vitamins. Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts gang has sold all kinds of things, including insurance for Metropolitan Life. Even the voice behind so many cartoons, Mel Blanc, has done one of those American Express "unrecognized celebrities" ads.
Some agencies created a sympathetic, "real" character for an actor to portray, while others take a more exaggerated approach. The "Sparkletts man" is a prime example of the former. Warm, friendly, handsome, competent, he happily drove his green Sparkletts truck around under sunny California skies while reciting happy, humorous rhymes about himself"and Sparkletts water making friends." Mr. Whipple aptly embodies the second (although he certainly has plenty of company). Played by ex-vaudevillian Dick Wilson, he first appeared in October, 1964, uttering "the whine heard round the world: 'Please don't squeeze the Charmin."'7 Wilson helped make Charmin the best-selling toilet paper in the United States; he now earns a handy six-figure income for about sixteen days of filming a year. Interestingly, both these actors received so much exposure from their commercials that they soon became celebrities in their own right. Again, they are not alone; Mrs. Olsen, the Bartles and James characters, and more recently Joe Isuzu can be counted among their ranks.
Actor Jim Varney plays a character named Ernest P. Worrell, created by Nashville agency Carden & Cherry, who sticks his head in the window while saying "Hey, Vern!" Varney's Ernest is supposed to represent someone in everyone's neighborhood--"the guy who drives you crazy yet cracks you up as he's doing it."8 Well, maybe; at any rate, the Vern/ Ernest commercials are used to sell a variety of products in over a hundred local markets. And in one of those odd quirks of show business, Ernest P. Worrell somehow became the lead character in a feature film, Ernest Saves Christmas. (The best analogue that comes to mind is the recent feature starring Cassandra Peterson's Elvira character. As a camp horror-movie host, Elvira is about as close to being a commercial character as one can get without actually being one.)
The power attributed to advertising spokespersons--be they real or invented--is manifest in the problems they can create. The Federal Trade Commission announced in 1978 that it would begin putting pressure on stars involved in ads that make verifiably false claims. Pat Boone agreed to stop promoting an ineffective acne cream; former astronaut Gordon Cooper stopped advertising an automobile gas valve. In 1985, former football star Johnny Unitas was sued by two investors in a Florida financial services firm for misrepresenting a product he endorsed in a radio ad. The suit argued, their attorney said, that "a celebrity has some obligation to . . . make sure he is not being used in a scheme of fraud." Some entertainment agents and lawyers now require indemnification clauses holding the advertisers responsible for any fines levied against their clients.9
Other problems occur as well. Bill Cosby, for example, has sold so many different products that some say it is hard to identify him with any one campaign. His "overexposure" was blamed by one expert for the failure of E. F. Hutton's 1986 campaign featuring Cosby. Distinguished actor John Houseman, very effective when promoting financial house Smith Barney, was a flop at selling Big Macs. "I can't imagine John Houseman ever having been in a McDonald's," noted adman Jay Chiat.
The J. Walter Thompson agency failed to sell Burger King's burgers with its huge ($40 million) campaign built around a search for the mysterious (fictional) "Herb," who had never eaten a Whopper. The public was completely uninterested. Thompson president Steve Bowen reflected that Herb never should have been revealed as a nerd, as he finally was. "Herb should have been Robert Redford," he claimed. "In reality, everything in life is inspirational, even fast food.'' Note that Herb and Redford are viewed (albeit whimsically) as inhabitants of the same reality. Since we only "know" Redford from his fictional roles, there are many permutations of the Robert Redford persona. Similarly, Bill Cosby has been a comedian, a spy, a teacher (Chet Kincaid), and a doctor with a lawyer wife (Cliff Huxtable). And he has sold for Jell-O, Coke, Ford, Texas Instruments, and E. F. Hutton. Cosby and Redford are both changelings--and tricksters of the highest order.
Another sort of problem befell Ivory Soap executives, who were horrified when the media discovered that the woman whose portrait graced their boxes of"99 44/100 % pure" detergent was Marilyn Chambers, an adult film star. This was overexposure of quite a different sort than Cosby's. In this case, the advertising character--the fiction-- snagged on an unacceptable reality. The performers in pornographic movies, after all, really do perform explicit sexual acts, and this is too real for the world of selling. Ironically, advertising, which thrives on the sexual tease, must evade the actuality of intercourse. Ads give glimpses, magic shiny moments. Look but don't touch, they say; look and go buy. They attempt to create the urge, but place their products as the necessary middle step to obtaining satisfaction.
