The Mr. Peanut chronicles

Burned by past disasters, icon managers have learned the hard way that the suave mascot must never wear a wetsuit and that Ronald McDonald cannot hang out in bars.

Published March 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Despite the bewildering complexity of the guidelines governing product spokescharacters' every move, appearance, thought and emotion, it's still possible to come up with a few rules of thumb. The first seems to be that at no time should the character be placed in an undignified or embarrassing situation. He must never be seen as a bumbler, or made the butt of jokes. Throughout all his pratfalls and blunders, he must always retain his chubby, rubbery dignity. "The Doughboy is always treated with love and respect by the people in the commercials," says Dennis Ready of Pillsbury. "He might be teased, but it's in the lightest possible way. He's never taken advantage of. He's never made the butt of the joke ... That sort of negativity, that sort of hostile area, aren't feelings we want him to be associated with."

Says Mark Delahanty of General Mills' Lucky Charms, "We've put together a list of about eight to 10 qualities that we want Lucky to embody. Some of those attributes would be 'magic' and 'adventure' and 'kid passion.' And we are constantly mapping perceptions of Lucky against those attributes." Lately, Delahanty says, a disturbing trend has surfaced. "We're beginning to hear something in focus groups that we're not too happy with," he says. "People are starting to describe Lucky as a bit of a bumbler. And we really are taking a look at that. It's difficult, because Lucky does have to be foiled in the end. The kids always get the Lucky Charms at the end of the commercial. But the kids shouldn't be laughing at him. It's more like they're laughing with him." The solution, Delahanty muses, might be to ensure that Lucky "isn't foiled by an action taken by the kids. Maybe he's foiled by some third-party action that he couldn't have any control over. That way, there's less of a loss of control. He's in control of himself, and in control of his magic."

General Mills has already taken steps to ensure that the enigmatic confectioner isn't perceived as a "ridiculous bumbler," Delahanty adds. "One thing we've done is we've reestablished that the marshmallows are a creation of Lucky. Although they have magical qualities, they never take on a personality of their own. They are inanimate objects. That's an area where in the past, there's been a little zigging and zagging. But we've refocused after our most recent equity study. Now, we've reestablished that Lucky is totally in control."

According to Ashley Postlewaite of Renegade Animation, Chester the Cheetah, the personification of Chee-tos, was also starting to be perceived as "too goofy." "He's supposed to be goofy, but he's also supposed to be very cool," Postlewaite explains. A decision was made to push Chester toward "having a cooler personality." Now, "instead of being a complete goof, he pulls it back into control," she says. "His head still spins around. His eyes bulge out ... Everything's dangerously hot, dangerously cheesy. But then, somehow, he pulls it back into control to say -- Chee-tos." Postlewaite provides an example of how this works in practice -- incidentally revealing criminal-friendly behavior parameters that would cause mass cardiac arrest among the Doughboy's handlers. "In an upcoming spot, we have him breaking into a factory while the security guard sleeps," she says. "The old Chester would have been tripping over things, kind of bungling his way in. Now, he's very suave. He takes a moment to dust off the security camera with his tail." She pauses. "It's just a lot of subtle acting things," she says.

Physical depiction is important as well. All precautions are taken to ensure that the character is never shown in a pose that is awkward or unflattering. "We've been doing the Doughboy for a long time now," says Brad Lewis, a director at Pacific Data Images (PDI). "He's a feel-good icon. He falls within the extremely good-guy personality range. So you're not going to put him in a pose where he looks uncomfortable. A pose where you say, 'Hey, that doesn't look like our guy.'" Lewis gives some examples of what he's talking about. "In general, you don't like to see the Doughboy's rear end," he reflects. "That's not a flattering point of view for our little spokesguy." There's more. "He doesn't do a lot of clenched-fist stuff," Lewis says. "That only draws attention to the fact that he doesn't have fingers ... Then, when he runs, he doesn't take large strides. He takes little steps. Then, when he falls down, his hat can jump off his head a little bit. That gives him the opportunity to readjust it, and give a little sheepish smile."

