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Building an Icon

Whether in print, on TV, over the radio or through the Internet, the best advertising campaigns introduce characters that eventually become synonymous with their brands. Let’s take a look at a few ad icons that have stood the test of time, along with some infamous ones.

Advertising Characters Through the Years

Some of these characters have been around for decades, even a century – others are relative newcomers in the advertising industry. All of them are household names.

Icon: Michelin Man, aka Bibendum (1, 2)

Company: Michelin

Year introduced: 1898

The Michelin Man’s real name is “Bibendum,” which is Latin for “drinking to be done,” a reference to the first ad featuring the man made of tires. The tagline for that ad was “Michelin tires drink up obstacles,” meaning the tires don’t puncture easily. Over time, the Michelin Man’s appearance has changed, but he remains mute to represent the “strong, silent type.”

Did you know? Before carbon was introduced into the manufacturing process, tires used to be beige or grayish-white, which is why the Michelin Man is so pale in hue. (2)

Icon: Mr. Peanut (3)

Company: Planters

Year introduced: 1918

In 1916, Planters Nut and Chocolate Company held a contest inviting consumers to invent a trademark for its products. Antonio Gentile, a young teen, submitted the winning drawing of a humanlike peanut with a walking cane and received the $5 prize. Planters added a top hat and monocle to further add a touch of class, and Mr. Peanut made his print advertisement debut in 1918.

Did you know? The modern version of Mr. Peanut – who now wears clothes – has been voiced by actors Robert Downey Jr. and Bill Hader. (4)

Icon: Jolly Green Giant (1, 5)

Company: Green Giant, formerly the Minnesota Valley Canning Company

Year introduced: 1928

Though the mascot was originally a gnome in a bearskin, an ad agency hired by the Minnesota Valley Canning Company replaced his bearskin garb with leaves and made him green – and a whole lot taller. The advertising icon proved so popular that in 1950, the company’s name was changed to Green Giant.

Did you know? Blue Earth, Minnesota, has a 55-foot-tall fiberglass statue of the gargantuan gentleman that attracts 10,000 visitors a year. (1)

Icon: Tony the Tiger (1, 6)

Company: Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes

Year introduced: 1951

The cartoon tiger has gone through several makeovers since he was introduced 60-plus years ago. During the 1970s, he became less cartoony and more humanlike, in addition to being given an Italian-American identity and an entire family: Mama Tony, Mrs. Tony, Antoinette (a daughter) and Tony Jr. (a son). The tiger concept proved so popular, Kellogg’s sued Exxon Mobil for using a tiger in its ads.

Did you know? Thurl Ravenscroft voiced Tony for more than 50 years. The name may not sound familiar, but listen to the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and you’ll recognize his voice instantly. (7)

Icon: Kool-Aid Man (8-9)

Company: Kool-Aid

Year introduced: 1954

Though Kool-Aid has been around since 1927, the smiling, anthropomorphized pitcher wasn’t introduced as an advertising character until 1954. His “OH YEAH!” catchphrase and official name, Kool-Aid Man, came later, in 1975. In 2013, he was given a makeover: He’s now computer-generated, and commercials have depicted him as a celebrity who is trying to show he’s a normal guy.

Icon: Ronald McDonald (1, 10)

Company: McDonald’s

Year introduced: 1963

Arguably one of the most recognizable advertising characters in history, Ronald McDonald first appeared in a TV commercial in 1963 looking very different from his current incarnation. With a cardboard tray for a hat and a paper cup for a nose, the original Ronald McDonald only lasted three commercials before being traded for the modern clown we know today.

Did you know? The original Ronald McDonald was portrayed by Willard Scott, a weatherman and TV personality on NBC’s “Today” show. (10-11)

Icon: The Pillsbury Doughboy, aka Poppin’ Fresh (12)

Company: Pillsbury

Year introduced: 1965

A copywriter for an ad agency popped open a can of Pillsbury dough and envisioned a man made of dough jumping out, sparking the idea for the mascot who would be known as Poppin’ Fresh, or more familiarly, the Pillsbury Doughboy. Within three years of his debut, the character had an 87% recognition rate among consumers, and by the 1970s, Poppin’ Fresh was popularized as a collectible vinyl doll.

Icon: Aflac Duck (13-14)

Company: Aflac

Year introduced: 2000

An ad agency employee working on ideas for the supplemental insurance company’s ad campaign noted that “Aflac” sounds kind of like a quack. The subsequent decision to use a duck as a mascot was risky but has paid off: Since the character’s debut, the company’s name recognition has risen from 11% to 94%. Aflac’s market in Japan also went wild for the duck, and the country even has its own version: a cat duck.

Did you know? Gilbert Gottfried was the voice of the Aflack Duck until he made some controversial jokes about the Japan tsunami in 2011. Voice actor Dan McKeague replaced him shortly thereafter. (15)

Icon: Geico Gecko (16)

Company: Geico

Year introduced: 2000

The auto insurance company’s almost-eponymous mascot was introduced in a TV spot during the Screen Actors Guild strike that prevented the ads from featuring live actors. The commercial featured the British-accented lizard holding a press conference to ask people to stop calling him, since he’s a gecko, not Geico. In 2006, he was given a subtle makeover and a more common English accent.

Icon: Roaming Gnome (17-18)

Company: Travelocity

Year introduced: 2004

Advertisements with the phrase “Wanted: My Garden Gnome. Have you seen him?” first appeared in December 2003, a precursor to Travelocity’s soon-to-be-launched ad campaign featuring a garden gnome who’d been taken on a trip around the world. Ten years later, the gnome still shares postcards of himself in exotic locales, and he even has his own line of merchandise.

Did you know? Though its origins are often incorrectly attributed to the film “Amelie,” gnome-napping has been a popular prank around the world since the 1980s. (17)

Advertising Misses

Not all ads are advantageous, and not every character is destined to be a hit – though on rare occasions, an icon can be an effective marketing tool and still be disliked. Based on a survey of consumers, E-Poll Market Research named these icons America’s least favorite. (10)

1. The Burger King (Burger King): A monarch who sneakily serves people burgers

2. Mr. Mucus (Mucinex): A living blob of mucus

3. Caveman (Geico): A cosmopolitan Neanderthal

4. Mr. Six Flags (Six Flags): An elderly break-dancer

5. Ronald McDonald (McDonald’s): A clown unpopular with folks who suffer from coulrophobia

6. Mr. Opportunity (Honda): A cartoon man who comes knocking at car sales events

7. Chuck E. Cheese (Chuck E. Cheese): A rock star mouse

8. Erin (Esurance): A sexy secret agent

9. The Noid (Domino’s): A man in a bunny suit

10. Kash (Geico): A stack of bills with eyes