Point of View

Return of the Critter

by Michael D'Antonio

In the heyday of mid-sixties to mid-seventies advertising, titans of the industry like Burnett and Oglivy created characters, archetypes and caricatures to represent their brands. Collectively, they became known as “critters” and soon became a standard trope in the advertising lexicon. From the Jolly Green Giant to Charlie Tuna to the Pillsbury Dough Boy, these quirky, bizarre creations saturated advertising and the culture itself as they made their way to T-Shirts, lunch boxes and even early forms of content creation models.

But over time, tastes changed and so did the industry. Critters went out of vogue. They were seen as cheesy and silly – the worst kind of pandering manipulation in the creative arsenal, and over a few decades they went extinct, suffering from their own version of an ice age. Eventually the critters were replaced with advertising that looked more like programming – scenes and scenarios acted out by real people – the “two moms in a kitchen” type of advertising. In the 90’s, this scene-based model ultimately gave way to a music video-inspired model with rapid cuts, disjointed narratives and visual techniques carrying the day.

Today, as ironic as it is, we are seeing a resurgence of the critter or more accurately, a reinvention of the critter. There is no doubt that the critters are back – from Progressive’s Flo to Geico’s British gecko, critters are back on the airwaves in force. The difference between these 21st century critters and their mid-century forefathers is that these critters are in on the joke. They are hyper-aware that they are critters with a developed sense of self-awareness and irony. You can see it when the Geico gecko looks to the camera as he tells us he is drinking digitally created coffee, or when Flo winks and nudges her way through yet another commercial, rolling her eyes at the triteness of her character before the audience can.

This meta-critter is a new animal – at once self-referential and self-mocking. This is a more cynical critter that doesn’t expect its audience to suspend disbelief. In fact, it doesn’t even believe it itself. However, these modern critters do share some connective tissue with the past. They are still memorable, they can still say things humans can’t and they are still built through repetition and ubiquity, just as they were in the 60’s.

Advertising may not be green but it does know how to recycle – even with things we vowed to never do again…like create a critter. And it seems to work. Progressive has doubled down on the Flo campaign – migrating that character into virtually every piece of communication they create. Geico has continued building its gecko campaign to a level that is verging on Energizer Bunny. The lesson is that anything is up for grabs and ripe for reinvention – even something as mundane and twee as a critter that giggles when you poke his tummy.