Top 10 Significant Advertising Icons that do More than Sell

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It seems like all big companies ever want to do is sell, sell, sell. They’ll do whatever it takes to make their products into things that consumers can’t do without. To that end, shelling out big bucks for ad campaigns is a common feat. It’s arguably the best tactic for getting a product on the must-have lists of people all over the world. And, for many companies, part of advertising means creating cute little mascots, or advertising icons, that will catch buyers’ attention.

Advertising icons are the cartoons, animals, or inanimate objects that are the faces of brands. They sell their company’s products and, sometimes, provide a good deal of entertainment along the way. Usually, these silly characters appear on packaging labels, commercials, and billboards, promoting their goods with trademark tag lines. But the sell, sell, sell mentality keeps making the ad icons cuter, funnier, more entertaining, and, in many ways, more annoying. Sometimes, it just seems like too much. Why spend all that energy just getting people to buy?

Fortunately, there are a few companies who have harnessed the power of their ad icons for the greater good. These mascots do more than just lure customers to the cash register. A few of them actually make a difference for real people through community involvement, sending powerful messages to kids, and even “authoring” influential books related to their brands. Check out the following list of 10 such ad icons that have done more than sell.

10. The Burger King

Burger King’s mascot, the king, has taken has taken many forms since his birth in 1955. At first, the king was a simply drawn cartoon character who was often found sitting atop a Whopper sandwich. In recent years, however, the Burger King has been depicted as a life-size costumed character. He frequently dances and plays pranks on people in his most recent incarnation and the smiling, plastic-faced king, which was launched in 2003.

Okay, so the Burger King hasn’t given back much to the community. But his parent company, Burger King (the restaurant), is a frequent supporter of local events and big-time charities worldwide. And the Burger King himself has made his mark beyond simply selling fast food. He’s been featured in a variety of video games, made an appearance on an episode of The Simpsons, and even appeared alongside football players in NFL commercials. The King is also rumored to be the star of an upcoming feature-length film. So although the King himself hasn’t contributed to charities or given life-changing messages, he has become an entertainment icon outside of the realm of his restaurant.

9. The Coppertone Girl

Coppertone is the brand name for an American sunscreen, and its mascot, the Coppertone Girl with her puppy, is one of the most recognizable images in pop culture. The picture shows a cartoon blond toddler with tan lines, which are revealed when the puppy pulls down her bathing suit bottoms. Unlike some icons, the Coppertone Girl doesn’t make cameos at events or host her own charities. But she did make a difference in the world all the same. The Coppertone Girl helped make Jodie Foster famous.

Foster’s first acting gig was an appearance as the Coppertone Girl on a commercial when she was three years old. She has since become one of Hollywood’s most esteemed actresses. We can’t credit Coppertone with all of her fame, but her appearance as the Coppertone Girl surely helped her out in her early days. Coppertone also helped a young model get her start in the 1990s, when it sponsored a pageant to find the next Coppertone Girl. The winner was featured on billboards and ads for the sunscreen the following year.

8. The California Raisins

A group of walking, talking clay grapes, the California Raisins were once one of the biggest pop phenomena to hit the market. And it was all a fluke. The Raisins were originally created by the California Raisin Advisory Board as a last resort for a commercial idea. They were meant to be part of a short ad spot to sell raisins, singing a funny parody of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It through the Grapevine.” No one knew how popular the Raisins would become. After their debut in 1986, the California Raisins went on to star in two TV shows and released four albums. They also were featured in a cartoon series and were recreated in numerous toys and games.

The Raisins made the big shift from ad icon to cultural icon, and that’s why they’ve made a big difference. At the height of their success, most people didn’t associate the California Raisins with the Raisin Advisory Board, but they probably still sold more raisins in the long run. The Raisins haven’t been seen officially since 2001, when Hardee’s restaurants released a series of figurines to promote a new product.

7. McGruff the Crime Dog

McGruff the Crime Dog is the advertising icon for the National Crime Prevention Council in the United States. He’s used by American police departments for getting across messages about crime prevention to kids, and his trademark catch phrase is, “Take a bite out of crime.” McGruff’s whole reason for creation was to help reduce criminal activity, and he’s made a big difference since his debut in 1980. Currently, he gets involved with kids in schools as the spokes-dog for anti-crime programs; he also stars in commercials and occasionally appears in costume at police stations.
One of the biggest contributions of this ad icon was the creation of the McGruff House system, which began in 1982. McGruff Houses are safe havens for kids who feel threatened at home. Currently, there are 700 McGruff Houses in the United States, and the Crime Dog lends his image to all of them.

6. Buzz

Buzz, also known as Buzzbee, is the honeybee mascot of Honey Nut Cheerios, the breakfast cereal made by General Mills. He’s been around since 1978, when the cereal was first spun off from original Cheerios. The supersized, talking bee’s main job is to sell his cereal to kids, which he does in regular commercials that are featured in prime Saturday-morning-cartoon time slots. But Buzz also helps kids learn to spell. He’s the star of the board game called “Honey Nut Cheerios Spelling Bee,” a trivia game that simulates a classic spelling competition. He’s also been used to increase interest in balanced eating habit. In recent years, Buzz has been promoting good health for families. He’s usually found quoting the health benefits of Honey Nut Cheerios on the cereal’s boxes.