There's one final thing. "We have to be careful that you never see the whites of his eyes," Lewis says ominously. Why, so no one will shoot him? "No," Lewis says. "It's just that when he looks straight at the camera, so his eyes are dead center -- well, let's just say he has a tendency not to look as, uh, lively. It's much better to put his hand on his hip, keep his chin down, cock his head to the side. He's the kind of guy who generally wants to be on angle."

Mastering the mechanics of the physical Doughboy is an onerous process, but Lewis says it's well worth it. "I've got to tell you, he's a boatload of fun to animate and direct," he says. "Often, since I can perform better than I can draw, I'm the one performing his motions for the animator. Like, in the Toaster Strudel spot we did, he sits on a little box, and then jumps off. So I sat up on a table, and I told the animators: 'This is how he would do it.' And I actually jumped off the table." Lewis was not happy with the first round of sketches that came back. "It was like, no, no, no. And I got back on the table. And I said, 'I want him to be a little happier. There should be that moment of surprise before he squinches up his eyes and pushes off. Like this. And I pushed off. And everyone instantly said, 'Wow, that's our guy!'

Such perseverance, Lewis says, is a virtual necessity. "It's like working with a famous actor, whose personality is really well-defined," he reflects. "Sometimes, he just has a great day. And everybody says, 'Boy, he just nailed it! He was in a good mood -- and he nailed it.' I know it sounds odd. But that's the world we live in."

Pillsbury is hardly the only company striving to protect its mascot from physical indignity. Perhaps you weren't aware of the fact that the O in SpaghettiOs is a personified character, with his own little complex of joys, sorrows and anxieties. His name is Theo, and he is different from you and me. "In the case of Theo, SpaghettiOs has made it clear that nothing can pass through his open area," explains Postlewaite. "It's a little bit weird, because he's just an O. He has feet and red tennis shoes. He jumps around. He sings. He rides a skateboard ... But never, at any time, will something move through the middle of his person."

Renegade learned of this constraint only recently, when the group presented storyboards that included such an occurrence. "They said, 'No, no, no, we don't want that to happen. That can't ever happen." It seems that in focus groups, young children reacted negatively to the notion of Theo's playful disembowelment. "So, now we know," Postlewaite says. "Nothing can ever pass through his middle. Apparently that's gross or scary for kids."

Postlewaite and her crew are currently scratching their heads over an upcoming spot, in which our hollowed-out hero is slated to don a long red cape. "This is now a bit of a sensitive subject," she muses. "Should the cape reveal his ... open area? If so, how much should be revealed?" Postlewaite reflects a moment. "We don't want to do anything that would compromise good taste," she says.

The urge to protect spokescharacters from humiliation may also mean keeping them out of situations that are socially problematic. For those icons whose guidelines require them to present the product with smiles and gesturing limbs, there is a constant danger of being perceived as a salesman, as opposed to a winsome, trusted friend. The guidelines for these characters, therefore, tend to dwell at some length on the fact that the character never shows up where he is not wanted; that he doesn't press himself on others; that he proffers the product in the spirit not of hucksterism, but of joyous friendship.

"We call him 'the enticer,' or 'the converter,'" confides Anh Nguyen of General Mills. "He's not a salesman who tries to sell you the product. He's more like your best friend. A friend who interacts with you to convince you to try the product." Nguyen is speaking of the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee. "We have a few words we use here to describe him," she says. "Those words are 'irresistible,' 'friendly,' 'playful,' 'optimistic' and 'universally loved by all.' He's not overbearing. He's not intrusive ... He just wants you to know that the product tastes great, and that it has honey in it."

