Today, advertising is everywhere—embedded into our movies and games via product placement, sneaking into our email and twitter feeds with targeted messaging, waiting silently in our bedroom closet with a hunting knife and a roll of duct tape—and for most of us that’s more or less okay.
At this point people are so used to ads being on everything everywhere that they just don’t really mind. It wasn’t always like that, however; it took years of increasingly bold ad campaigns that broke out of the realm of regular advertisements and became a part of pop culture unto themselves.
Here are a few of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your point of view) of advertising’s long journey out of the commercial breaks and into the main stage.
A TALE OF TWO BUNNIES
Credit where credit’s due: Duracell was the first company to use a pink toy rabbit playing a drum as the ideal example of how powerful and long-lasting their batteries were. In fact, the “Duracell Bunny” is still a popular and widely-recognized mascot almost everywhere in the world except North America.
Why the exception? Because quick-thinking Energizer marketing consultants noticed that Duracell’s patent on the idea of a pink toy rabbit that played the drum had lapsed, and in 1988 released a commercial that directly referenced Duracell’s famous ad campaign—and then did it one better by releasing a number of fake commercials for imaginary products that the unstoppable robot bunny would interrupt, implacably trundling through pitch-perfect parodies of existing commercials.
The campaign was so popular that the bunny appeared on both Letterman and Leno and went on to star besides beloved fictional characters such as Darth Vader, Wile E. Coyote, and Elvis Presley.
DORITOS DOESN’T LIKE CHEVY CHASE EITHER
In 1993, renowned comedian and alleged asshole Chevy Chase was at the height of his popularity. Chase had managed a string of popular movies and TV appearances and had even managed to snaffle his own late-night comedy talk show on Fox and, as a result, he ended up as the frontman for Doritos-brand vaguely-cheese-flavored chips. He appeared in a fairly popular minute-long commercial during Super Bowl XXVII, where he rescued a bag of Doritos from an elderly woman who was subsequently run over by a steamroller.
By the end of ’93, Chase’s incredibly abrasive personality had destroyed almost all of the goodwill he built up from SNL and movie appearances and his legendarily terrible talk show had been killed off after only five weeks on the air.
However, parent company Frito-Lay was still stuck with him as celebrity frontman. They managed to get rid of him in a uniquely creative manner. During a Superbowl XXVIII commercial break, he started out in an exact recreation of last year’s Doritos Super Bowl ad only to be interrupted by a director who subsequently explained that the ratings for his commercial were terrible and that his ad campaign was subsequently cancelled in a direct reference to his awful talk show.
The fourth-wall breaking spot earned numerous ad awards and paid Chase well enough that he was able to survive the next fifteen years until he got hired on "Community", where he was able to vent his horrible wrath on an entirely new generation of writers and comedians.
Music video director Charles Stone III had no idea that his short film “True”—a little comedy piece starring him, his childhood friends, and various permutations of the phrase “what’s up”—would end up being so popular on the film festival circuit.
He was even more surprised when the buzz “True” generated ended up earning him an audience at Chicago ad agency DDB, who successfully pitched the idea to Anheuser-Busch for the Budweiser brand and wound up with a hugely popular ad campaign based on the “Wassup?” catchphrase that launched in December of 1999 and persisted for at least two years.
That campaign won both the Grand Clio Award and the Cannes Lions International Advertising Grand Prix (the two biggest awards available to advertisements) and was inducted into the Clio Hall of Fame in 2006, but Stone (the son of a Tuskegee Airman who later became a renowned Black journalist) still had control of the intellectual property and used it in 2008 to film a semi-official sequel to “True:” Stone and his friends were now battling Hurricane Katrina and Iraqi insurgents as an implicit criticism of George W. Bush’s administration, ending with a clear endorsement of Barack Obama’s campaign. Nobody knows for sure how influential “Wassup 2008” was, but if nothing else it was at least nominated for “Best User Generated Video” at the 35th People’s Choice Awards.
CONSOLE YOURSELF: ADVERGAMES
Today, it’s very common for web-savvy companies to include some sort of simple Flash-based web game that ties in with the launch of a new ad campaign, but in the dark and terrifying days before the Internet, releasing a tie-in game for a popular commercial mascot meant actually contracting a professional software developer to design and write an actual game that could be encoded in a ROM cartridge that met Nintendo or Sega standards—a complicated and expensive process that almost all ad agencies would prefer to avoid.
