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Animated Television Commercials:
1940 - 1965: An Overview

(by Noell Wolfgram Evans) If you want to get an immediate response from someone walk into a room and say 'Superfriends' or 'Flintstones' or 'Smurfs'. You'll elicit instant memories and conversation from those around you. In fact, there may not be a better phrase to break the ice at a party than 'What was with that Scrappy-Doo?' There is something about television animation that binds us together. It's like we've all been through some special initiation, and now we're bound together by it.

For a completely different reaction, walk into a room and bring up the Trix Rabbit, the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean or Cap'n Crunch. You'll see even the unlikeliest people spin around faster, talk with more passion and move about in excitement. The extra buzz from these characters comes because they represent a special form of animation: television advertising. Advertising animation is special because it's fleeting, stopping on the screen for only a few seconds before disappearing, sometimes never to be seen again. Because of its short time frame, it needs to be as packed with entertainment and information as it can be. And because of the sheer number of commercials, each needs to be as different and as grabbing as possible. It's not though just the information packed inside an animated advertisement, it's also the way that the information comes at you.

An animated program encompasses both sight and sound. For those shows that also have toys (or books or…) associated with them, we are allowed the extra bonus of touch. Commercials offer this and so much more. These too bring your sight and sound skills into play, but with these forms of entertainment you are not meant to just react to what you see (as you would react to a television program), rather these call you out to be proactive. They ask you to go out and buy their products and then (in many cases) eat what you bought; they invite you to be a complete participant in their world. This full sensory inclusion makes animated commercials an important part of television and a key piece of your memory.

When you consider how many commercials have been run on television and how many of those have been animated, the numbers can hurt your brain. For an idea of how many commercials are in fact run each year consider that in 2000 more than 1.3 million ads for cereal alone ran on American television (that averages to just over 25 hours a day). Multiply this out by the number of products that are produced and you can see just how staggering these numbers are.

Animation and television have been linked from the beginning. It's been said that the first image ever broadcast was a picture of Felix the Cat. With the medium literally starting with animation it should be no surprise that animated commercials were an early stable of television broadcasting. In 1941, with television still feeling it's way around and with less than 5,000 TV sets across the country, the first animated commercial was broadcast. It was in September of that year when the animated Botany Lamb first pranced across television screens to promote Botany Mills ties (as well as forecast the weather). There were seven of these spots produced for this original campaign, but the series its self continued through 1948. It was produced by Douglas Leigh but, in an interesting connection with that first ever television broadcast, was animated and directed by Otto Messmer (the creator of Felix the Cat).

As the decade wore on more and more companies went the way of animated advertising. Not all of the work produced during this time was full-fledged 'theatrical' style animation. The Fletcher Smith Studios produced a campaign in 1946 for a raceway where they took horses and animated their mouths to make it appear as if they were talking. Other studios utilized stop motion animation to sell their products. Many of these ads, were completely realized as they were produced with budgets ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 dollars. This was top money for the time and was used to attract top talent. As an example: in 1947 Shamus Culhane Productions produced a popular ad for Ajax. The Ajax Elves were animated by Grim Natwick (the 'creator' of Betty Boop and the animator of Snow White) and Art Babbit (who had animated Goofy among other stars) and voiced by June Foray (who would go on to star in numerous Jay Ward cartoons) and Hans Conreid (the voice of Captain Hook and many other cartoon stars) among others.

Due to it's ability to show nearly anything (people flying, animals talking, inanimate objects dancing around), it's eye catching appeal, relative low cost and deep talent pool, animation soon became the preferred way to advertise on television. Over a short span of time Coke, Plymouth, Tide, Alka Seltzer (even those who were not born at the time can recognize Speedy), Keds, Skippy Peanut Butter and Canada Dry were all some of the many popular ads. Many of the animated ads would have caused an outcry today. Animation populated the television screens of American selling Camel Cigarettes, Kools Cigarettes and Hamm's Beer featuring the Beer Bear. The Piel's Beer ads (which were promoted by the animated characters of Bert and Harry Piel) were so popular that the New York Times would list out when they would be aired.

The list of advertisers who used animation to sell their products continued to expand as more and more companies jumped in with television. As the years have gone by though, this list has shrunken considerably with many advertisers preferring to go the live action route, relying more and more on special effects (which often does utilize some form of animation) and outrageous humor. Over all this time, there has though been one consistent group of animated advertisers: cereal producers.

