Revealed: Secrets, trivia and origins of your favorite brand mascots.
Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean, the Gerber Baby: They seem to have been around forever, unchanged and unchanging, but many brand mascots have evolved over time, and some, like every great superhero, have intriguing origin stories, not to mention a fair share of secrets. Here are 10 you probably didn’t know.
1. Tiger Beat: Created by Leo Burnett in 1952, Tony the Tiger was originally one of four rotating animal mascots designed to sell what was then called Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes. The other three members of the mascot menagerie were Katy the Kangaroo, Elmo the Elephant and Newt the Gnu. When Tony proved to be the most popular, the others were put out to pasture. Kellogg’s also dropped the word “sugar” from the cereal’s name in 1984, but everyone knows exactly what those flakes are “frosted” with.
2. He’s Grrreat! Voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft was the unmistakable basso profundo behind Tony the Tiger for 53 years, from 1952 to 2005, forever imprinting Tony’s signature slogan—“They’re grrreat!”—on our collective consciousness. Ravenscroft also lent his voice to various Disneyland attractions, including It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, several Disney movies, including “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo” and “Lady and the Tramp.” His quartet, The Mellomen, even sang backup for Elvis. Second to Tony the Tiger, however, his best-known role is uncredited: he sang the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” in the Dr. Seuss animated holiday special, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
3. Snap, Crackle, Pop… and Pow? Artist Vernon Grant sketched the Rice Krispies pixies in 1932, inspired by a radio jingle for the cereal that described how Rice Krispies “merrily snap, crackle and pop in a bowl of milk.” He presented his illustrations to Kellogg’s agency, N.W. Ayer in Philadelphia, and was promptly hired. Snap was the first to grace cereal boxes, joined by Crackle and Pop in 1936. In 1950, a fourth pixie appeared: Pow, who wore a space helmet and arrived in his first commercial in what Smithsonian Magazine described as a hovercraft. In an email to Smithsonian Magazine, Kellogg’s explained, “[Pow] appeared in two TV commercials. The spaceman character was meant to exude the ‘power of whole grain rice.’ He was never considered an official character.” In an attempt to explain Pow’s short life, Smithsonian Magazine points out that, at the time, Kellogg’s sponsored TV’s “Space Cadet” show with Tom Corbett.
4. The Beats Go On: Ever wonder why StarKist’s Charlie the Tuna sports a beret and horn-rims and sounds like he just stepped out of a smoky Greenwich Village coffeehouse circa 1960? Charlie’s beatnik vibe was actually inspired by the pop-culture appropriation of original Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. His creator, Tom Rogers of Leo Burnett, modeled Charlie after his actor-musician-beatnik friend Henry Nemo and the StarKist commercials were a tribute of sorts to the Beats’ experimental stream-of-consciousness literary approach and incorporation of jazz rhythms. Charlie’s ongoing efforts to court StarKist’s approval by demonstrating his “good taste” result in his serial rejection via a play on words: “Sorry, Charlie. StarKist wants tuna that tastes good, not tuna with good taste.” Charlie is relentlessly disappointed that his offer of self-immolation is spurned—a paradoxical recurring theme with several anthropomorphic food mascots—but StarKist’s cold shoulder means that he will avoid being flayed, canned and devoured and go on to star in another commercial.
5. Million-Dollar Baby: The Gerber Baby turned 90 in 2016, both the iconic baby food brand illustration and the woman who served as the inspiration. Ann Turner Cook was only four months old in 1928 when she was sketched by artist Dorothy Hope Smith for a Gerber-sponsored contest to find an image for an advertising campaign. Though Gerber received thousands of entries—including “elaborate oil paintings”—Smith’s simple charcoal drawing of a wide-eyed, cherubic infant with pursed lips won the day. And though she included a note saying she would finish the drawing if selected, judges loved the simplicity of the sketch. The drawing proved so popular that, in 1931, Gerber made it the company’s official trademark. The baby’s identity remained a secret until 1978, when, during Gerber’s 50th anniversary, it was revealed that Ann Turner Cook, a mystery novelist and retired English teacher, had served as the model.
