The Stories Behind Five Famous Advertising Characters

Inspired by the Sriracha Flamethrower Grizzly, a look back at some of the great icons of food branding

The Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota
The Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota Image courtesy of Flickr user Dougtone

What ever happened to really great advertising characters? This question popped into my head the minute I saw the Sriracha Flamethrowing Grizzly. The character, designed by The Oatmeal’s author/artist Matthew Inman, is a sheer flight of fancy and is not—at least not yet—the official figurehead for the hot sauce. With the manic look in his eye, the waggling tongue and his strange ability to deftly wield an incendiary device, I would readily send in proofs of purchase for the plush equivalent of this creature. As twisted as the image might be, you have to admit the guy’s got a terrific amount of personality.

Advertisers employ characters to set their goods apart from everyone else’s, giving consumers someone—or something—to readily identify with. Characters can assign gender, class and ethos to otherwise inanimate objects in addition to reflecting the culture at large. (General Mills released their Monster-themed cereals like Count Chocula in response to hit TV shows like “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters,” and while those programs were cancelled decades ago, the foods they inspired remain on store shelves.) The use of characters began to decline in the 1970s as photography became increasingly preferred over illustration to sell goods. Also, the target audience got smarter and required more sophisticated ploys. The naive cartoon characters from the primitive days of television would be hard pressed to sell the same products to a generation of people who have spent their entire lives exposed to televised advertising. Nevertheless, some characters are ingrained in our culture, including the following:

Aunt Jemima: Ethnic stereotyping is an embarrassing and regrettable theme in advertising history. If you can lay your hands on the book The Label Made Me Buy It, there is an entire section devoted to insensitive depictions of ethnic groups, including the Irish, American Indians, Pacific Islanders and African Americans. The Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mix was introduced in 1889, inspired by a minstrel performance that featured the song “Old Aunt Jemima.” For decades, the character represented a romanticized view of slavery, and what part of makes her fascinating—and infuriating—is how she came to have such a pervasive presence. In addition to print ads and the use of her image on boxes of pancake mix, local promotions hired local actresses to portray the character, and even Disneyland had an Aunt Jemima-themed restaurant that perpetuated the image of the happy southern mammy at least until 1970. The NAACP began protesting this mascot in the early 1960s, although it wasn’t until 1986 that she finally shed the headscarf and received a complete makeover. Despite a modernized image—she now sports pearl earrings—some consumers don’t believe the character can shed her intensely racist origins and say that it’s time for Aunt Jemima to retire.

Charlie the Tuna: In the course of conversation, have you ever said—or heard someone say—”Sorry, Charlie”? Even if there isn’t a Charles, Charlie, or Chuck in the room? This particular turn of phrase has its roots in StarKist canned tuna. The company’s signature spokesfish first appeared in animated ads in 1961 and the slogan we associate with him came about the following year. Originally voiced by stage and screen actor Herschel Bernardi, Charlie strives to be a cultured fish with consummate taste—but apparently he himself does not taste good enough to be used in StarKist products. Every time he pursues a StarKist fishing hook, he finds it speared with a simple rejection letter: “Sorry, Charlie.” Seems the tuna company won’t settle for fish with good taste in lieu of fish that taste good.

Mr. Peanut: Anyone who has seen Sunset Boulevard ought to remember has-been silent screen actress Norma Desmond snarling, “We didn’t need dialog. We had faces!” Mr. Peanut seems to share those sentiments—although he ended up having the better career. The mascot of Planters peanuts since 1916, he didn’t get a voice until a 2010 ad campaign set about revitalizing the character for a younger generation. (Iron Man actor Robert Downey, Jr. supplied the voice, and you can even get updates from Mr. Peanut on Facebook.) Although other monocled and behatted goobers predate the Planters character, it is Mr. Peanut who has enjoyed serious staying power, appearing on Planters products—not to mention a horde of spinoff merchandise—and becoming one of the most recognizable advertising characters in existence.

The Jolly Green Giant: The Jolly Green Giant always seems like such a personable guy, but would you ever expect him to be nice enough to get someone out of a legal bind? When the Minnesota Valley Canning Company wanted to start canning a variety of especially large peas under the name “green giant,” it tried to trademark the title but couldn’t because it was merely descriptive of the product. But they could conjure up an image—a character even—with which to stake a legally binding claim on the name of their goods. The Green Giant was born in 1928—although in his initial incarnation, he was Neanderthal-looking and strangely non-green in appearance. With a little redesigning by Leo Burnett, he became a jolly, verdant fellow by the mid-1930s and by the 1950s he became so popular that the Minnesota Valley Canning Company re-dubbed itself Green Giant. 

Spongmonkeys, the Quizno’s Rodents: I would not lump the Spongmonkeys in the same class as the other characters mentioned above, but if nothing else they show how advertising reflects trends in current popular culture. The creatures are animals—maybe tarsiers, perhaps marmosets—that have been photoshopped to have human mouths and bulging eyes. They also have a fondness for hats. The brainchild of Joel Veitch, who created a video with the spongmonkeys hovering in front of a hydrangea bush singing about how much they love the moon. It’s over-the-top bizarre. And perhaps that was the quality Quizno’s was looking for when the sandwich chain used this work of internet video art as the basis for a national ad campaign. Some people loved the spongmonkeys, others weren’t quite sure what to do with them—but at the very least, people were talking about Quizno’s. And isn’t that the mark of a successful piece of advertising?

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