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In New Ads, Stirring Memories of Commercials Past

After decades of listening to a talking tuna, consumers are talking back.

A campaign for StarKist tuna reworks the brand’s longtime “Sorry Charlie” theme — which StarKist began using to sell canned tuna in 1961 — to depict people saying, “Thanks Charlie” for newer products like tuna in pouches.

The StarKist campaign is part of a trend on Madison Avenue that might be called comfort marketing, which is becoming more popular as the economy sputters. Advertisers are bringing back vintage characters, themes and jingles in hopes that evoking fond memories of the past may help shoppers feel better about buying products now.

Comfort marketing is part of efforts to reassure consumers who demand value for money that they are buying products that have stood the test of time. But to counter perceptions that brands trading in nostalgia are too old-fashioned for contemporary needs, many of the revivals, like StarKist’s, also involve updating and refreshing the mascots, songs, slogans and other venerable ad elements.

Other examples of brands trying to balance yesterday, today and tomorrow include Alka-Seltzer, Bacardi, Doritos, Dr Pepper, Fiat, Pepsi-Cola, Planters and Uncle Ben’s.

“People, particularly in this environment, are looking for substance and authenticity,” said Robert Furniss-Roe, regional president for the Bacardi North America unit of Bacardi, “and at the same time, they’re looking for novelty.”

A $10 million campaign coming this month to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bacardi brand and company mixes modern and traditional takes on that heritage. For instance, Bacardi will give away T-shirts bearing ads from bygone eras through its Facebook fan page.

And a Bacardi print ad, carrying the headline “History’s Supposed to Be Boring. Nobody Told Us,” recreates a party circa 1957 in a way that evokes contemporary TV shows about the past, like “Mad Men” and “Pan Am.”

The goal is “to depict a moment in time that lives in history” and offers “an eye to what’s next, an exciting future,” said Leo Premutico, a co-founder of Johannes Leonardo, the WPP agency that created the Bacardi campaign.

After Charlie’s 50th anniversary last year, executives at StarKist and its agency, MMB, decided to make the character a central figure as he was in the days of “Sorry Charlie,” a campaign created by Leo Burnett for a previous StarKist owner, H. J. Heinz.

The premise of the animated “Sorry Charlie” commercials was that Charlie — voiced by the actor Herschel Bernardi — kept trying to cultivate “good taste” so he could become a StarKist tuna. But StarKist kept rejecting him because, as another fish would declare, “StarKist don’t want tunas with good taste. StarKist wants tunas that taste good.”

An announcer then intoned, “Sorry Charlie, only good-tasting tuna get to be StarKist,” and in many of the spots, a fish hook appeared, to which was attached a note reading, “Sorry Charlie.”

“There is no particular negative about the ‘Sorry Charlie’ campaign, but 50 years has passed,” said In-Soo Cho, president and chief executive at the StarKist Company, part of Dongwon Industries of South Korea. “We thought giving new life to Charlie would be good.”

The new “Thanks Charlie” campaign, with a budget estimated at $18 million, is “not us talking about Charlie,” Mr. Cho said. “Now, it’s consumers talking about Charlie, and that interaction made more sense.”

In tests consumers said they liked the new approach, but Mr. Cho said he was nervous about the change. “You should always be careful,” he added, “but if you don’t push the envelope, you never evolve.”

Fred Bertino, president and creative director at MMB, called the campaign “a platform for the future, because we could start thanking Charlie for all the new products the brand would be delivering.”

“You want to keep your icon, but a lot of people make the mistake of using it in the same old way,” Mr. Bertino said. “This is still Charlie, but a fresh take on Charlie, giving him more dimension.”

That impulse also seems to be motivating Dr Pepper, which introduced a campaign this week that carries the theme “Always one of a kind.” The campaign includes a commercial featuring a young man in a Pied Piper role, a premise reminiscent of the upbeat “Be a Pepper” campaign for Dr Pepper in the 1970s.

The young man seems to be part of a crowd, but as soon as he drinks a can of Dr Pepper, he removes his suit to reveal a T-shirt that asserts, “I’m One of a Kind.” His disrobing inspires other people to shuck their outer garments, revealing T-shirts that express thoughts like “I’m a Dreamer,” “I’m a Fighter” and even “I’m a Pepper,” echoing the jingle from the “Be a Pepper” campaign.

The idea of “standing out within the crowd” is meant to symbolize how the taste of Dr Pepper is “unique within the soft drink industry,” said Dave Fleming, marketing director for Dr Pepper at the Dr Pepper Snapple Group.

The concept of the main character as a “catalyst” to spur people into “declaring they are unique” is intended as “a nice nod” to the “Be a Pepper” campaign, Mr. Fleming said.

But the “Always one of a kind” ads are part of “a new campaign that stands on its own,” he added. “It’s not a remake.”

The Dr Pepper campaign, which also includes Twitter and the Dr Pepper Web site, at drpepper.com, is being created by Deutsch L.A., which is the Marina del Rey, Calif., office of Deutsch, part of the Lowe & Partners Worldwide division of the Interpublic Group of Companies. The Dr Pepper Snapple Group spends about $40 million a year on ads for Dr Pepper.

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. January 12, 2012

Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.