Thurl Ravenscroft died recently, but his voice will forever speak in our heads.
Thurl was the voice of Tony the Tiger. For over 50 years, Thurl’s voice hawked Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. He took two words and forever hard-wired them into our brains: "They're Grrrrreeeat!"
Many years ago, I worked at Leo Burnett, the agency that created Tony the Tiger, The Keebler Elves, Snap Crackle Pop, The Green Giant, The Marlboro Man and many more legendary advertising icons. I worked on some of the Kellogg’s brands and was in a meeting where some new commercial ideas for Frosted Flakes were presented. The room was filled with account service people, creatives, and research folks — all of whom made handsome salaries and generous bonuses thanks to a talking cartoon tiger.
A script was presented, and the head of account service and the group creative director almost came to blows over what was written.
“Tony would never say that!” barked the indignant account director.
“What do you mean?— Tony would most certainly say that,” shot back the agitated creative director.
“No he wouldn’t,” said the red-faced account guy. “It’s not Tony!”
“It is Tony!” countered the creative guy (obviously this guy had been on a debate team in college).
So it went, back and forth in agitated verbal volleys: grown men arguing over what an animated tiger might say as he hawked pre-sweetened cereal. These were the glory days of advertising, people, when animated icons cast huge shadows, and the masses would listen to whatever we adfolks had to say— even if it did come out of a tiger’s mouth.
The account guy eventually won the argument. I suspect somewhere in the bowels of Burnett is a library of Tony The Tiger’s Rules of Conduct— and why not? Tony made a lot of people a lot of money.
Are those days forever gone? Will there ever be another Tony the Tiger, and if so, can he live for half a century and become a part of our collective consciousness? No, probably not. Tony came to life in a time when you could reach the masses simply by running a spot on national TV, and running it over and over and over again. There weren’t a barrage of commercials flooding the airwaves or an endless stream of channels available, or computers lending access to millions of places to take your eyes on vacation. It was a simpler time, for sure, and fertile grounds for characters like Tony the Tiger to take root and become pop culture fixtures.
Today, many people declare that advertising is dead. They say it doesn’t work because people don’t like it, don’t believe it, and aren’t influenced by it. They say people are too cynical, too hip, too ambivalent to care about the pabulum we hucksters throw at them. Are we dinosaurs? No, not if we’re smart.
Mass communications must evolve. It’s not enough just to produce some commercials, print ads, radio spots, and the usual artillery of messages. It’s not enough to crawl inside the client corporate culture and blather on and on some corporate speak that appeases folks in the boardroom but ignores the people consuming the messages in the living room. Hemingway said a writer needed to develop a B.S. detector. Today, everyone has one and they are the most advanced B.S. detectors ever, refined from being barraged by millions of messages. Humans have evolved, and if our messages and ways of communicating don’t evolve with them, advertising is dead.
People have more avenues for amusement and distraction than ever. They’re also busier than ever. We’re over-scheduled, over-worked, over-stressed and overwhelmed— so how, when, and where will you get your message across?
By being smart. By acknowledging people are selfish and their time is valuable, and if you expect them to pay attention, you damn well better respect their time and intellect. You’d better be relevant.
People don’t hate advertising: they hate bad advertising that’s irrelevant, unbelievable, braggadocious, obnoxious, insulting, trite…you get the drift. Consider your message a guest at a party. Does it shout at people, or does it enrich the conversation, amuse and inform, entertain and enlighten? Is it the obnoxious drunken bore or the charismatic, charming person who holds court and gets his/her message across?
Yes, technology has made mass communications more difficult than ever, but one simple fact remains: people are still people. We all still want to be loved, amused, informed, excited, and moved emotionally.
As long as there are talented people who can take messages and make them human, there will be advertising.
The voice of Tony the Tiger may be dead, but his roar has hardly become a meow.