100 Years of Ads: Best Use of Animation

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To celebrate the 4A's 100th anniversary, Campaign US compiled the top 10 cartoon spokescharacters.

There’s nothing quite like a cartoon mascot to sell a product, particularly when kids are a target market. This month, Campaign US is teaming up with the 4A's to celebrate the organization's 100th anniversary.

We're counting down the top 100 ads from the past century, including the best uses of animation. Ads have starred moving drawings since the technology’s inception, in the process creating some of the most iconic characters in American pop culture.

"I Want My Maypo" for International Home Foods by Fletcher Richards, Calkins & Holden

This iconic ad, which skyrocketed sales for a previously unpopular cereal, might not have existed were it not for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Its creator, John Hubley, was a talented animator with promising career prospects—he also created Mr. Magoo in 1949—when he refused to name names in front of HUAC in 1952. Blacklisted, he spent the rest of his career in advertising and independent films, making modernist characters like Marky Maypo.  

"Meeting Santa" for Mars by BBDO

M&Ms were not a popular candy when Mars brought BBDO onboard in 1995 to push the chocolates back to icon status—"Melts in your mouth, not in your hand" wasn’t working anymore. Faced with a tiny budget for such a daunting task, BBDO spent their time and money developing characters instead of pricey shoots, a strategy that launched M&Ms to the top of Americans’ candy lists.

"Alvin & the Chipmunks" for Jell-O 

The famous rodent trio debuted in animated form as cartoons in 1961 for "The Alvin Show," which was sponsored by General Foods, the maker of Jell-O. While the animated series wasn’t a success and was canceled after one season, it continued to run in syndication on weekend cartoons, always with Jell-O commercials.

"Tony the Tiger" for Kellogg’s by Leo Burnett

In 1951, Kellogg’s ran a contest for the mascot of their newest cereal, narrowing entries down to three finalists: Katy the Kangaroo, Elmo the Elephant, and Tony the Tiger, designed by Burnett art director Eugene Kolkey. Kellogg’s gave their customers final say over the winner, and Tony beat out the other entries before they even got to a cereal box.

"Poppin’ Fresh" for General Mills by Leo Burnett

The poke-worthiest of mascots is also a Burnett creation, this time from 1965. Originally slated for an animated debut, co-creator Rudy Perz instead suggested stop-motion, which was something of a fad at the time. Three years later, Poppin’ Fresh (yes, that’s his official title) netted 87 percent facial recognition among consumers.

"Catch" for Coca-Cola by Creative Artists Agency 

While polar bears have appeared in Coca-Cola commercials since 1922, they weren’t animated until 1993, when CAA hired artists from animation pioneers Rhythm & Hues to make the bears into anthropomorphic soda fans. The bears are now synonymous with Coke (and since they’re also synonymous with climate change, the brand donates regularly to the WWF).

"The California Raisins" for California Raisin Advisory Board by Foote, Cone & Belding SF 

This popular series of commercials that ran throughout the 1980s was conceived as a last-resort joke, its creator Seth Werner lamenting that he’d tried "everything but dancing raisins singing ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’" The concept was so popular that the Raisins’ version of the Ray Charles song landed on the Billboard Hot 100.

"Snap, Crackle, and Pop" for Kellogg’s by Leo Burnett

The famous phrase itself first appeared in print in 1929, but it wasn’t personified until 1933, in the form of three gnomes designed by artist Vernon Grant. Sixteen years later they got a makeover, dialing their colors up and their ages down (the original trio looked like grown-ups) before jumping to TV in 1955. And while we’re here, let’s also pour out some milk for Pow, the forgotten fourth Krispies elf.

"Punchy" for Pacific Hawaiian Products Co. by Atherton-Privett 

To push Hawaiian Punch into national brand status, Atherton-Privett created their own version of Lucy and Linus: Punchy, whose "Hawaiian punch’ isn’t a beverage, and gullible tourist Oaf, who always falls for it. Introduced in 1962, the duo kept their routine up through the 1990s.

"Gecko" for Geico by The Martin Agency

America’s most famous reptile was created as a workaround during the 1999 Screen Actors Guild strike so that Geico could continue making commercials without live actors. The stopgap turned into Geico’s longest-running campaign, with the British gecko (whose accent has changed several times) appearing in over 150 commercials through the present day.