"Our target, as you may know, is Heavy Salty Snackers," says Nancy Anderson of Foote, Cone & Belding, an account supervisor on Planters Peanuts. "They're a little skeptical, a little leery. What does that mean? It means not forcing Mr. Peanut down their throats. He can't talk at them, or force the product on them ... He can't be a shill of a shell." Instead, she says, the agency tries to show Mr. Peanut in different trendy venues -- "like a disco concert, or a '60s reunion" -- garbed not in bell bottoms or love beads, but as his inevitable, indelible, strangely aristocratic peanut self. "That way, he's not perceived as trying too hard," she says eagerly. "He's someone who doesn't change to adapt to the situation. He's comfortable just being himself. And he's viewed as fitting in as himself." Anderson is growing excited. "He's a part of the group without forcing himself on the people around him," she says.

Dignity was also a concern for the animators at Wildbrain, who last year were assigned the daunting task of coming up with an animated representation of Colonel Sanders. The challenge was to contemporize the character without compromising his identity as the company's distinguished founder. "It was an interesting process," says Robin Steele, director of the project. "We all had such reverence for this character. We thought of him as an eclectic Southern gentleman." But to draw in that hip younger crowd, they felt they had to mix things up a bit.

The result was a compromise. "The Colonel is portly, yet energetic, and can perform feats that belie his age and physique," Steele says. "For instance, he can slam-dunk a flaming basketball ... He's willing to try anything, even if he might not be good at it. The important thing is that he must never look the fool. His dignity must always be first and foremost." Exactly how an elderly gentleman in planter's whites is supposed to retain his master-of-Tara dignity while slam-dunking a flaming basketball is unclear, but the group had other things to worry about. Before settling on the final version, they attempted, and discarded, "literally hundreds of cartoon renderings," says KFC spokesman Michael Tierney. The problem, Tierney says, is that "certain facial expressions were thought to be inappropriate. We didn't want him to look like a huckster. In some of the early drawings, he had what we referred to as the 'used-car-salesman smile.' And that was extremely inappropriate. Because, you know, the Colonel does get puffed up with pride about his products. But he's still a lovable guy."

If there is another thing that drives the icon handlers crazy, it's the suggestion that perhaps their little charge might want to put on a costume. So deep is their emotional investment in the character that they can't bear to conceal an inch of his nobly proportioned form. "He is what he is, and that's plenty sufficient to carry the character," says Steele angrily. "He doesn't need to put on funny costumes, or change his own nature. He's not a clown or a dress-up doll. He's the Colonel."

Not surprisingly, Ready of Pillsbury also believes that the Doughboy is ideal, virtuous and complete just the way he is. "His costume never changes," Ready lovingly confides. "From time to time, he might wear an oven mitt. He might even wear an apron ... But his basic outfit remains the same. He's got his cute little scarf. He's got his baker's hat, or 'toque.' He never takes them off, under any circumstances." Then he stops and thinks for a moment. "There was one instance, last Halloween," he says slowly. "We had a commercial for our Halloween cookies. And, in the opening of the commercial, he appears with a sheet over him. Or, he thinks it's a sheet! But it's actually a handkerchief, or a kitchen napkin. He's pretending to be a ghost. It's very cute, because he can't see where he's going ... He bumps into a carved pumpkin, and he falls down. Then he starts talking about the cookies." Ready pauses. "That scene lasted probably five seconds -- and then the sheet was off," he says happily.

So, the Doughboy would never be depicted as, say, a choreographer in leg warmers, I suggest. Ready makes strangled sounds. "No," he says finally. "He'll never take on other personae."

The custodians of Mr. Peanut are equally adamant about the need to avoid tricking out their guy in fussy ensembles. "We wouldn't ever want to do anything that would make him look foolish or silly," says David Yale of Planters. "So we wouldn't want to dress him up in inappropriate outfits. He wouldn't, for instance, ever appear in women's clothing." On the contrary, he says, "We're pretty well focused on the basic top hat, monocle, spats and cane. The monocle is the key part. You will always see one eye and a monocle. We would never show both eyes."

"Over the years, people have tried to -- do things to him," says Anderson, practically spitting out the words. "There was a period where they were putting him in cowboy outfits, putting him in a wetsuit. That's not who he is. You should always see his strength."

