Advertising can be traced back to the earliest parts of recorded civilization. The Ancient Egyptians used advertising on papyrus for messages related to sales.
But, in my opinion, the pinnacle of ads and advertising mascots occurred between the early 1960s and the late 1970s.
Dinah Shore invited us to “See the USA in a Chevrolet,” and Miller Beer told us that, “If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the beer.”
The high caliber concept development of Speedy Alka Seltzer, Charlie Tuna, and Tony The Tiger, are rarely found these days. They’ve been replaced (if you can call it that) by the GEICO Caveman, Flo from Progressive, and the Sonic Drive In guys.
Fifty years ago, my sister and I would sit in front of our parents’ RCA console television and, like sponges, absorb the commercials and jingles. The ads were often 60 seconds instead of the common 30 seconds of today, which gave the ad writers time to actually make their message memorable, catchy, and quite often, funny.
Funny is something that many advertisers attempt today, but funny is rare, and it’s seldom done well. As someone who’s spent most of his career in advertising, I learned a long time ago that funny is like Brylcreem. When it is necessary: “A little dab’ll do ya.”
The people who engineered the ads of my childhood knew how to do funny. Whether they were targeting kids, grownups, or both, they latched on to something that worked, stuck with it, but didn’t overdo it.
Case in point. The 1969 Alka Seltzer, “Mama Mia, that’s a spicy meatball,” TV commercial. It was a commercial that portrayed a film crew unsuccessfully trying to make a commercial. In other words, it was a fake commercial that was a commercial.
That, in and of itself, is funny.
If you’ve never seen it, here’s the scenario: A middle-aged couple is in their modest kitchen. The husband, balding with a mustache and adorned with suspenders, is sitting at a table where he’s sampling spaghetti and meatballs. His adoring wife stands beside him with her hands clasped together, waiting for his approval of the meal she made for dinner, which included a jar of fictitious spaghetti sauce.
After repeated “takes” where he either fumbles his lines, forgets to use an Italian accent, or the food is so hot that he can’t talk; when he finally gets his lines right, the door to the oven falls off. That’s when the plug for the real product finally arrives. Someone drops two Alka Seltzer tablets in a glass of water and says you should do the same if you get heartburn.
In the 1960s and 70s, Starkist Tuna ran a series of ads that were basic, yet got the attention of all ages. Charlie was a tuna who, unlike most fish, wanted to be caught by the fishing hook of the Starkist fishermen. But, he wasn’t good enough.
His Buddy Holly glasses and nerdy demeanor made it obvious that he would never make the grade of what was required to be in a can of Starkist Tuna. “Only the best tuna get to be Starkist.”
Charlie The Tuna is still around today, but his brand is a shadow of its former self. The last time I saw him, he was in an ad with one of the now-grownup kids from the TV show “Full House.”
Looks as if the fishermen were right.
Tony The Tiger may likely be the best cereal mascot ever. Kellogg’s turned a colorful, animated tiger into the perfect way to convince our moms to not only buy perfectly healthy corn flakes that were coated in liquid sugar, but to actually feed them to us.
Today, advertising rarely has great ads, but there are some success stories.
The GEICO Caveman is a funny concept. You take an outcast who just wants to be accepted for who he is, and throw in insurance, and you’ve got the perfect mix, right? Well, sort of. After that idea ran its course, the caveman was replaced by a talking lizard with a British accent.
If you’re not following this, don’t worry. Neither am I.
Insurance seems to be a trend when it comes to modern day ad efforts that try to be funny. When Flo from Progressive isn’t meandering around a nebulous, white background with a price reduction gun that looks like a spaceman’s laser, she’s hiding in the bushes outside of people’s homes.
And then, there are the two Sonic Drive In guys. I’m not sure whose idea it was to take two men, who obviously got beat up daily in gym class in junior high, and give them a classic convertible to sit in while they babble on; but if I ever meet that person, I’m going to take them to the nearest junior high gym class.
I have a difficult time watching national ads these days. Some, like the Budweiser Clydesdales, are well crafted, but if I could say anything to those who make most of the other national commercials today, I’d borrow a line from the old Starkist Tuna ads.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon.
Email John at john@TheCountryWriter.com.