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How Max Headroom, The Geico Gecko, And Other Ad Characters Made A Huge Impact

Ten fictional brand promoters that show how the right pitchman (pitch-lizard? pitch-donkey?) can go a long way toward defining a business.

How Max Headroom, The Geico Gecko, And Other Ad Characters Made A Huge Impact
[Illustration: Alex Fine; Illustration source images: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy (Headroom); Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images (Mr. Mucus); Thierry Zoccolan/AFP/Getty Images (Michelin); RosaIreneBetancourt 3/Alamy (Gecko); Gabe Palmer/Alamy (Pillsbury); Torontonian/Alamy (Chuck E. Cheese)]

These whimsical corporate characters helped launch their brands to enduring success.

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1. Michelin Man, 1898

The Michelin brothers, who ran a rubber factory, anthropomorphized a stack of bicycle tires to sell consumers on the superiority of their products.

The impact: Michelin is the world’s No. 2 tire seller, and its spokescharacter has endured for almost 120 years by changing with the times. Today’s version barely resembles the original.

2. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, 1939

Montgomery Ward department store copywriter Robert May created Rudolph for a Christmas promotion, and he fast became a holiday tradition.

The impact: In 1947, May secured rights to Rudy and turned him into an icon, with red-nosed-reindeer songs and cartoons now ingrained to the point that its origins have mostly been forgotten.

3. Juan Valdez, 1958

The National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia deployed this fictional farmer in a successful attempt to elevate its commodity product into a global brand.

The impact: Valdez proved so powerful that many still think he’s a real person, and the co-operative now has more than 500,000 members.

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4. Poppin’ Fresh, 1965

Poppin’ Fresh, colloquially known as the Pillsbury Doughboy, was named for the company’s innovative canister technology, which let it launch a line of ready-to-bake pastry products.

The impact: An instant and enduring hit, the Doughboy inspired a successful toy line and a chain of Poppin’ Fresh Pies shops.

5. Chuck E. Cheese, 1977

When Atari creator Nolan Bushnell launched a chain of pizza restaurants designed to spotlight his arcade games, he created an oddly endearing singing rat that shared the business’s name.

The impact: Bushnell helped invent theme dining and won over kids who were wowed by the eateries’ animatronic Chucks and other puppets.

6. Max Headroom, 1985

The computer-generated “artificial intelligence” created a sensation in the United Kingdom as dystopian satire about corporate greed, so of course, Coca-Cola tapped Max to sell New Coke.

The impact: The Max Headroom campaign ran for three years, made Max a global phenom, and helped him land an ABC sitcom.

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7. Jack Box, 1993

In the wake of a horrific E. coli outbreak that killed four children, ailing Jack in the Box reinvented the clown mascot it had retired in 1980­.

The impact: Jack, recast as a pinhead in a suit and said to be the chain’s CEO, irreverently reinforced changes the company made to its kitchens and menu, helping bring customers back by 1996.

8. Geico Gecko, 1999

The Gecko had appeared in just one ad for the car insurer when the 2000 actors’ strike pressed him into a full-time gig proselytizing for Geico’s simplified take on a traditionally complex product.

The impact: Geico has almost tripled its assets with the Gecko—and transformed insurance marketing (see: the Aflac Duck and Progressive’s Flo).

9. Mr. Mucus, 2004

Mucinex’s manufacturer wanted to break through in the crowded cold-remedy aisle. Rather than put a cuddly face on lung congestion, it hawked up Mr. Mucus, a disgusting blob.

The impact: Mr. Mucus is unappealing, but Mucinex is not: It’s the top cough medicine, and its spokescharacter is an antihero for its times.

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10. Invention Donkey, 2015

GE introduced this pocket-size burro—who grants innovation wishes—in a surreal ad that explains the work GE does to foster big ideas.

The impact: The Invention Donkey continued GE’s fun messaging about its work and culture, but his short run is emblematic of how characters today play a specialized role in a sped-up world.