6. In a Nutshell: Another famous and long-lasting brand mascot who was born of an illustration submitted to a contest is Mr. Peanut. In 1916, the Planters Nut and Chocolate Company held a contest for a new mascot. Fourteen-year-old Antonio Gentile submitted a pencil sketch of a smiling anthropomorphic “Mr. P. Nut Planter” with arms, legs and a sporty cane. A graphic artist enhanced Gentile’s original drawing, adding a top hat, spats and a monocle, and Mr. Peanut was born. Gentile won the contest and was awarded $5 for his entry. But that’s not the end of his story. In 2014, Gentile’s nephew, Robert Slade, donated Gentile’s original drawings to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and revealed that Gentile’s family became friends with the company’s founder, Amedeo Obici, whose “personal interest and generosity… enabled [Gentile] to fulfill his life’s ambition of service to others.” With financial assistance from Obici, Gentile went on to become a successful and generous surgeon.
7. Clowning Around: “He’s Ronald McDonald, the hamburger-happy clown,” sing the disembodied voices in Ronald’s very first TV commercial. And for anyone who has misgivings about his appearance today, or harbor It-inspired anxieties at the sight of a red nose, Ronald’s first manifestation, in 1963, was nothing short of a horror show that would do a juggalo proud. Brought to life by future NBC “Today Show” weatherman Willard Scott, a benign presence in any other incarnation, the ur-Ronald was a case study in macabre maquillage with accessories courtesy of Doctor Caligari’s cabinet: a huge, lurid red mouth, a beverage cup where a nose should be, the fright wig from which all others descended, an awkward Chiquita-style cardboard box full of McDonald’s menu items for a hat, some sort of “magic tray” used to impress (lure) kids and, oh, yes, fingerprint-proof white gloves. “I like to do everything boys and girls like to do,” says Ronald, which is, no doubt, the origin of Grimace.
8. Making a Splash: What’s the difference between a mermaid and a siren? A mermaid has one tail, a siren has two. That distinction is important to Starbucks, which chose a siren as its logo in 1971. Starbucks was named after the first mate in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and, in a continuation of the seafaring theme, the logo features an image of a twin-tailed siren from Greek mythology. Starbucks Creative Director Steve Murray told Advertising Week that a eureka moment occurred at the discovery of a siren woodcut in a vintage seafaring tome. “[The siren] is from the sea and coffee comes from across the ocean. Seattle is a kind of seafaring town and it seemed to fit together well, adding a mythical feel to it, too.” The Siren has evolved over several iterations since. Her palette has gone from brown to black to green. Her navel was cropped out as the illustration zoomed in on her face. And her cleavage was covered as her flowing hair shifted from her back to her front. “I’d say she’s gotten a little more modest,” Murray says on the Siren’s transformation, “But mostly the same if you look at her face across all those times. It has stayed pretty consistent.”
9. Duck Tales: In 1999, a creative director for the Kaplan Thaler Group went for a walk in Central Park to contemplate a new campaign for the large-but-little-known Aflac insurance company. Deep in thought, he repeated the name of the company over and over again until he realized that “Aflac” sounded just like a duck’s quack. The answer was right in front of him all along. Thus was born the Aflac mascot, a duck who quacks the name of his company in response to the rhetorical questions of the confused and clueless about which insurance is right for them. In a nod, perhaps, to the Duck’s origin, his first commercial was titled “Park Bench” and features two men sitting on a bench debating the merits of supplemental insurance while the Duck repeats a one-word solution: “Aflac!” Over a myriad commercials, the Duck has become so popular and so recognizable that, in 2005, Aflac added the duck to the company’s logo. Since 2001, Macy’s has sold a plush version of the Duck during the December holiday season with net proceeds donated to local children’s cancer facilities. The Duck is also celebrated as one of America’s Favorite Advertising Icons on Madison Avenue’s Walk of Fame.
10. The Name Game: What do Twitter’s iconic bluebird and the Quaker Oats man have in common? They’re both named Larry. Twitter revealed the name of its feathered friend in a tweet to Jimmy Fallon. According to the Wall Street Journal, Quaker Oats insiders have always referred to their “spokeslogo” as Larry. The rooster that graces boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes is Cornelius. Mr. Peanut is Bartholomew Richard Fitzgerald-Smythe. The Michelin Man also goes by Bibendum. And Mr. Clean? He has the best first name of all: Veritably. Aye, Veritably Clean! The name was bestowed in 1962, the result of a “Give Mr. Clean a First Name” contest.