BOSTON (TheStreet) -- The King is dead.
Well, that's not entirely true. But odds are the giant-headed mascot for Burger King may have been overthrown.
Earlier this month, the fast food chain and its ad agency for the past seven years, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, parted ways. That agency created such unusual, viral campaigns as the online Subservient Chicken and the so-called "Creepy King," a rather menacing take on what was once a character meant to appeal to kids.
If BK decides to revamp its King, it won't be the first makeover for the character. Like many of the fantasy-based mascots companies use to promote themselves and specific products, he has evolved over the years.
In recent weeks, there has been considerable chatter about the fate of some other popular mascots and spokes-things as well.
A year after activists started demanding that McDonald's (MCD) "retire" Ronald McDonald as a response to childhood obesity, it seemed they might get their wish. A report on MSNBC.com paraphrased a McDonald's representative's remarks about the character and gave the impression his use would be scaled back. Not so, the company said when the story gained national traction.
Cap'n Crunch was similarly thought to be on his way out. Rumors claimed that his being synonymous with sugary cereals was no longer a good connection for the Pepsi (PEP) -owned Quaker Oats and its efforts to appeal to health-conscious consumers. While true the Captain was been in a reduced role, found on cereal boxes but few other places, his return to prominence seems imminent. A Facebook account allows fans to learn more about his return ("I was out on the seas, but don't worry, I'm back and not going anywhere!") and there are "Have You Seen Me" posters fans can print.
Punchy, the "how about a Hawaiian Punch" guy, is also undergoing a redesign, one of many he has had over the years. Over time, his quick-to-comical-violence approach to life has been tempered, his clenched fist turned into a "hang loose" hand gesture. In recent years he is no longer a hyperactive troublemaker, but a laid-back surfer dude.
The website for Hawaiian Punch, now owned by Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPS) , only offers a teaser about his latest reincarnation. While we don't know how the new "Punchy" will look or act, we can guarantee the changes were not taken lightly.
Company mascots are extremely valuable to companies, and many have extensive guidebooks specifying every detail of how they can, and cannot, be rendered or used.
"Brand characters are unique in that they straddle the worlds of marketing and entertainment," is the pitch offered to clients by offered by Character, an Oregon consultant specializing in company brands (Punchy is among the characters for which it has developed guides). "Clearly they exist to represent a brand, but they live in a consumer frame of reference that puts them in competition with characters from television, movies, video games and novels. To be truly effective, brand characters have to combine the best of both worlds. They must be engaging characters in their own right while staying authentically rooted in the brand."
That yellow, green and red rooster? You know immediately Cornelius is hawking Kellogg's (K) Corn Flakes. Mickey Mouse has become so iconic that all Disney (DIS) needs to do is show his ears to trigger an association. People go online to the Quaker Oats store to buy the hard-to-find Quisp cereal, many driven less by the taste of the cereal than nostalgia for the propeller-headed alien -- so popular among kids of the 1970s that he even had his own line of toys.
Or think of Mr. Peanut, the salty sophisticate in a top hat and monocle that dates back to 1916, the result of a contest Planters held to solicit potential trademark sketches. The winner was a 14-year-old boy; the elegant attire was added later by a professional artist. (Why a monocle? Aside from the air of elegance it provides, it should be pointed out that eyeglasses would be of no use to the debonair legume. He has no ears.)
Planters, owned by Kraft Foods (K) , recently launched the latest version of the character, in stop-motion animation ads with Robert Downey Jr. handling the voice work.
The following are the stories behind some of the most popular and enduring company and product mascots:
The Michelin Man actually dates back to 1888, and has gone through numerous incarnations.
His origins were inspired by a drawing of a bearded giant hoisting a beer mug and chanting a Latin quotation from Horace, Nunc est Bibendum ("Now it is time to drink"), according to Michelin's official history of the character. The new version, adapted to the company's needs, was of a man made of a pile of tires and holding a cup filled with nails and broken glass. His toast: "Cheers, the Michelin tire drinks up obstacles!"