5. The AFLAC Duck

That annoying white duck that’s featured on AFLAC commercials was created to give the insurance company more of a presence in the public mind. The nameless duck has become famous since his 1999 debut as the mascot of AFLAC, an insurance giant. When the duck was created, AFLAC was a large, successful company that no one had ever heard of. The duck’s done a good job of increasing AFLAC’s visibility (and its sales) through regular TV commercials, some of which feature celebrities.

Like most advertising icons, the duck’s main purpose is to sell. But he’s got another end in mind too–the AFLAC duck actually helps fight cancer. His popularity prompted AFLAC to created plush dolls in the duck’s likeness. The AFLAC ducks are sold at Macy’s stores and online, and proceeds benefit the AFLAC Cancer Center and Blood Disorders Service at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Since 2001, the AFLAC Duck has raised almost $2 million to fight cancer. Now that’s impressive.

4. The Chick-fil-A Cows

Chick-fil-A’s stubborn bovines support the restaurant by encouraging consumers to “EAT MORE CHIKIN.” The cows often wear signs with this message, and they can be seen on billboards and in front of the many restaurants. They were created in 1994, and since then they have become very popular figures. They even have their own annual calendar!

Besides providing comic relief and smart advertising, the Chick-fil-A Cows actually do a world of good deeds. They appear at many charity events sponsored by the restaurant chain. One of their most prominent community service appearances is at the yearly Chick-fil-A Classic, a basketball game featuring some of the best high school players in the country. During the game, the cows often present trophies to the featured players and checks to the restaurant’s charity groups.

3. Smokey Bear

As the mascot of the United States Forest Service, Smoky Bear’s job is to help prevent forest fires. Since his creation in 1944, Smokey has been seen in National Forests throughout the country with his signature saying, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Like McGruff, everything Smokey does is meant to help the community. He’s been featured in numerous ad campaigns aimed at preventing fires. But despite Smokey’s good intentions, he has still managed to become a pop culture icon and sell a few products. In the 1950s, he had his own band, the Sons of the Pioneers, which was frequently featured on radio programs. The first of many Smokey Bear doll s was released in 1952, and since then there have been countless Smokey figures, toys, and books available for sale. Smokey was even given his own zip code in 1964 because so many children wanted to join his junior forest ranger club.

In the end, Smokey has made a big impact despite his becoming a cultural icon. All of the proceeds from sales of Smokey products have gone to forest fire educational programs. So although Smokey sells, he does it with the greater good in mind.

2. Morris the Cat

You’ve probably seen lots of cats grace the labels of cat food containers, but one is particularly special. That’s Morris the Cat, and he is the mascot for the 9Lives brand of cat food. Since the 1970s, the stout orange tabby has been famously finicky in his food choices. In television commercials, he always claims to eat nothing by 9Lives brand, turning up his nose at the other brands that are given to him. In fact, every can of 9Lives features a picture of the cat and is “signed” by Morris himself.

Morris has become a very well-known icon in the 30 plus years of his advertising tenure–he even starred in Shamus, a movie with Burt Reynolds–but it’s his philanthropy that has made Morris truly stand out from the pack of brand ambassadors. He has become the “spokescat” for animal adoption campaigns and pet health, having “authored” three books on the subjects. He’s also regularly used to promote pet adoptions at local animal shelters. There have been multiple Morrises over the years, but one overriding, humane message that cats need to be treated fairly. So although Morris star power started with his picky preference of 9Lives, he now uses his popularity to do good things. Way to go, Morris!

1. Ronald McDonald

Hands down, the most community-service oriented ad icon for a large corporation is Ronald McDonald, the familiar clown who represents McDonald’s restaurants globally. Ronald McDonald made his first appearance in 1963 on television commercials for the restaurant. Since then, he has appeared in countless TV commercials and has even starred in a few direct-to-video animated films. Kids meals at the restaurant are covered Ronald depictions. Also, a statue of Ronald welcomes guests to each McDonald’s restaurant worldwide. All this exposure has paid off. One study shows that Ronald McDonald is the second most recognized figure in the world, following only Santa Claus.

With all his publicity, Ronald McDonald sells a lot of burgers. Billions every year, in fact. But he does a lot more than convince people to buy a Happy Meal. The clown also is used to represent McDonald’s’ many charitable operations. In fact, his name and image markets the Ronald McDonald House Charities, a group of 271 organizations that provide free or reduced lodging to parents of children who are hospitalized. There are Ronald McDonald Houses all over the world. Ronald McDonald also takes it upon himself to visit sick children in hospitals. With his commitment to kids, Ronald McDonald makes the most difference of any advertising icon. Bravo, Ronald. Job well done.