While this arrangement actually ended up producing a few decent games (the Genesis version of 7up’s “Cool Spot” was an unexpected classic of the 2D platform genre, and “McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure” was produced by legendary Capcom refugee company Treasure) more often than not gamers would spend thirty bucks for horrible turds like the NES game “Yo! Noid,” a half-assed sprite hack of an already bottom-of-the-barrel Japanese side-scroller where the rabbit-devil-man-thing that Domino’s Pizza had unwisely chosen as their spokesman slogged through tedious platform-based levels in search of awful pizza.
THE EVIL EMPIRE OF RONALD MCDONALD
While most sources credit renowned weatherman and professional buffoon Willard Scott with the creation of the character of “Ronald McDonald” (which Scott credits to the popularity of Bozo the Clown and cheap fast food), Mickey D’s was quick to claim RMD as its own intellectual property since the combination of clowns and hamburgers immediately became incredibly popular.
Hideous clown-man Ronald soon became a breakaway star, famous even outside the context of nasty greasy 59-cent cheeseburgers, and at one point even earned his own six-episode video miniseries drawn by Rugrats-producers Klasky-Csupo, where the already unsettling McD’s character lineup was rendered even weirder by K-C’s uniquely bizarre art style.
Ronald also appeared on a positively surreal “radio” album that was played on American intercontinental airliners as part of the airplane’s “kid’s station” which youngsters could listen to while they watched c-list romantic comedies; the psychological effects of listening to the McDonald’s cartoon characters describe their adventures in space while watching Matt LeBlanc hack his way through a tedious romantic comedy have yet to be properly recorded.
“HAVE YOU NO SENSE OF DECENCY, SIR BURGER KING?”
Fledgling fast-food chain Wendy’s struck marketing gold in early 1984 with its “Fluffy Bun” ad campaign, a series of TV spots where elderly women inspected hamburgers with an unsatisfactory ratio of bread to beef.
These women were passively polite to the tiny meat patties enclosed within huge buns until character actress Clara Peller boldly asked “Where’s the beef?” as a way of pointing out the penny-pinchingly small amount of cooked meat rationed out to the typical fast-food burger. For unknown and perhaps unknowable reasons, the “where’s the beef” catchphrase became insanely popular, earning Peller appearances on Saturday Night Live and roles in separate ad campaigns where she claimed to have finally found the beef in various products.
The campaign reached its weirdest and most publicized height during the ’84 Democratic primaries, where doomed future presidential candidate Walter Mondale challenged populist and poon-hound by saying "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef?'" Mondale’s campaign continued to capitalize on this theme by distributing pamphlets about his policy proposals entitled “Here’s The Beef” and ended up getting steamrolled by Ronald Reagan in one of the least surprising elections in American history.
A PUPPET GETS SOCKED
Online pet-supplies retailer Pets.com is basically a perfect example of the ridiculous dot-com boom of the late nineties: a memorable mascot backed up by a hugely expensive and omnipresent ad campaign that represented an ultimately ridiculous and unworkable business plan.
The Pets.com sock puppet (designed by the same company that created the Taco Bell Chihuahua and voiced by veteran comic Michael Ian Black) became popular entirely out of proportion to the website’s success, appearing on Good Morning America, Nightline, Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, and even in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade as a gigantic helium balloon, while Pets.com itself hemorrhaged money so badly that at the time of the website’s closing, the only item they offered for sale was an official Pets.com sock puppet.
The puppet in question was briefly mocked in a 2001 E-Trade ad parodying the first wave of dot-coms in general, but auto loan company 1-800-BAR-NONE purchased the rights for the popular sock-creature for its bad-credit ad campaign that professed “Everyone deserves a second chance.”
SO EASY A LIZARD COULD DO IT
Americans are suckers for a British accent, so auto insurance company GEICO’s CGI Cockney gecko has been the brand’s most visible spokes-thing since 1999 when a Screen Actors Guild strike made computer-animated reptiles a less expensive alternative to human performers. GEICO’s 2004 marketing offensive was lead by an entirely different character, however: a cast of urbane, intellectual Neanderthals who reacted to the company’s new catchphrase (“So easy, a caveman could do it!”) with arguably justified anger.
The campaign was meant to satirize the idea of “political correctness” and apparently hit some sort of marketing sweet spot—twenty more GEICO caveman commercials eventually aired, and ABC went so far as to buy a pilot sitcom based on the indignant Neanderthals featuring Nick Kroll as an aggressively political and sensitive caveman.
In spite of all logic and reason, thirteen episodes of Cavemen were filmed, although only six actually made it onto airwaves before ABC executives realized what they had done and cancelled the series.