And what is his strength? I ask, almost afraid to hear the answer. On the other end of the line, I can picture her rolling her eyes skyward, incredulous at my stupidity. "His SHELL," she says impatiently. Oh-h-h-h, I say. And why is that his strength? (I had thought it was his soft underbelly). "Because he's a legume," Anderson says triumphantly. "He is that way. Showing him in his original state, his natural state, ties back to all the naturally good properties associated with nuts. The fact that they are not processed. They are not extruded ... His shell is his strength. It is the essence of Mr. Peanut. And we just don't want to mess with that."

Curiously, the lone spokescharacter to break both the above rules -- never compromise the dignity of the icon, and never put the icon in a costume -- is Tony the Tiger, whose association with Frosted Flakes dates from 1952. "His history is being kind of a "Goodfellas" type -- self-deprecating, kind of a bumbler," explains Ned Crowley, executive creative director at Kellogg's agency, Leo Burnett U.S.A. The rationale, Crowley says, is simple. A puissant, self-assured tiger who walks on two legs would have kids diving under their beds in terror. "We have to make sure we don't turn him into some ferocious beast," Crowley says thoughtfully. "And so we make him fun. We make him non-threatening ... He's like a non-threatening big kid."

"There aren't a lot of 'can'ts' with Tony," agrees Burnett executive vice president, Gerry Miller. "He can do pretty much everything." Miller thinks for a second. "Except for putting on a woman's dress," he says. "That's the one thing he can't do."

This fretting about cross-dressing highlights another characteristic of the brand guardians -- namely, their obsession with maintaining the icon's moral hygiene. Over and over again, the brand compass guidelines emphasize that the character's deportment is right and blameless; that he can do no wrong; that his conduct is unfailingly of the sort that would inspire trust and delight. This mythologizing can seem a little odd in the case of, for instance, Lucky the Leprechaun. "Lucky would never use his magic to do something to the kids," boasts Delahanty. "He only uses his magic to create and feature his marshmallow. He would never use it for any lesser cause."

So Lucky would never, for instance, electrocute the kids. "Of course not," Delahanty says. "He's the creator of Lucky Charms and the keeper of the rainbow. He tries, in a playful way, to evade the kids. But he would never do anything to truly harm them."

When advertising agencies do create truly evil, loathsome characters, they tend to be squelched by apprehensive brand managers -- even if the only manifestation of the evil is in the character's need to keep others from enjoying the client's delicious product. A few years ago, David Altschul helped create the Domino's Pizza Noid -- a personification of cold pizza that Domino's consistently foils. "We all knew him," Altschul reflects. "He was the proverbial troll under the bridge. He was like a dybbuk, or gremlin, who delighted in foiling people's attempts to serve hot, delicious pizza."

As a marketing strategy, the Noid was wildly successful, ranking above the Energizer Bunny, the Green Giant and the Snuggles Bear in most measures of consumer recall. Alas, says Altschul, Domino's management just didn't get it. "You've got to understand Domino's," Altschul says. "At the time, all the marketing decisions were made by the franchise committee. These are people who lived and breathed delivered pizza ... These people were so enthusiastic about their product, they resented the fact that the Noid didn't like it."

The emphasis on pro-social behavior can have inadvertently comic results. In 1999, the Dallas-based Moroch agency, McDonald's biggest regional advertising agency, was asked to create a campaign around two new characters envisioned by the company's corporate marketers. "They had come up with this idea for a character named Agent M," says Gannon Kennedy, a production director at Moroch. "Essentially, Agent M is a secret agent who is trying to search out great deals at McDonald's. Agent M has a sidekick, a life-size cat ... The sidekick's name is Sidecat. And he was envisioned as kind of the smarter of the two. He was the one who would really solve your search for the good deals at McDonald's."

