The use of characters in advertising has been bouncing around my head lately as a result of some recent ad concept testing that we have been involved in. I’m talking about both the non-human animated type of characters, such as Tony the Tiger and the Michelin Man, as well as characters who are portrayed by humans but are obvious caricatures such as Mayhem, the Old Spice Man or the Most Interesting Man in the World.
While the use of characters in advertising is a memorable and effective way of creating awareness of a brand, I have been wondering what it is that makes a character particularly effective? What is required of a character to make a clear connection to the brand? In thinking about conducting research on characters in ad concepts, initial reactions to campaigns with characters in them will frequently result in negative feedback from research participants, especially of the type “that’s too childish” when characters are animated or deemed to be too cartoony.
Research participants are often also confused by the relationship between the character and the brand. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall had Geico conducted concept testing that introduced the now iconic Geico gecko. I can imagine the reactions going something like this – “A gecko with a British accent representing an insurance company?!? That’s stupid! It just doesn’t make any sense!” But time and again characters in advertising have proven to be extremely successful in promoting brands by instigating curiosity and conversations.
What is truly important in conducting research on characters in advertising is to move beyond any initial negative reactions to determine what the characters are doing that research participants do or do not like. When circling back to a final evaluation of the characters after a focus group discussion it can be surprising to find that those who originally dismissed the characters out-of-hand have become more receptive to the characters.
Just for fun I am listing, in no particular order, my top three favorite advertising characters/campaigns. I would love to hear from you as well about your favorite characters in advertising. If you are interested, here is one list of the top ad icons of the 20th century but let me know your all-time favorites before looking at the list.
1. The Budweiser Frogs – I thought these critters were hilarious when they debuted during the 1995 Super Bowl. When the lizards were introduced the hilarity notched up even higher. Unfortunately I was too young to drink beer when these commercials were airing but if I could have I’m sure I would have had a Bud-weis-er.
2. The California Raisins – Claymation was pretty freakin’ cool back in the mid-80’s. Actually I still think claymation is cool. And a claymation Michael Jackson to an impressionable young kid in the mid-80’s was the epitome of cool.
3. The Energizer Bunny – The energizer bunny was first introduced in 1989 and just kept going and going and is still being used today. The Energizer bunny showing up out of nowhere was always a surprise. An even bigger surprise was a commercial for batteries being entertaining.