Home School for mini creatives (part four): Advertising's most iconic characters

Sobral: with new creative partner Lola
Sobral: with new creative partner Lola

A masterclass for all ages by Oliver's creative chief.

We’re into week six (or is it week 46?) of lockdown and it’s proving to be a beautiful silver lining as I get to spend more time with Lola, my two-year-old daughter who loves role-playing with her favourite toys: her three French dolls called Rachel (all of them), a fireman named Fireman and Olaf the snowman. 

So when asked to conduct this week’s class at Campaign's Home School, Lola and I dived into researching advertising’s most iconic characters and we had a blast. (Spoiler alert: the Rachels now talk with a heavy Russian accent!)

Creating characters is one of the many ways that advertisers capture the imagination of audiences, bringing a brand or product into three-dimensional life, giving it a relatable personality and a place in culture. I believe it’s one of the most stimulating things you can do as a human being, particularly as a creative – and especially as a kid.

So here are mine and Lola’s five picks of famous and delightful advertising characters.


Peperami 'We are animal'

For Monday’s lesson, we’re starting strong. Kicking things off is a walking (…running, screaming) salami stick with bags of personality. "Animal" shot on to the scene in the early 1990s, wearing black boots, a deranged grin and hating veggies. Thank goodness for our modern health-conscious mindsets, as today – after a little timeout and no doubt some anger-management classes – Animal is back with a more balanced diet and an extended family: the brand’s new beef and chicken characters. 

Animal is a great example of character development over time, stretching imaginations as well as appetites in order to stay relevant. (Veggie stick, anyone?)


Beats by Dre 'The pills'

Tuesday’s throwing a curveball with Dr Dre’s Pills. Not so well-known in the UK, but these little guys – voiced by Chris Rock, Eminem and Tichina Arnold – were a freaky, trash-talking cartoon crowd that took the US by storm.

The Pills would comment on every important moment in pop culture, from the Breaking Bad finale to Floyd Mayweather fights. Their big break came when they starred in the world’s first responsive TV commercial, commenting on Miley Cyrus and Robin Thick’s explosive live VMA performance (and winning a gold Lion at Cannes in the process).

The Pills gave characters a modern role in pop culture, becoming celebrities in their own right. 

Their tagline, "Small but loud", also helped Beats discover a powerful new voice that resonated with diverse audiences everywhere. 


PG Tips 'Monkey'

It’s the middle of the week and time to put the kettle on.

PG Tips played up to the UK’s obsession with class systems when it introduced this character: a middle-class knitted sock monkey (called Monkey) who moves in with a working-class northern bloke named Al (played by Jonny Vegas).

The primate went on to enjoy an illustrious career after leaving Al in Lancashire, taking PG Tips with him. In 2008, Monkey starred in his own short film, A Tale of Two Continents, where, dressed as different historical figures from around the world, he attempted to make the perfect cup of tea for the Queen.  

Rising in popularity, Monkey even released his own autobiography, Monkey: Hero of Our Time

Proving that sock puppets should be taken seriously, Monkey is a character that outlived his advertising career and landed a place in British comedy.  


Duracell 'The Energiser bunny' 

For Thursday, we need some extra charge to get us to the weekend. No better mascot than this little drumming bunny, who made it as a true marketing icon. The character is the world’s "coolest symbol of long-lasting power", according to the bunny’s own website (energizer.com). And I agree.

Created in 1989, the bunny became such an idol that it appears in the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame and even launched its own walk of fame to reward people who share its "never quit" spirit.

I, for one, am not quitting this close to Friday. Bring on our last character…


Comparethemarket.com 'Compare the meerkats'

Last but far from least is the team of meerkats that made everyone fall in love with price-comparison sites. (I lost myself for an hour on YouTube trying to pick the best meerkat ad.)

The premise is surreal, simple and funny: Aleksander Orlov, a Russian meerkat, complains of the confusion between his site Comparethemeerkat.com and Comparethemarket.com. Born by one of the most talented creatives I know, Darren Bailes, the character of Orlov found increased fame with his book A Simples Life, lauded by celebrities such as Tony Blair, Cheryl Cole and Russell Brand. 

It’s difficult to distil the meerkats into one lesson, because they are a masterclass in brilliant advertising. And I’m sure you and your children will love watching how the storyline has grown, and the characters have developed, since the first "Simples" in 2009. 

Rodrigo Sobral is global chief creative officer at Oliver 

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