While human spokespersons are the most problematic for advertisers, nothing is exempt from controversy. Even man's best friend can end up in hot water. Anheuser-Busch's Spuds MacKenzie made a big splash when he arrived, a forty-seven-pound English bull terrier who sometimes appeared with "a trio of spandexed honeys" called the Spudettes. Spuds's message, according to Budweiser manager Joe Corcoran, is that you can be a hip, happy trendsetter like Spuds." No information was revealed about the "real" Spuds-- advertisers insisted they wanted to preserve the mystique--although Spuds himself did hit the talk-show circuit. Toward the end of 1987 Spuds got some bad press, not because of complaints about the degrading ads with dancing bimbos, but for reportedly being a female posing as a male. Then, as if such deceptions were not bad enough, she or he soon stood accused of being a pit bull.
A more serious concern is whether Spuds may be a corrupting influence on young people. The Spuds campaign, centering as it does on a household pet (and being aimed at the lowest common denominator), may well appeal to children way below the drinking age. Federal authorities refused to act on complaints about the matter. Ohio's liquor commission, however, has long had a regulation prohibiting the use of Santa Claus in ads that "might entice children to drink," and in December of 1987, it was considering whether to ban Budweiser Christmas promos and packaging that pictured Spuds MacKenzie dressed up as Santa. A surprising number of mythological overtones, it must be noted, appear in these anecdotes about Spuds MacKenzie. Spuds is a Dionysian figure and, as an animal surrounded by women, is certainly a relative of the satyr. His sexual ambiguity is reminiscent of Tiresius and Hermaphroditus. He also has folkloric ties with Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus and, in adults' fears that children will be enticed to follow him, with the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
The Pantheon from Hell
Although there are intriguing similarities between advertising characters and beings from folklore, mythology, and religion, the ways in which they differ are crucial. Religion and folklore come from the human capacity, even compulsion, to imagine the unseen. Humans want to understand things--and if we can't, we at least want to come up with a plausible and entertaining story. We create art; we have a language that can depict a past behind the moment, a future before it. That is what makes humans human; that is what we are. The supernatural is born of a sense of mystery and wonder. The characters of advertising, on the other hand, are created not to help understand the universe but to move the merchandise. In a sense, they even help to hide the truth by concealing the workings of the capitalist universe. They are self-consciously created by committees who have probed the mysteries by doing market research and studying the psychology of the consumer. Advertising characters muddle the past and diminish the future into a time when new consumption will occur. They represent the loss of mystery, and its replacement by an empty mechanistic cycle of watching and buying.
Mark Crispin Miller points out that television and its advertising have become so self-referential, and often so slyly self-mocking, that the viewer no longer has a standard by which to judge them:
As advertising has become more self-referential, it has also
become harder to distinguish from the various other
features of our media culture.... TV is suffused with the
enlightened irony of the common man, the "little guy," or--to
use a less dated epithet--the smart shopper.... Whatever was
a source of pleasure in the past is now derided by and for
the knowing, whether it's . . . the silent movies derisively
excerpted in the ads for Hershey or Toshiba, or the cowboy
pictures lampooned by Philip Morris . . . or the Mona Lisa
as ridiculed to sell Peter Pan peanut butter.
Miller calls this ongoing derision "compulsive trashing." It permeates advertising, and the use of historical figures as advertising characters is one of the ways it manifests itself. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson have represented banks, and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have been used in innumerable pitches--especially in the month of February. Ralph Nader complained in an open letter to President Reagan that while it isn't illegal, "using revered leaders from our nation's past as salespeople or hawkers [is] in the realm of sleaziness.'' Nader wrote that a teacher reported holding up a picture of Washington and having a child identify him as someone who sold stuff on TV. Historical figures are often used in gag ads, making the "trashing" overt. Historical entertainment figures are also used and abused. Laurel and Hardy look-alikes, for example, have sold windshield wipers. And in a very strange case, IBM's agency built a successful campaign around an imitator of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character. Remember that in the most famous scene in Chaplin's film Modern Times, the Tramp was whirled wildly about by the huge gears and belts of a gigantic industrial machine. There is a terrible irony in the perverting of the pathetic, loner Tramp figure into a character selling computers for IBM, a gigantic, impersonal "machine" of the post-industrial age.
