OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Two recent deaths, coincidentally a month apart, offer a lesson in

how Madison Avenue has changed its peddling practices over the

years.



First, on 8 December, came the passing of Don Tennant, who created

familiar advertising characters such as Tony the Tiger for Leo Burnett.

Then, on 8 January, came the death of Dave Thomas, the founder of the

Wendy's International hamburger chain, who for 13 years pitched his own

products in more than 800 television commercials created by Bates.



Tony, adopted in 1953 as the mascot for Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes

cereal, was among a menagerie of "critters" dreamed up by Tennant and

colleagues, which also include icons such as the Jolly Green Giant and

the Pillsbury Doughboy. Some classify the agency's Marlboro cowboy and

Maytag repairman as critters, too, but the term is usually reserved for

the imaginary beings birthed at Burnett.



Today, those who don't deem critters campy or retro-chic dismiss them as

hopelessly cornball. In many instances, such as Tony, they've been

relegated to cameo roles in the campaigns they dominated, limited to

package appearances or exiled to promotional materials.



Far more in vogue, particularly since the 80s, have been the human

critters personified by Thomas; the founders or chief executives who

become the public face of their corporations. Sometimes TV resembled a

visit to the business round table, as viewers could watch Thomas sell

his burgers, then see Victor Kiam shill Remington shavers, Lee Iacocca

tout Chryslers, Frank Perdue hawk Perdue chicken and Orville Redenbacher

puff his eponymous popcorn.



The shift from critters to humans was partly the result of a growing

American infatuation for peeping inside the executive suite, as typified

by the night-time soaps Dallas and Dynasty. It was also partly because

of a growing disenchantment with the trappings and techniques of modern

advertising, blamed for selling people what they really didn't need.



The critters were derided as the vestiges of an era when consumers

believed the blandishments of Mr Blandings and the other hucksters in

the grey flannel suits, promising to improve your life simply if you'd

switch deodorant, car, toothpaste or, in Tony's case, cereal.



The popularity of spokes-chief executives stemmed from them not being

imaginary creations of slick admen or celebrities whose endorsements

could be bought, but rather captains of industry perceived as standing

behind what they sold.



Thomas, for instance, was a beefy man who looked as if he sampled one

Wendy's Classic Double for every one he sold during the days he ran the

company. His early performances were almost painful to watch, but his

evident discomfort enabled him to come across as the real deal; genuine,

unimpressed with himself, too busy minding the store to polish his

performance.



So despite his business acumen, evidenced by Wendy's growing into the

third-biggest hamburger chain, consumers identified with Thomas in a way

they cannot with a critter. So strong was the outpouring of sympathy

upon his death that Wendy's ran television and newspaper ads by Bates

paying him tribute, and had his body flown to the corporate offices in

Dublin, Ohio, to lie in state as if a king had died.



In fact, a king had died - a burger king who was a king of advertising.



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