A: Not quite. “Icon” suggests more. And while we do consider the subjects of our museum “characters” we also think their employment in advertising as powerful brand symbols qualifies them for higher status. Any old creation might be a character; ours work for a living. And ad icons are not really spokesmen. Many, if not most, don’t speak at all. They are embodiments of a brand, highly memorable symbols, even without saying a word.
A: What makes pop culture pop? It’s designed that way, with easy emotions, pleasing shapes and colors, built-in likeability. It’s why girls like dolls and boys like comic books and everybody likes puppies.
Add that to the fact that collecting has become such an obsession and it becomes almost impossible to relegate anything to the junk heap of history anymore: there’s always somebody out there saving it. Pop culture constantly changes and endures at the same time because people won’t let go of it and can’t get enough of it. Nostalgia’s not what it used to be, it’s bigger than ever. So big, it even gets museums created around it.
But it’s not just old stuff. New icons are created all the time. And old ones are updated and brought back to the marketplace. Why? Because they work like crazy. They stick in the mind and connect people to a brand. They sell product. They help to differentiate one near commodity from another. As mentioned above, icons are working stiffs. And employers love them too: they don’t demand raises, residuals, pensions or healthcare.
A: First of all, there’s no such thing as The Icon. Every one is different, consciously designed to embody the specific values and qualities the maker wishes its brand to express. But it’s much easier to bring qualities out by visualizing them in a character than by a rational listing. We’d all rather be shown than told. Emotional connections have been proven to be much stronger than rational ones.
The emotional connections take many forms. Charlie the Tuna, for example, is supposed to be the one tuna that doesn’t taste good enough to qualify for the Starkist brand. He’s actually the anti-Starkist, with all the qualities Starkist doesn’t want in their can. It’s all in good humor, of course, he’s a lovable goof. And because he keeps getting rejected, he lives for another ad – but we don’t want to go to the dark side. His entertaining self-deprecation is what makes us remember the Starkist brand and equate it with quality. It’s a clever turn of affairs.
Ronald McDonald is just your basic nice-guy clown, wouldn’t hurt a soul, is there for you all the time. Wholesome fun is the intended takeaway. The Michelin Man goes way back to the origins of the brand when pneumatic tires were a radical innovation. His continued use today is an intent to make you feel safe and secure in the old-time goodness of an enduring brand. He’s likeable, cushiony and safe, all qualities you want in your tires – well, cushiony and safe, anyway.
A: Sure, Betty Crocker immediately comes to mind as one of the most famous of advertising icons. So is Orville Redenbacher, Colonel Sanders, the Breck girls, Chiquita Banana and Juan Valdez of Colombian coffee fame, However, the late great Paul Newman is not, even though he’s on his own salad dressing bottle. He’s a Hollywood icon instead who gained his fame from his illustrious acting career long before he started a food company. Neither is Dave, of Wendy’s Fame, because he actually was the CEO of the company. Some realistic characters really are real people, some are fictitious, and the line gets blurred on what qualifies as an icon but somebody has to make the call. We think it should be our museum.
A: Because they can. And because when they do, it works. Or, if it doesn’t work, the advertiser will drop the characters, fire the ad agency and try something else. One thing to remember is that whatever works in advertising will be tried again and again and again. Marketers have no shame.
Modern ad campaigns utilize new fictitious characters every day. Whether they rise to level of icon status depends on how popular they become and how well they wear on consumers as brand connectors. Remember the “raincoat” guy for Sprint a couple of years ago. He came close. And the Verizon guy with the black-rimmed glasses still on today is probably coming even closer.
And of course you remember Mr. Whipple, Madge the manicurist, the lonely Maytag repairman, the Doublemint Twins, the Dunkin Donuts guy who had to get up early to make the donuts. These are all genuine, time-tested icons of advertising. They embody their brands so much, we often think of them before even remembering the product.
Today’s shorter attention spans and a much more fragmented television marketplace make it harder than ever to sustain a character these days. But there are cases of it working in print too. Remember the famous Hathaway shirt guy in the eyepatch or that guy for Tanqueray gin a few years ago or the Morton Salt girl in the raincoat. You can probably think of many more.
A: We don’t think you can decide to create a big, worldwide character and just will it to happen. There is no world pop culture at this time so how could you hook into something that doesn’t exist? Although the increasing international acceptance of Hollywood and other – mostly American – pop cultural references may hasten the day it becomes doable. We’re not sure we look forward to that day. Cultural differences are a big part of what keeps the world an enchanting place.
All that being said, there are lots of happy accidents. That Michelin Man works quite well in the States, though we doubt that American consumers have quite the same feelings about him as the average French citizen. Coca Cola imagery is worldwide but maybe not those polar bears. Or that little old character with the coke cap hat. We don’t know how translatable the McDonaldland characters are in other lands but the McDonald’s product definitely is.
By and large, we think most successful ad icons are strongly influenced by the culture in which they are imagined and are most effective and resonant only within that culture540 There are literally thousands of icons from outside the US that aren’t represented in our museum. Maybe someday, but one step at a time.