In various incarnations, the Michelin Man has been a cigar-chomping rogue and the more lovable, cuddly creature seen today.
Geek trivia: He is made of exactly 26 tires.
Arms crossed. Bald head. Single earring. Any resemblance between Mr. Clean and Yul Brenner in The King and I is merely coincidence.
He is also, according to Procter & Gamble (PG) , not a genie, despite his looks and magical appearances to aid housewives in distress.
Created in 1957, Mr. Clean was modeled after a U.S. Navy sailor from Florida to help promote the cleaning products of the same name.
As enduring as his image is the theme song that has been played over the silent spokesman: "Mr. Clean gets rid of dirt and grime/And grease in just a minute/Mr. Clean will clean your whole house/And everything that's in it/Mr. Clean, Mr. Clean, Mr. Clean."
Geek trivia: In most of Europe, Mr. Clean's name (Meister Proper in Germany and Monsieur Propre in France, for example) translates back to English as "Mr. Proper." For the computer pros out there, that explains why the Linux command line to clean up extraneous files is "make mrproper."
The Pillsbury Doughboy
"Nothing says lovin' like something from the oven!"
That catchphrase, giggled with a happy squeal by Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, has beckoned bakers for years.
Dressed always in a baker's hat and scarf, the character was created by Chet Noice, a freelance artist from Minneapolis who sold Pillsbury (now owned by General Mills (GIS) ) the rights to a story he wrote about a boy made of dough who springs to life from the love of a baker. His concept was fleshed out by an ad agency artist, Martin Nodell, whose other claim to fame was creating the comic book character Green Lantern.
Poppin' Fresh made his television debut in 1965, voiced by Paul Frees, who was also the actor behind the Soviet spy Boris in Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. The doughboy's distinctive giggle is trademarked in the U.S. Patent office (with an audio file used to denote the intellectual property).
The character has gone on to become an iconic figure. A doll in his likeness was one of the best-selling toy of the 1970s and memorabilia old and new remain popular among collectors.
Geek trivia: Those with a good memory for pop culture may recall that Poppin' Fresh is not the only living creature to spring to life from ready-to-bake magic. He has a wife, Poppie Fresh, a daughter, Bun Bun, a son, Popper and even a dog, Flapjack.
For companies looking to get a slogan wedged into the collective consciousness, a cartoon mascot is an effective way to do so.
Think Tony the Tiger, looming behind a bowl of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, and you probably can hear his trademarked growl: "They're GR-R-REAT!"
Kellogg's itself says Tony has proven to be the character most people think "best represents" the company.
His fame began in 1952, with the introduction of a cereal, Kellog's Sugar Frosted Flakes of Corn. The competition was fierce. The character on boxes included not only the bandanna-wearing tiger, but Katy the Kangaroo, Elmo the Elephant and Newt the Gnu.
Tony, the most popular of the menagerie, was refined the following year by the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago, a firm that had a hand in creating numerous company-promoting characters. The big splash was a color ad in Life magazine, a national debut that evolved into years of print ads and TV appearances. In marketing materials, the company refers to the spokes-tiger as a "full-fledged goodwill ambassador for Kellogg's."
Snap! Crackle! Pop!
Older than even Tony the Tiger are Snap, Crackle and Pop, the three tiny men whose names reflect the crackling chatter made by a bowl of milk-drenched Rice Krispies.
The cereal dates back to 1928. It was in 1932 that a gnome in a baker's hat was added to the side panel of the box. Snap was later joined by two buddies, Crackle and Pop.
Popularity ensued. There were comic strips and, during World War II, the trio posed for a patriotic ad campaign that urged those on the homefront to "Save time, save fuel, save energy."
In 1949, the characters got a makeover, made less gnomelike and more human. Likewise, "their voices changed over the years from high-pitched elfin squeaks into more pleasant speaking and singing ranges," according to Kellogg's.
