Madison Avenue crowns America's ad icons

In the end, a wisecracking team of veterans drew the most votes, repelling a run by an upstart who lets fly with only a simple barnyard utterance.

Forget about Nov. 2. For fans of the pop-culture iconography of Madison Avenue, Sept. 20 was the election day that counted. Results of a summer-long online poll of the advertising world's favorite product (or company) personifiers - think Mr. Clean, the Merrill Lynch bull, and the Coppertone girl - were announced Monday as part of the launch of Advertising Week in New York City.

And the winner is ...

Those talking M&M's candy characters cleaned up, with 22 percent of more than 600,000 votes cast, according to Kipp Cheng, a spokesman for the American Association of Advertising Agencies, one of a handful of marketing organizations sponsoring a range of ad-related events in Manhattan this week that celebrate the industry and its role in society.

The AFLAC Duck - whose quack renders the insurance company's name - finished second with 14 percent. Mr. Peanut pulled in 10 percent. The Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony the Tiger rounded out the Top 5, earning single-digit returns.

"We're pretty thrilled," says Jeffrey Moran, director of public relations for Masterfoods USA, the division of Mars Inc. that makes M&M's. "It shows that the advertising we do to connect with consumers pays off. People really pay attention to the brand."

The agency BBDO/New York unleashed the talking M&M's in their current form in 1994 (the 40th anniversary of their debut). "Green," the sassy female M&M , debuted the following year. In a campaign this spring, the company briefly produced black-and-white candy, and ran "Wizard of Oz"-themed commercials that promised a return to a land of color.

The icons strut their stuff

In New York Monday, that land might've been Midtown. The scene was kaleidoscopic when no less than Ronald McDonald led a procession from Times Square to Madison Avenue and 50th Street, where the top vote-getters were revealed.

Slogans, too, were ranked. M&Ms' 50-year-old "melts in your mouth, not in your hand," penned by ad legend Ted Bates, finished on top. Behind it: "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't" (Almond Joy & Mounds); "Where's the beef?" (Wendy's); "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" (United Negro College Fund); and "Can you hear me now?" (Verizon).

The prize: a plaque for each winner on a new Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame.

Industry executives and members of the Advertising Week consortium had narrowed long lists of icons and slogans to 26 artful, instantly recognizable examples of each before polling began in July. The drive to get consumers interested in voting was primarily an online campaign, with ads linked to company websites and by the issuing of e-mail "blasts," says Mr. Cheng.

Quiet campaign

Companies playfully campaigned for their icons, he says, though no firm lobbied to make the final 26 in either the icon or slogan category, and none of the finalists bought airtime to campaign - a somewhat surprising show of restraint considering US firms spent more than $128 billion on media buys last year, nearly a third of it on TV, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

"We live in a society that's very motivated by visual imagery," says Alan Siegel, chairman of the brand strategy firm Siegel & Gale, in New York. "And people have a very short attention span, so a powerful visual image to personify a brand is a huge asset in building identity, and as one of the threads in building loyalty."

Putting forward some sort of searing identifier, others add, is essential today as a clutter cutter.

Is the duck annoying or funny?

Especially good is "having a potent and memorable symbol, whether human and real, like Steve Jobs; a character, like that ... duck; or an iconography, like the Nike swoosh," says Douglas Atkin, a partner at ad agency Merkley & Partners. He calls animated characters "awareness devices," the best of which can make people laugh - or groan.

The duck makes Mr. Atkin groan.

Several experts expressed surprise at the AFLAC duck's triumph over so many more "venerable" opponents. Brand associations that build loyalty by popping up during the childhoods of generations of consumers - Chiquita Banana (not yet drawing fruit flies at 60), the Michelin Man (fully inflated at 106) - tend to carry clout.

But freshness counts, too. And the duck, brainchild of the Kaplan Thaler Group, which developed it in 2000, won some respect for its novelty.

"They've taken a very difficult name, AFLAC, and they've made it into a positive," says Mr. Siegel. "I think that's a fabulous icon."

In his mind, the entire group deserves its parade. "They're not just signatures at the end of an ad," he says. "They're some of the elements that make [a company] successful."

Pressed for a statement about M&M's vanquishing its AFLAC foe, Masterfoods' Moran plays along. "They came close, but we'll continue to campaign, just like every good president does after [he's] in office," he says. "Our guys are here to stay."

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