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Television advertising has a powerful effect on American culture. Slogans become part of daily conversation. Characters in commercials are as relatable as family members. It has been like this for decades, but there’s a palpable sense that commercials are now more important to our daily lives than ever before. All this is coming at a time when it is easier than ever to ignore these ads altogether.
Television has always managed to bring us slogans and symbols which, because they come into our homes, ingratiate themselves into our collective consciousness. Cigarette ads featuring the Marlboro Man, an iconic looking cowboy, or containing slogans like “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” ran for many years until the health risks associated with smoking forced Congress to ban them from the airwaves in 1971. Still, almost 50 years later, many Americans can recognize those advertising campaigns.
Animated characters like Tony the Tiger for Frosted Wheats cereal, or The Jolly Green Giant for frozen vegetables, are as much a part of Americana due to their longevity and instantly recognizable appearance as any fictional character in our country’s literature. As a child, you may not have read Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, but every kid knows that Tony says that “Frosted Flakes are grrrreat!” Both characters made their first TV appearances in the 1950s, and they are still on television today. Other mascots still with us after many years include Poppin Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy and, of course, Ronald McDonald.
We now have the Aflac Duck, a character who helps sell insurance competing with the Geico gecko, a symbol for a car insurance company. New ads featuring these brand mascots are popular because of their appeal to all ages with their humor, and their anthropomorphic charm. These two stand out from older mascots precisely because they have been given more complex situations and dialogue. Each commercial seems like a short film. Indeed, they are more creations of film school graduates than advertising agencies.
Into this mix now comes actors who play representatives of the companies. Toyota’s Jan, who works at a dealership, is played by actress Laurel Coppock. Coppock has been playing the role since 2010. Her two pregnancies were written into the ad campaign, with fictional customers congratulating her as they shopped for a car for their own expanding family. Viewers on television, who felt that they had become friendly with Jan over the years sent best wishes and began fan clubs. Her return to the ads after her maternity leaves has been the cause of internet celebrations.
Flo from Progressive Insurance, a character seen since 2008, is the subject of more than 100 commercials and has her own Twitter account. Played by actress Stephanie Courtney, viewers have come to know Flo, her family (all played by Courtney), and her co-workers. Like Jan, Flo is one of America’s best-loved television characters. She just happens to be on the commercials and not on any show.
It is entirely possible to watch hours of television every day and avoid all commercials. Streaming services and DVRs allow us to circumvent most advertising content. Yet, ironically, just as people were seeking to escape ads, social media made it easier to become connected to the mascots and characters of television commercials. Americans became so connected to these storylines that they actually were looking for the ads on sites like YouTube and Facebook.
Of course, most commercials on American TV are still dreadfully dull. And insipid. Yet, advertisers will likely always find ways to draw us to their products. They need to be more sophisticated in their approach than ever before. And they need to expand their advertising to social media campaigns which take advantage of the viewers’ interest in, and connection to, their products.
It also helps to be funny.
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