The golden age of American brand characters

A World of Characters: Advertising Icons from the Warren Dotz Collection from Jan Sturmann on Vimeo.

In this video, there is a rare chance to look into the past and see examples of characters that once populated ads in America. The collection was exhibited this year in San Francisco. And the collector is an important part of the research and data collection of brand characters.

Warren Dotz is a unique person in the strange realm of brand characters. He calls himself a pop culture archaeologist. He is specialized in American advertising; he is publishing books about classic American brand characters, and has a huge collection of brand figurines and other historic material.

Bonus info: Dotz is also a dermatologist with a clinic in Berkeley.


Examples of Dotz’s books.

If you are looking for material on brand characters – as I have been – and only found Dotz’s books, you would think that the development of brand characters stopped in 1985. And peaked in the 1950’s and 60’s.

I don’t think that’s the case. The problem is that Dotz is almost the only one collecting and publishing books about brand characters – and since he is specialising in a certain time and country – there is obvious limits to his study.

What is also interesting in the video is the strong emotional reactions people have to seeing all the faces – some familiar and nostalgic others are just reacting to the universal appeal in happy faces.

I especially adore the japanese girl who loves the cuteness and has visited the exhibition three times.

More bonus info that made me wonder:

Aunt Jemima is famous and still popular representing pancake related breakfast products, she has been redesigned several times to look more modern.  Much has been said about this old brand character (dating back to the 1890’s) and the connotations in relation to slavery and afro-american rights,


but did you know that Jemima once had a male counterpart called Uncle Mose, and that he was invented just to create salt AND pepper shakers shaped as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose as an advertising premium (Dotz and Morton, What a character!, p.10)

But imagine a subordinate ‘career’ like that. Standing in the shadow of the salt shaking Aunt Jemina. Talk about 15 minutes of fame.




A rose by any other name would smell as sweet


In this project I am  challenged by terminology and definitions; what should I call the objects that I am studying. And I am not the only one, because when I read about characters and mascots, there is confusingly many terms and names. Are they:

Brand characters

Brand mascots

Adverticing characters

Brand icons

Trade characters

Adverticing spokes-creatures

Stephen Brown sums up the problems about defintions in his article: Animal house: Brand mascots, mascot brands and more besides

I like the term mascot, because that is easy to explain, whereas when you say brand characters you need to explain that it’s not ‘actors’ like Mickey Mouse; Kermit or Minions (unless they are advertising something else than their own movies). But on the other hand mascots tend to be associated more with sports (at least danes think so…)


But I guess that what matters is what something is, not what it is called.

a trade character is a fictional, animate being or animated object that has been created
for the promotion of a product, service or idea

Callcott and Lee, Establishing the Spokes-character in Academic Inquiry: Historical Overview and Framework for Defintion, Advances in Consumer Research 22, 1995.

So I am relying on Callcotts definition and have decided to call them brand characters and is thinking about changing the subtitle of my project to: why and how to design brand characters

But Brown is also pointing to another problem that has has been keeping me awake at night (well, not literally keeping me awake, but yes challenging me) because there seem to be different roles for brand characters or different ways to relate to their brand:

He distinguishes between (the first two categories being by far the most common and relevant distinctions for my study):

Brand animals, where the animal is more an attachment than an intergrated part of the brand



Classic brand mascots support the brand and is deeply integrated into culture and values in the brand in a loyal and faithfull way



Mascot brands – when the mascot is overshadowing the brand


Or even more rare: Animal brands – when beasts become brands themselves


(did you know that Grumpy cat is a real cat known for it’s non-smiling facial features and is an internet celebrity with more than 7 million likes on Facebook! – and it has for example been on the cover of the Wall Street Journal)


Characters with a social media profile


The news have travelled around the world: Kermit and Miss Piggy is getting a divorce!

It has caused rather strong reactions – on social media, in articles and so on. The divorce and the media covering of it has been compared to the break up of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.
And Kermit is now proclaimed as the bad guy because he found a new girfriend. People are reacting just like if Kermit and Miss Piggy were real people.


The news was announced on the couples Twitter and Facebook profiles.


Muppets and other characters that are having an independent life  – including social media identities – outside the film, the game or tv show in which they are appearing is not something new.

Also brand characters (that differs from for example The Muppet show muppets by representing or marketing a brand – and not being a part the product itself) tend to get an independent life outside their brand and treated as if the were real persons.

Consider for example Ronald McDonald attending group terapy with his fellow mascot-collegues:

Ronald: “I’m a burger mascot and everybody hates me.”

All: “That’s OK, Ronald.”

Ronald: “I can’t even believe I’m here. I thought I was well liked. Now I’ve become some kind of childhood obesity villain.”

Big Boy: “If anyone should be that, it’s me, Ronald. I’ve been portly since 1960. Chubby was cute back then. …

Brand Mascots become villains: Group therapy with Ronald McDonald, Davis Taylor, Central Penn Business Journal, 2011

Brand characters also have social media profiles.

And that is quite logical since a recommendation when designing a brand character is to give the character a distinct personality and avoiding wearout by keeping the character modern.

So giving a brand character a life of it’s own on social media might be a good idea.

But be aware. In her article 5 Ways to Create Brand Mascot Content That Doesn’t Suck Becca Frasier writes about the pitfall mascots with social media accounts face (they ‘can easily feel spammy or fivolous) and she presents ideas on how to manage the situation:

  • Share user generated content
  • Have a sense of humor and sport a unique personality
  • Engage with fans

See for example the Twitter profile of the M&M’s or the campaign for Matilde chocolate milk that I mentioned in a previous post, which has been taking a new and more humorous direction:


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