Catching Up With Speedy And The Gang In 2.0

I was brewing some Quaker Oats and reading the paper yesterday morning when a familiar voice -- grating yet somehow comforting -- pierced the air: "It rushes multiple cold fighters plus a powerful pain reliever wherever you need it." Yes, it was the pointer-wielding Speedy Alka-Seltzer, in a report by correspondent Martha Teichner on CBS's "Sunday Morning."

If you're like the Gen Y computer animators who have recreated the character for a new campaign, you're saying, "Speedy Whozamawhatsit?" The duo confess that they had to Google the advertising icon after they got the assignment to digitize Speedy 2.0. With good reason: Before coming out of retirement in the trusty hands of BBDO and director J.J. Sedelmaier, his last spot aired in 1964, can you believe?

Seeing and hearing Speedy reminded me of the transparency of a print ad that I cadged from Lou Seeger, the motorcycle-driving, 60-something Adweek production manager, some 25 years ago or so. It features a huge picture of the head of Speedy Alka-Seltzer on the right side of the page. On the left, the bold, all-caps headline reads: "MORE PEOPLE KNOW HIS NAME THAN THE CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT." Then there's some body copy and the tagline: "ADVERTISING. ONE OF THE MOST EFFECTIVE TOOLS EVER INVENTED."



From the moment I saw the ad, I thought it was a very true -- and very sad -- commentary. It hung in my office for years. But somewhere along the line, I mellowed and took it down. I mean, what use is it to blame Toucan Sam for the crappy cereal he represents? No more sense than it does to blame him for our indifference to affairs of state that go beyond slogans and talking points.

And so, I now choose to revel in the nostalgia of the advertising icons that the report touches on, including Sam's stable mates at Leo Burnett (Tony the Tiger, Snap, Crackle and Pop et al.), as well as the rehabilitated, 95-year-old Mr. Peanut, who currently struts around town with the voice of Robert Downey, Jr. But he's a youngster compared to the venerable Quaker Oats guy on the package I was pouring from yesterday. He's 134, we're told.

Our icons, it seems, evolve with the zeitgeist. In one clip in the report, Tony the Tiger animator Don Kellor remarks on how his creation has been pumped up into something of a jock over the years. That's not how he drew him.

"Tony's head was like a football shape, and his shoulders -- he didn't have shoulders," Kellor says. "Now he's very athletic, and very muscular. We were just solving advertising problems, and now it turns out to be history."

That history is still being collected for the Advertising Icon Museum in Kansas City, which my colleague, Karlene Lukovitz, wrote about more than three years ago. Its physical doors may not be opening until later this year, but you can browse the cybershelves and get lost in your own reveries.

All the old standbys -- such as Colonel Sanders, the extended M&M's family, Johnnie Walker and Alfred E. Newman (who, for all his counter-cultural appeal was the spokesboy for a magazine empire, after all) -- are represented. Then there's Bert and Harry Piel, favorites of mine who were voiced by the hilarious Bob and Ray.

There are also lesser-known spokesluminaries for regional banks and exterminators, as well as some busts who might as well have remained anonymous. The CBS piece cites Seven-Up's Freshen Up Freddie and the Domino's Noid as two of those also-rans. In the virtual museum, I came across a strawberry blonde representation of one of the three "Nabisco Oreo Girls" circa 1983? Anyone remember them?

Then there are the icons best left forgotten. I cannot tell you why, but Choo-Choo Charlie and his gang always got on my nerves. Maybe it was because I wasn't all that fond of licorice. Or maybe it was the pink and white color of the sugar coating, which looked like a cheap plastic purse from a Fifties doll set. One could write a thesis. But if there's one truth about icons, it's that the icon you create must be immutably tied to the product, like Charlie, in a bit of brilliant reverse psychology, is to Star-Kist tuna.

"That's the key, that you're able to connect your icon to the storyline or to the product," Howard Boasberg, the museum's executive director, tells Teichner "It doesn't do any company any good to have a Cap'n Crunch if you don't remember that it's a cereal."

While we're waxing nostalgic, let's go back to that spread featuring Speedy for a second. It was created by Levine Huntley Schmidt & Beaver, a very hot agency at the time (rabid Mad Ave. aficionados and fans of Eighties hair will appreciate this video of a group photo shoot), responsible for Subaru, Panasonic, Jockey, Maidenform, Genesee beer, Matchbox and People's Express. It became a subsidiary of Grey in 1985 and, having evolved into Levine, Huntley, Vick & Beaver, closed in 1991 after losing the Subaru. Adweek's Andrew McMains covered a recent reunion.

And I was happy to see that former chairman Harold Levine, 89, was named "Westporter of the Week" by the Westport, Conn., Patch yesterday. I had a memorable lunch with Levine in the late 1980s and remember him as an extremely intelligent and engaging gentleman. Levine is cited for his ongoing work with the children of Bridgeport.

"I wish that more Westporters would find time and money to help the children in Bridgeport, they are our neighbors, and believe me ... most of the children in Westport get everything, and the kids down the road a bit get very little," he tells Ann Quasarano.

I bet Levine could still tell you the names of every justice who sat on the Supreme Court in 1985.

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