Why advertising needs more characters
No, this isn’t going to be a tirade against Twitter. Or a paean to the days when creatives threw TVs out of windows, while snorting coke from the rolled up manuscript of their latest novel.
The thing that’s puzzling me is why there are so few advertising-created characters these days. Years ago, the industry churned them out and we can still remember the best of them. So we had the Milk Tray man, the Scottish Widow, the Flake girl, the Oxo Family and the Secret Lemonade Drinker. We had a veritable menagerie of Dulux dogs, Andrex puppies, Anchor cows, Duracell bunnies, Hofmeister bears, Esso tigers and Lloyds horses. We had double acts like Latham and Boff, Papa and Nicole and the Gold Blend couple. We had a kindergarten-full of Milky Bar kids, Bisto urchins and Hovis boys. We had Martians, for God’s sake. Funny, potato-eating Martians.
So why do we no longer create characters like this? Well, one reason might be that media and budgets are too fragmented to build momentum nowadays – although one could argue that using a recognisable figure would actually help on this front. Another explanation might be that consumers are more sophisticated these days, and would reject such devices as superficial – although one could equally retort that they’d welcome the simplicity. Or perhaps agencies avoid them because they feel old-fashioned and creatively limiting – although the few exceptions that exist today (such as the Old Spice guy, the PG Monkey or the Cravendale cats) suggest that this needn’t be the case.
At any rate, it’s interesting to watch how characters have been adopted by another industry, just as we’ve dropped them. Mario, Sonic, Pokemon, Lara Croft, Angry Birds, Moshi Monsters and the Master Chief from Halo have helped sell billions of games between them. They have created vast franchises beyond the core product, spanning magazines, movies and merchandise. They have built an industry that is bigger than Hollywood. And one that is considered more modern and creative than our own.
In short, characters don’t seem to be holding them back. And while I’m obviously not advocating them as a formula for success, maybe we shouldn’t see them as a recipe for disaster either. “Simples”, as another one of our honourable exceptions might say.