Geek trivia: The tiny guys are also popular in other countries. In Finland they are Poks, Riks and Raks. Italians sit down to breakfast facing a picture of Pif, Paf and Poff. Mexicans pour their milk and listen for Pim, Pum and Pam.
Various surveys have made the claim that Ronald McDonald's is second only to Santa Claus in terms of recognition by the world's children.
It is no shocker, really. Around the globe, the always upbeat clown is as recognizable as the famous golden arches.
Ronald's TV career began in 1963, when Willard Scott (an original Bozo the Clown who went on to fame as a Today Show weather forecaster) appeared as "Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown."
Ronald, we learned decades ago, lives in McDonald Land, a fantasy home (shake-spewing volcanoes and french fries that grow on bushes!) that had a distinctive resemblance to the landscapes and characters created by Saturday morning TV moguls Sid and Marty Krofft in the popular H.R. Pufnstuf.
The similarity hardly went unnoticed. The Kroffts successfully sued McDonald's, pointing out the resemblance such characters as Grimace (once a bad guy, later a lovable purple blob), Mayor McCheese and the hamburger-headed cop Big Mac had to their own creations.
The Jack-in-the-box head that sat atop drive-through speaker boxes at Jack In The Box (JACK) restaurants have become a fully realized character over the years.
Here's what the company, in its official bio of the character, thinks you should know:
Jack's last name is ... Box.
According to Jack's California driver's license, he's 6'8" (without the hat) and weighs 195 pounds. His birthday is May 16.
Jack, fluent in English and Spanish, has starred in more than 2,200 English- and Spanish-language TV and radio ads since 1995.
The company has sold more than 28 million antenna balls and more than 5 million other premiums bearing Jack's likeness.
Geek trivia: Over the past 13 years, television audiences have met Jack's wife, Cricket, his son, Jack Jr., and his parents. And those paying close attention know Jack owns several classic cars, including a Dodge Viper.
McDonald's has a clown. One of its chief rivals sought to one-up its rubber-nosed spokesman with royalty.
The first Burger King restaurant, in Miami, featured the cartoon likeness of a chubby-faced monarch. In later drawings, he reclined on a throne made of a giant hamburger.
Later campaigns, geared toward kids, evolved the cartoon figure into a real-life, red-bearded monarch who makes TV and in-store appearances. His fantasy fiefdom friends included the valiant Sir Shake-a-Lot (not to be confused with Baby Got Back impresario Sir Mix-a-Lot) and The Duke of Doubt, who was always skeptical of any magical claims his ruler made.
In 2003, the Miami advertising firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky was retained by Burger King as a client. Using an old, oversized head mask of the old-school king they found on eBAY (EBAY) , the so-called "Creepy King" persona was created, going on to be a huge online hit and case study in viral marketing. In one infamous ad, a man awakens in bed to find The King lurking beside him.
In an effort to appeal to gamers, The King starred in three games created by Electronic Arts (ERTS) for Microsoft's (MSFT) X-box 360. Selling for $3.99, the games -- such as Sneak King -- earned mixed reviews.
The cooler-than-you Cheetah who serves up the addictive, but finger-staining, Frito-Lay snack Cheetos was originally a Pink Panther-inspired cartoon character. He replaced an earlier mascot, the Cheetos Mouse.
Over time, the sunglasses-wearing cat (now rendered in CGI for TV ads) has become more subversive, more of a hipster.
The website Orange Underground was initially a stab at viral videos, with the theme being various ways Cheetos could be used to seek revenge on those who have wronged you (staining laundry was a popular comeuppance).
That site now leads to "Chesters Feed," a collection of fan art, user-generated videos and news stories that have a connection to the snack. The image of Jesus found on a Cheeto, nicknamed "Cheesus," is among the stories on the news feed. Another touts the introduction, in Japan, of strawberry-dipped Cheetos. There are also recipes: Cheetos & Broccoli, Cheeto Fettuccini and crunchy, neon orange meatloaf.
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