Two recent deaths, coincidentally a month apart, offer a lesson in
how Madison Avenue has changed its peddling practices over the
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
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.