Why do you use the term advertising icon? Why not brand character or brand spokes-person? How do you define/differentiate?

No particular reason. Advertising icon sounded like a grander term and a bigger idea for a museum than either of the two you mention. Spokes-person is not appropriate because some of the “icons” we include are not persons. And many--if not most--of them do not speak. While we do consider the subjects of our museum “characters” we also thought their employment in advertising as powerful brand identifiers qualified them for higher status. Any old creation might be a character; ours work for a living.

Why do you think such icons are so appealing and enduring?

What makes pop culture pop? It was designed that way, with easy emotions, pleasing shapes and colors, built-in likeability. It’s why girls like dolls and boys like comic books and everybody likes puppies. (Except, natural selection designed the puppies.) Add that to the fact that collecting has become such an obsession with so many people. It’s almost impossible to relegate anything to the junk heap of history anymore because somebody out there is collecting it. Pop culture endures because people won’t let go of it. Nostalgia’s not what it used to be, it’s bigger than ever. So big, it even gets museums created around it.

But it’s not just old stuff. New icons are created all the time. And old ones are updated and brought back to the marketplace. Why? Because they work. They stick in the mind and connect people to a brand, they sell product, they differentiate one near commodity from another. As mentioned above, icons are working stiffs. And they don’t get residuals, pensions or healthcare.

What values and qualites does the icon have that are transferred to the product?

First of all, there’s no such thing as The Icon. Every one is different, designed to embody the specific values and qualities the designer wishes them to embody. Charlie the Tuna, for example, is supposed to be the one tuna that doesn’t taste good enough to qualify for the Starkist brand. He’s the Anti-Starkist, with every quality Starkist doesn’t want in their product. It’s all in good humor, of course, he’s a lovable goof. And because he keeps getting rejected, he lives for another ad – but we don’t go to the dark side. His self deprecation is what makes us remember the Starkist brand and equate it with quality. A clever turn of affairs.

Another classic icon, the Marlboro Man, is much more straightforward. He embodies rugged individualism, honesty, independence, honor, trustworthiness. And those are all the things you think you get by using the brand. He’s a powerful archetype and every brand category can usually get away with about one of those. Of course, once the truth about the deadliness of smoking finally became accepted, Marlboro had to pretty much give the Man his walking papers. They still keep all the rugged western symbolism, just not the guy. This is all from a brand with a vaguely English name and snooty pedigree.

Ronald McDonald is just your basic nice guy clown, wouldn’t hurt a soul, is there for you. Wholesome fun is the intended takeaway. The Michelin Man goes way back to the origins of the brand. So his use today is intended to make you feel safe and secure in his old-time goodness. He’s likeable and enduring. Isn’t that what you want in a tire? Well, enduring anyway.

What would you call fictitious characters such as Betty Crocker?

Betty Crocker is an ad icon. So is Orville Redenbacher, Colonel Sanders, Chiquita Banana and Manny, Moe and Jack of the Pep Boys. However, Paul Newman is not, even though he’s on his own salad dressing bottle – he’s a Hollywood Icon instead. Neither is the late Dave, of Wendy’s Fame because he actually was the CEO of the company. Some are real, some fictitious, and the line gets blurred but somebody has to make the call. We think it should be our museum.

Why do companies create fictitious characters as real people? Are such characters viable still today?

Because they can. And because when they do, it works. And because whatever has worked will be tried again and again and again. Marketers have no shame. Modern ad campaigns utilize new fictitious characters every day. Whether they ever rise to the icon status depends on how durable they are and popular they become. Do you remember the “raincoat” guy for Sprint a couple of years ago. He came close. Of course, you remember Mr. Whipple, Madge, the Maytag Repairman, the Dunkin Donuts guy. Today’s shorter attention spans and a much more fragmented television marketplace make it harder to sustain a character. But there are cases of it working in print too a la Hathaway Shirt guy and that Tanqueray gin guy a few years ago. You probably know many more.

Do you think ad characters travel across boundaries of time and culture effectively, or are some culture specific?

Your question answers itself. Sometimes and yes. But we don’t think you can decide to create a big worldwide character and just will it to happen. There is no pop world culture at this time so how could you hook into something that doesn’t exist. On the other hand, there are lots of happy accidents. That Michelin Man works quite well in the States, though we couldn’t say if an American consumer has the same feelings about him as the average Parisian. Coca Cola imagery is worldwide but maybe not those polar bears. Or that little old character with the coke cap hat. We don’t know how translatable the McDonaldland characters are in other lands but McDonald’s definitely is. By and large, we think most successful ad icons are strongly influenced the culture in which they are imagined. They are designed by humans and humans are products of genes and culture. So what else could their creations be?