Breakfast cereal has been a part of the mass media since the beginning. Most of the major companies had sponsored radio shows during the 30's and 40's. As television grew in popularity, they realized that if they were going to keep their market presence, they were going to have to go to where the people were. Rather than deal with the production hassles of producing their own 'complete' program (in a medium that had such a large learning curve), they opted to instead take the role of sponsor. It was not a passive role though as the companies and their advertising agencies were an active part in everything that went into the production of a show. Part of this sponsorship included of course commercials the cereal companies were one of the first groups to jump on the idea of using animation to sell their products. In 1949 Bill Tytla created an ad for (Post) Sugar Crisp cereal. The cereal was not very memorable, but the ad, featuring three bears, was the start of a phenomenon.

Tytla couldn't have realized it at the time, but his commercial opened the floodgates for animated advertising as it helped to get advertisers (particularly cereal advertisers) thinking about how they could reach children. It also helped lay the groundwork for the Saturday morning memories of many a child.

It didn't take long for other advertisers and cereal companies to get their characters on the screen. In 1951 Kellogg's was advertising Sugar Frosted Flakes, while Post debuted Captain Jolly (who sold CornFetti). By the end of 1954 Cheerios, Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Snap, Crackle and Pop were all popular program interruptions. Marky Maypo, perhaps the biggest early animated cereal star, debuted in 1956. These ads for Maypo were the creation of StoryBoard which was founded and led by John Hubley. The ads were so popular that Maypo sales increased by 78 percent and the tagline 'I want my Maypo' became an instant catchphrase. In this popularity, the marriage of medium and consumer was consummated.

Some of the other major players in these early animation endeavors were:

Neslon B. Winkles III - For creating memorable commercials for Snap,
Crackle and Pop and the Kellogg's Rooster.

Carl Hixon and Gene Kolkey - They brought Toucan Sam and Dig 'em (the
Sugar Smacks Frog) to TV.

Joe Harris - Who brought the Trix Rabbit to life in 1959.

Daws Butler - This voice actor may be best remembered for his work in
hundreds of cartoons (including Yogi-Bear). He was also a prolific writer penning numerous commercials for Marlboro and National Bohemian Beer.

Gene Schinto - In 1962 he created the character of Linus the Lionhearted for
Post Crispy Critters. Soon after he realized that Post was creating animated commercials as well as sponsoring the shows that they aired in. He started to wonder why they couldn't just do both. In 1963 he brought the 'Linus the Lionhearted' program to television. The production, featuring many of the Post cereal 'stars' was an intrinsically plotted one with storylines slipping from the show into commercials and back.

For all of the animated ads done, there were perhaps none more popular, more influential or more memorable than the creations of Jay Ward Productions. Known mainly for Rocky and Bullwinkle, Jay Ward spent nearly twenty-two years creating a number of animated campaigns for the Quaker Oats Company. His studio put together spots for Scooter Pies, Aunt Jemima, Mr. Chips Cookies and the popular Quisp and Quake cereals (the characters of Quisp and Quake were created by Ward veteran Bill Scott). His longest running series was the promotion of Captain Crunch. In 1962, Ward brought Captain Crunch (actually Cap'n Crunch thanks to an early voice over 'flub') to the television sets of America, a place where he remains today (even though Ward's association with the brand stopped in 1984). Through the years, The Captain fought the pirate Jean LaFoote in his efforts to steal the cereal cargo of the Captain's ship, the S. S. Guppy. These commercials were amazingly popular, shooting Quaker from the back to the front in the breakfast cereal market. In fact, Quaker even had to build a separate production plant to concentrate solely on Captain Crunch (and it's eventual spin-offs).

As television continued to grow, so did the popularity of using animation as an advertising form. The format became so successful and influential that many political action and moral patrol groups began to seriously monitor its usage for fear that advertisers were 'preying' on the minds of the youth. It's an argument that continues to rage on. It continues though in the face of evolving technology that only pushes even further the ways animation can be used in the medium. With all of this new technology, one is left to wonder what the past masters would have created, had they had these tools at their fingertips. And while you wonder that, we will return you to your regularly scheduled program...


Noell Wolfgram Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced. He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with his wife and daughter.

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