A Tale Of A Tail

LET'S SAY YOU'RE SEARCHING the animal kingdom for a mascot for your new, sporty luxury car. Would you start off by thinking jaguar and work your way to... duck? Yes, an animated little quacker is coming our way in a $50 million (read: big) advertising campaign for General Motors' new Catera, ""the Caddy that zigs.'' GM hopes this car will bring a new crop of baby boomers to its aging Cadillac brand, and the duck is key to the strategy. If the idea of selling a car that starts at $30,000 (OK, $29,995) with the help of a duck seems risky, listen to this ambition: ""We hope,'' says GM marketing chief Ronald Zarrella, ""this will be the next Energizer Bunny.''

Thereby hangs a tail. Advertisers have watched with envy since 1989 as the pink bunny developed by ad agency TBWA Chiat/Day drummed its way into American culture. Not that man-made ad mascots are a new genre; the Jolly Green Giant debuted in 1926. But the relentless rabbit has become not only a potent spokescreature but a kind of cultural icon, popping up in cartoons, conversations and political campaigns to evoke endurance in everything from Ross Perot to the marriage of writer Joan Didion.

Gold: Some industry figures--disputed by Energizer's parent, Ralston Purina--suggest that Duracell still outsells Energizer. Either way, the bunny is a gold standard for a generation of ad people. And as computers make animation easier and celebrities seem ever greedier and more fallible, advertisers are eager to find stars who will never demand residuals, do drugs or be charged with murder. In the last few months Energizer has come out with several new bunny ads, while brands such as M&M and Pillsbury are introducing or reviving mascots of their own.

Cadillac and the Detroit office of D'arcy Masius Benton & Bowles have been working for more than a year on their entry. The little red mallard with the oversize bill and feet is designed to help Cadillac carve out a new niche in the ""entry level'' luxury-car market. Cars such as Volvo and BMW have already ""locked up'' reputations for such features as safety and performance, says DMB&B chief creative officer Gary Horton. So Catera is entering what Cadillac considers bold new ground by combining ""luxury and fun.'' The duck is responsible for the fun part. In intro spots he hops into the traditional Cadillac crest, which features five rather regimented blackbirds, turns tail and faces in a different direction. Message: this is not your grandfather's Cadillac. To add a note of sophistication, Cadillac uses its new Catera Standard typeface, which bears a shameless resemblance to that of The New Yorker magazine.

How will the ""savvy'' prospects targeted by Cadillac respond? Hard to predict. But mascot-making is harder than it looks. By definition, the flops are forgettable. (Remember the Atlanta Olympics' Izzy, described by NBC's Bob Costas as ""some kind of genetic experiment gone horribly wrong''?) Even the most successful creations sometimes can't make the leap from one era to the next, or simply wear out their welcome.

Perhaps the cardinal rule in this endeavor is to create a natural alliance between product and character. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, can it feel like a Mercedes? The Catera dabbler (one of 750 designs the team developed) is probably as charming as they come; the idea started with an in-house campaign to get stodgy Cadillac staffers to loosen up. The ""Caddy [pause] that zigs'' is a nice way to take some years off the brand name; GM warns dealers in an elaborate brand manual not to say ""Cadillac.'' Another nice touch: at least in ads developed so far, the duck and the car move around in cartoon white space, not the endless mountain roads zoomed over by other luxury-performance models. Still, most mascots are assigned more trivial tasks, like getting someone to spend pocket change on a battery or a piece of candy. This little mallard has big work to do.

No matter how cute or compelling the character, what counts is how you use him. Earlier generations of TV viewers were ""willing to sit there and just be amazed'' that there was a talking tablet, says Steve Rabosky, creative director at Chiat/Day. But when viewers no longer settle down in front of the box, you have to grab their attention. It helps to have a great score; the California Raisins got a major assist from Marvin Gaye's ""Grapevine.'' To push the language of the ad into the vernacular, the line has to work as a metaphor or proverb. The Morton salt girl first said ""When it rains it pours'' back in 1912. The bunny's ""It keeps going and going'' turned out to have endless applications. But to keep a campaign fresh, the best technique is to develop plot lines and combine comforting familiarity with genuine surprises.

Tasty: That's the idea behind a new campaign by BBDO for M&M Mars. Working with animator Will Vinton, progenitor of the Raisins, the agency has introduced computer-generated candies with a sort of sibling-rivalry thing going: Yellow is the dim sidekick, Red the slick social climber and Blue the cool alpha M&M. The ads are ranking high on viewer recognition and seem to be increasing sales. Other adver- tisers are going back to old mascots that in many baby boomers' eyes have almost the same status as a character from a favorite book or movie. Pillsbury's ticklish Doughboy, sidelined in the 1980s, is back with a slight tummy tuck and a skateboard. Heinz's StarKist will soon return Charlie the Tuna to national airwaves with a new line and a new nemesis. The bad news (""Sorry, Charlie. We don't want tuna with today's taste, we want tuna that tastes good'') is now delivered by a shadowy business type who sounds like he just laid off a lot of other fish. Could be story potential there.

That's been part of the genius of the bunny. The first series of ads showed The Stuffed One running into other ""ads'' of the kind you love to hate. They were such pitch-perfect parodies that you didn't know you were inside a spoof until the bunny appeared. The ads told skeptical consumers, ""Hey, we're on your side,'' says Rabosky, and built credibility because they ""called the bulls--t.'' Rabosky's team kept renewing the campaign by sending the bunny traveling or having him foil villains who were out to stop him. In a hilarious new incarnation, a crew of intrepid trackers is hot on the bunny's trail.

But another recent round of ads that return to the parody technique are weak; compared with earlier spots, they have a tin ear. Who knows? The bunny could be heading for the mascot wax museum. GM can only hope that when he gets there he doesn't find a little red duck waiting for him.

The most successful marketing icons can be readily identified with their brand. In this classic selection, see if you can guess the correct name and brand of each mascot. The answers are printed upside down below.

1 English bull terrier turned party pooch was criticized for enticing kids to drink. 1986-89

2 Ho-ho-hos for a line of veggies. The model for a 60-foot statue in Blue Earth, Minn. 1926-present

3 Talking tablet made comebacks in '76 and '80 to sing "plop, plop, fizz, fizz." 1952-63

4 Targeted by President Clinton and banned from billboards near schools 1988-present

5 This "sorry" fish tried to impress by playing ball, partying and reading Shakespeare. 1961-present

6 Real name: Poppin' Fresh. His prominent belly and giggle attract ticklers. 1965-present

7 Finicky feline would not touch Fancy Feast. He is presently in his third life. 1968-present

8 Lives in a hollow tree and spoke for President Reagan's anti-drug campaign. 1968-present