We’re all susceptible to their lure. They infiltrate our subconsciousness, colonize our homes, and supply us with everything from food to footwear, and in return we become loyal devotees. Such is the power of hundreds, even thousands, of advertising characters that help brands cultivate images of wholesome goodness—the Pillsbury Doughboy, Jolly Green Giant, Stay Puff Marshmallow Man, and Charlie the Tuna.
These usually adorable, often anthropomorphic product proxies are nonetheless subversive. And those who believe themselves insulated from their power should pick up Warren Dotz and Masud Husain’s Meet Mr. Product: The Graphic Art of the Advertising Character Volumes 1 and 2 (Insight Editions), the latter installment of which was released in April. The books are based on a collection of logos, packaging, and brand spokescharacters the authors acquired over the course of 30 years.
Documenting advertising history and creating an exhibition isn’t Dotz’s primary job—he’s a dermatologist. But both he and his co-author Husain, a graphic designer, shared similar interests in collecting and in exploring the under-appreciated “art of commerce.” For Dotz, advertising characters are fascinating to study because they lie at the intersection of business, design, and the modern mythology of pop culture. Characters, Dotz figured, are not hard-sell pitchmen; they appeal to people through warm or funny mnemonics.
The first volume, Meet Mr. Product, focuses on the late 1940s through the 1950s.The new Mr. Product covers 1960 to 1985, when portable transistor radios and television ushered in commercials with cartoon spokescharacters. These charming and ingratiating figures help consumers identify and trust brand names. For example, Tony the Tiger’s “they’re grrrrrrrreat” isn’t just a pitch for cereal—it’s also an enduring slogan that has become part of the vernacular. Presidents, friends, and coworkers might change, but characters like Mrs. Butterworth and the Trix Rabbit are still around, Dotz says.
“An advertising character, whether fictional or real, has a face,” he says. Those deliberately designed human features create empathy, and they become our friends. So while Kellogg’s has a recognizable logo on its products, that could never compete with the advantages of Tony the Tiger professing the greatness of Frosted Flakes or Toucan Sam promoting Froot Loops, Dotz says. On the same note, Procter & Gamble’s Mr. Clean may get the job done as well as its competitors, but the iconic Mr. Clean (along with humanoid shape of the bottle) gives the product a leg up.
Beyond the ubiquitous examples, the most curious and interesting characters happen to be the ones that weren’t bankrolled by major corporations. While these characters were perhaps less “filtered” or “focus-grouped,” they’ve gone on to become the overwhelming favorites of graphic designers and animators, Dotz says. Many are anthropomorphic and look like their names: Miss Fluffy Rice, Chokey the Smog Dog, Fiber Glass Man, Wiry Joe, and Sally Fasweet, among many others.
Another group of less well-known but interesting characters were ones that were created when cowboys, secret agents, super heroes, beatniks, hillbillies, and astronauts were popular: Bond’s James Bread, the Man from Glad and Oster’s Super Pan. Even established characters like the Hush Puppies dog were sent into space, helmet and all.
The controversial ones might have been popular once, but they wouldn’t survive with today’s growing diversity and racial sensitivity. “Characters such as 3M’s Scotty McTape for Scotch tape and the Plaid Stamps girl are long gone,” Dotz says. “Frito Bandito and Funny Face drink’s Injun Orange and Chinese Cherry were some of the most immensely popular kid-centric ad characters that were eventually and unceremoniously retired due to complaints of stereotypical imagery.”
Consumers are much more aware today that advertising characters exist, on some level, to manipulate the consumer. However, even with all this savviness, these characters continue to entertain and charm.