The Tramp campaign and all "historical" campaigns smudge the line between the real and the fictitious. In a very real way, the question eventually becomes "What is reality?" Television programming and advertisements present a stream of images in which fiction and nonfiction are nearly indistinguishable; news, entertainment, and advertising all look more and more alike. The Tramp was a fiction, created by Chaplin; he was then recreated by an actor imitating Chaplin as the Tramp. The crucial distinction is that Chaplin's Tramp was art, whereas IBM's Tramp is pure commerce. The danger is that we may be presented with so much slick, dazzling commerce that we no longer care about the art or the history. Consumer entertainment is, after all, very convenient. The George Washington pitching products on TV is in some ways more real than the other--this one can be seen "in the flesh," before our very eyes. This unreal television world has at least partially displaced the other. A consumer survey taken in early 1985 showed that 93 percent of the people polled remembered who Mr. Clean was, although he hadn't been on the air for years, but only 56 percent knew who George Bush was.
The artificial pantheon of advertising beings represents not a link with our history and culture but a break from any meaningful sense of who we are. Advertising presents a self perpetuating cycle of cliches based only on older cliches. A comedian once complained about the ad campaign for Country Time lemon drink that boasted it "tastes just like good old-fashioned lemonade." He said, Hey, wait a minute, folks; lemonade isn't something from our past, some long-forgotten secret. Anyone can make it, any time; you only need lemons, water, and sugar. But the culture of consumerism would prefer that we forget that.
The lying Joe Isuzu character represents something even darker. He embodies a disillusionment, a sense that there are no ethics left in our society. Indeed, we have heard so much news about illegality and deception in Washington and on Wall Street that the cliche of the sleazy car salesman seems a fitting symbol for a large corporation. Trickster Joe Isuzu lies and--since the audience is in on the joke--tells us to laugh it off. Isuzu lies to sell cars, politicians lie to get elected, and we've all been lied to so much that we find it hard to believe anything. The creators of the pantheon of consumerism must go to ever greater lengths to capture our attention and remind us that advertising characters, the gods of commerce, are our heroes and protectors. Kurt Vonnegut once remarked that when he tried to think about what American culture was, all that came to mind were television commercials. With every passing year, that observation seems more valid..
1. "Cherubic But Not as Chubby," Time, Apr. 4, 1983, p.60.
2. Nation's Business, March, 1981, pp. 70-71.
3. Dr. Donald Cosentino provided information on the Yoruba in UCLA lectures in 1987.
4. Carrie Dolan, "Why is Capt. Crunch a Little Like Zeus?" Wall Street Journal, Feb. 1, 1988, pp. 1, 20.
5. Ronald Alsop, "Agencies Scrutinize Their Ads for Psychological Symbolism," Wall Street Journal, June 11, 1987, p. 27.
6. Christina Bauman, personal communication.
7. "Mr. Whipple, Dick Wilson, Wraps 20th year," People, Nov. 12, 1984, p. 151.
8. Rudy Maxa and Bina Kiyonaga, "Hey, Vern," People, Dec. 2, 1985, p. 121.
9. "A Celebrity Malpractice?" Newsweek, Dec. 23, 1985, p. 66.
10. Christy Marshall, "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time," Forbes, Dec. 28, 1987, p. 98.
12. Bernice Kanner, "Top Dog: Spudsmania," New York, Sept. 28, 1987, pp. 20-23.
13. "Spuds, You Dog," Newsweek, Dec. 14, 1987, p. 68.
14. Mark Crispin Miller, "Deride and Conquer," in Watching Television, Todd Gitlin, ed. (NewYork: Pantheon Books, 1986). The excerpts are scattered throughout Miller's essay, which begins on p. 183.
15. "Would Honest Abe Lie to You?" Consumer Reports, Sept. 1985, p. 567.
16. Mark N. Vamos, "New Life for Madison Avenue's Old-time Stars," Business Week, Apr. 1,1985, p.94.