When McDonald's came to the agency, "They pretty much had an outline of who these characters were," says Kennedy. "They came to us to flesh out their character." The problem, says another Moroch employee, is that although McDonald's wanted Agent M and Sidecat to be a ludicrous, accident-prone duo, ` la Itchy and Scratchy, the company was absolutely adamant that the characters had to follow federal safety guidelines. "They said they didn't want to send the wrong message to kids," laments this employee, who also worked on the campaign. "And so, Agent M would press the wrong button, eject himself out of the top of the car, and smash into a building. But the entire time, he'd still have his seatbelt on ... It was a little contradictory. " Another time, "We had Agent M introduce the food footage by opening up a TV screen inside his coat. And when Sidecat plugged it in, it electrocuted him ... Then, when he got done being electrocuted, a sprinkler came on, and put the fire out. The point was to always put across a very strong safety message, to be very safe and all that. Even though, you know, we pretty much annihilated him in every spot."

The trepidation of McDonald's is perhaps understandable, considering what the company went through in the mid-1990s. To grasp the true horror of l'affair Ronald, it is necessary to consider the place of this clown in the pantheon of American marketing. Advertising experts consider him one of the most well-managed spokescharacters on the planet. He is recognized by nearly 96 percent of American children and, according to Susan Leick, McDonald's senior director of marketing, he speaks up to 25 languages. Since 1963, when he was first created for the Washington market, Ronald has lived in McDonald's. His "core group" of friends include Hamburgler, Grimace and, prior to his retirement, Mayor McCheese.

"Grimace is just a sweet, huggable pal," says Leick. "He's Ronald's best purple pal. He's a simple person ... And Ronald helps him get through the day."

Does Grimace have 'special needs'?

"No, he does not have special needs! He's just a simple guy. His job is to present situations for Ronald to solve ... He serves a wonderful purpose."

McDonald's annually checks the attitudes of kids and parents concerning their products and image. "We are continually measuring key attributes against Ronald," whispers an account executive at Leo Burnett. "There are 40 different attributes. It's everything from 'fun' and 'magical' to 'entertains me' to 'someone I trust.' To be honest with you, he is so solid in foundation that we don't see a ton of shifts. But when we do see shifts -- that's how we know we have something to address."

Then, in 1996, McDonald's added to its agency roster a creative hot shop -- the Minneapolis-based Fallon McElligott. Fallon had big plans for Ronald. They wanted to use him to promote a new product -- the tasty new Arch Deluxe, specially formulated to appeal to adult palates. McDonald's agreed. Actually, they did more than agree. Amid the giddiness of the new-agency honeymoon, McDonald's executives swallowed hard and, with crazed, Jim Jones-like abandon, threw the entire guidebook out the window. Suddenly, Ronald was on a golf course. He was boogying in a disco. He was hanging out in bars. "They had him doing some pretty bad things," recalls a McDonald's executive. "It was a dark moment. A complete, soup-to-nuts fiasco." The ads were a disaster. The Ronald EKG plunged, then flatlined. The 40 attributes flashed code red. "It was like he deserted kids," Leo Burnett Chairwoman Cheryl Berman would later tell Advertising Age.

For a time, the recriminations turned McDonald's inside out. "There was a lot of fallout," says one survivor. "Fallon got broomed. Heads rolled at the corporate level. The lesson was, 'Don't mess with Ronald.'" Ronald's current handlers insist it was a lesson well worth learning. "You won't see that again," Leick says brightly. "You won't see him going into those types of areas."

Indeed, five years later, creatives at McDonald's roster agencies are still weathering the fallout. "[Fallon] took their three-ring binder full of guidelines and turned it upside down," says one agency creative. "They blew up the whole paradigm ... And it turned out to be a devastating screw-up. Now we're all paying the price."

What price? The staffer explains what he's talking about. "If you thought the restrictions [on Ronald] were tight before, forget about it," he says. "Now they're 10 times tighter. How big the wig is. The number of stripes on the socks ... I'm actually not involved on the business anymore, and I couldn't be happier. I hear what the creative review meetings are like. It's 20 people jumping up and down with both feet on your stuff, saying, 'It doesn't conform here.' 'It doesn't conform there.' ... Who needs it?"

