Oh Grrrrrrreatt, 300 Vintage Ad Characters Have Invaded SFO

Those who think modern advertising is lacking the gravitas provided by talking tunas will want to make a nostalgia-soaked stopover at SFO in the next few months. “A World of Characters,” author and pop culture historian Warren Dotz’s collection of 300 iconic animals, mythical creatures, and anthropomorphic foods, is on display at the San Francisco International Airport through January 4.

To some, mascots like Tony the Tiger are as familiar as the faces of Hollywood stars and many of them pre-date even the oldest living screen icons. Remember eating Frosted Flakes as a kid? In the 1980s, Tony the Tiger was already an old fogey (Kellogg’s created him in 1951). The Jolly Green Giant is even older, created by the Minnesota Valley Canning Company in 1928. And Planters’ Mr. Peanut dates back to the end of World War I.

As Dotz explains, “the philosophy of ad agencies has changed” over the decades. “Many classic ad characters were created in the early years of TV advertising. The audience accepted the ad character merely because it was a big deal to be on TV. But now characters have to engage customers in an emotional relationship . . . it almost seems inauthentic for the character to just mouth the brand strategy alone.”

And yet, we all have a visceral affection for Tony Tiger, proclaiming, “They’re Grrrreat!” even if we now know that enough Frosted Flakes will probably give you diabetes.

Not all of Dotz’s mascots are will be familiar to 21st-century eyes. Some, like the Burger Chef man, feel relevant only because shows like Mad Men have rekindled them in the popular consciousness. But all travelers passing through SFO are likely to feel a pleasant dose of nostalgia when heading to security. At the very least, you’ll find that you have a bizarre craving for peas.JM