Frozen In Time

The tiny, immobile Travelocity gnome. The big-headed, always smiling Burger King. The 6-foot-tall, perfectly still Quaker Oats man. We’ve seen inanimate ad icons before, but more and more of them are popping up in ad campaigns these days. Even McDonald’s, which has historically employed a live version of Ronald McDonald, got into the inanimation act this year, presenting its spokesclown in statue form in a series of spots earlier this year.

“There is a quest for a fresh approach to this stuff that is a little tongue- in-cheek without going too far and working with an icon in a different way,” says Chel White, a director/partner at Bent Image Labs, which produced the current Tractor Supply Company campaign for Minneapolis’ Carmichael Lynch featuring small, non-moving, Midwestern-type dolls.

Technology makes it possible to create all sorts of lifelike icons, so why are these stiff mascots multiplying? “We are in a period of absolute saturation—there are animated animals and talking chimps and geckos and all the rest of it,” theorizes Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University who runs the school’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “When one of these static things appears in a commercial, it is arresting, something completely different.”

Beyond grabbing attention, experts say these figures tap deep into our psyches, with the Ronald statue evoking childhood memories of early experiences with the character, who appears in the same form in restaurants, says Bill Whitman, representative for McDonald’s.

Thompson and David W. Stewart, the Robert E. Booker Professor of Marketing in the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, agree. “Most of us do remember Ronald fondly from our days as children, and [these spots] targeted at adults remind of us of the character without necessarily trying to tell us a story that would appeal to a child,” Stewart says.

The Quaker Oats man, who has appeared on packaging for 130 years, also strikes a nostalgic chord within us. We trust the guy, says Ann Mukherjee, vp of marketing at Quaker Oats’ Quaker Snacks, who maintains that consumers see the Quaker Oats man, introduced as a statue in TV spots by Chicago’s Element 79 Partners last year, as someone who helps them make healthy choices.

But not all of today’s inanimate icons generate warm, fuzzy feelings. The King, whose human body is adorned with an enormous plastic head bearing a big smile, is plain creepy—at least, according to those who obsess about him on the Internet. “That Burger King gives me nightmares,” Thompson says.

Rob Reilly, vp/cd of Burger King agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, confesses creepy wasn’t the vibe the agency was going for when it debuted the character—whose face is actually based on that of Crispin acd/copywriter Bob Cianfrone—in a 2004 commercial called “Wake Up with the King.” Rather, according to Reilly, the intention was to create a more nebulous character that leaves you wondering, “What is he thinking? Why is he there? Is he psycho, or is he just happy to be there to deliver food to people?” Reilly says.

The King also showed up on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno last year. “Late-night TV is the epitome of social currency and what everyone is talking about,” Hayes says, “so the King being featured was an example for us that what we’re doing works.”

The King isn’t the only inanimate icon that has turned into a celebrity of sorts. Travelocity’s Roaming Gnome, first introduced in a campaign out of Durham, N.C.’s McKinney two years ago, appeared on the last season of Will & Grace and the last two seasons of The Amazing Race. And due to popular demand, Travelocity established an online store where fans can buy their own Roaming Gnome; 18,565 have been sold.

But does the fame translate into sales? Joel Frey, a Travelocity spokesperson, says since the company began using the icon two years ago, sales have risen dramatically. In 2003, he says, the year before the campaign, gross travel booked was $3.9 billion; it rose to $4.9 billion in 2004, and to $7.4 billion in 2005.

Given the seemingly runaway success of inanimate icons, it’s likely more advertisers will jump on the bandwagon. But Stewart isn’t even convinced that most immobile icons have lasting appeal. “In the short term, they probably grab people’s attention, but it’s not clear to me that they are necessarily creating a feeling of warmth and emotional response that you might get [from] a character that’s warm and cuddly and cute,” he says. “They are novel.”