But perhaps the rest of us should be grateful to Ronald's jittery handlers, and to the other men and women who spend their days protecting these brand symbols in the public consciousness. The guidelines, crazy as they seem, are designed to reflect real human needs, to uncover basic archetypes of fear, anxiety and desire. The truth is that we don't really want to see Ronald McDonald slumped over a scotch-and-soda, his red lipstick smeared on an already-stained shot glass. We don't want Mr. Peanut to be a crude huckster, using his monocled appearance to hit on chicks. We don't want Tony the Tiger to be a slavering wild beast. And we certainly don't want the Green Giant to shake his fist at us. That would be scary.

I realized this fundamental truth when my editors, seeking to commission an illustration for this piece, asked me to e-mail them an image of the Doughboy. When I passed this request along to Pillsbury, it sent the team into Def-Con 4. E-mails flew back and forth as the cookie executives debated which pose would showcase their jewel in the most winsome possible light. A image was e-mailed to me. Then I was asked to delete that one, and use two others. Finally, Ready called me at 9:30 in the evening to implore me to disregard everything that had been sent -- they had found an image that was even better. "It's just that we take the property pretty seriously," Ready confided. "Over the years, not every Doughboy animation we've done has been as successful as some others."

Over the next few days, my heart bled for Pillsbury, as I began to realize that Salon had no intention of running the Pillsbury-sanctioned Doughboy image, but was simply seeking to assist its own illustrator, so that he might fine-tune his satirical portrait of the Doughboy as scowling, debt-ridden, heroin-smoking wastrel. By this time, of course, I had downloaded Poppin' Fresh onto my own laptop computer. All day long, he looked up at me in beseeching absurdity, the stubs of his pawless arms groping for hugs. Help me, he seemed to be saying. Rescue me. Protect me. Gazing at this disfigured putty, looking deep into the vacant portholes of his eyes, I realized he represented an almost primal defenselessness, a mythical condition of enduring, child-like naiveti. And somehow, I slept better at night knowing that Ready was out there safeguarding his little guy, keeping him as huggable, snugglesome and nurturing as ever; and that all across America, there were dozens, maybe even hundreds, of brand managers just like him, protecting their own armada of diminutive humanoid beings, watching over their tiny souls, lovingly plumping the velvet glove of corporate capitalism until it enfolds us completely in its warm, fragrant, dough-like embrace.

Spokescharacters are lovable precisely because they are immutable; in our era of impermanence, they embody the values of fixity and changelessness. But that's not to say that, in breakfast-land, some of the soggier riffs couldn't use some freshening up. In the next few months, Salon can reveal, Lucky the Leprechaun will have a surprise in store. "In focus groups, we actually have been hearing that the story line has become a little bit predictable," says Delahanty. "Lucky gets chased, he makes a new marshmallow, the kids are going to get it, etc. So in the next little while, we're going to be putting some new twists in the story line. Both in the way Lucky interacts with the kids, and also the way in which he features the marshmallow." He can't reveal anything further. "All I can say is, look for Lucky to take it to the next level of marshmallow innovation," he promises.

Meanwhile, something wonderful is slated to happen to Chester the Cheetah. "The thing with Chester has always been, he does extraordinary things to get the product," says Postlewaite. "But in the end, he never does get the product. He gets hit by a truck, or run over by a train or doused in water." In focus groups, Postlewaite says, the cheetah's Sisyphean plight was beginning to arouse sympathy. Chee-tos executives found that "People would kind of like it if he got the product," she says. "They were beginning to feel that it was kind of sad." And so, in an upcoming campaign, a decision was made to let the impossible happen. "He does get the product," Postlewaite says. "And he eats the product." What happens? I ask. A transfiguration; an apotheosis; a luminous moment of merger with the universe that somehow approximates the primal narcissistic promise of infancy?

Not quite, says Postlewaite, but pretty close. "It makes him insane," she says. "It makes him happy." She smiles. "It's just as cool as he imagined it would be."

By Ruth Shalit

Ruth Shalit is an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a New York advertising agency. For more columns by Shalit, visit her column archive.

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