Willie cleverly sidesteps a rule (from a comic book cover)


Original Medium: Corporate spokestoon
Speaking for: Kool Cigarettes
First Appeared: 1934
Creators: Ted Bates Advertising Agency
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In 1988, when The Reynolds Tobacco Company brought Joe Camel (who had originally appeared in France during the 1970s) to America for a post-TV (cigarette commercials had long since been banned from television by that time) advertising campaign, it was immediately criticized for allegedly promoting smoking among children, on the theory (often fantasized by ambitious prosecutors of the supposed obscenity found in Omaha or Cherry) that anything done in anything resembling cartoon form is ipso facto being promoted to children (a contention belied by decades of cartoons, even on the most abstrusely non-kid-friendly …

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… topics, that run on newspaper editorial pages). But long before Joe (whom Reynolds finally abandoned in 1992), The Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company had gotten away with using Willie the Kool Penguin to market its brand of menthol cigarettes.

Menthol cigarettes had been present in American commerce since 1924, when Spud Cigarettes were introduced, containing a chemical additive that dulled the sensation (if not the actuality) of hot gases in the mouth. As of 1927, they were being sold under the name "Spud Menthol Cooled Cigarettes". By 1932, they were among America's top five cigarette brands. In 1933, Brown & Williamson got into the act with the brand name "Kool". In '34, the people responsible for promoting their wares, The Ted Bates Advertising Agency, created Willie.

Advertising was a big factor in newspapers and magazines at the time, and of course Willie flourished in those media. But he was also, like Kellog's Snap, Crackle & Pop, the power-generating industry's Reddy Kilowatt, the eponymous soup company's Campbell Kids, and many, many other familiar characters of the time, used in a stunning variety of promotional items. Salt and pepper shakers, ash trays, holders for wooden matches, etc., were only a few of the many uses Willie was put to. As temperature-controlled commercial establishments became popular, a familiar sign near doors of pharmacies, restaurants etc. showed Willie with a cigarette in his mouth, suggesting potential customers come in, because it was "kool" inside. In 1954, back when tobacco ads were still perfectly acceptable on TV, Willie started appearing in television commercials.

Unlike Joe Camel, Willie had an actual impact in media aimed at a juvenile audience. A picture of him wearing a top hat and a monocle is said to have inspired the creation of Batman's villain, The Penguin. More directly, Standard Comics (Supermouse, Jetta of the 21st Century) actually licensed Willie for a comic book title of his own. The name of the cigarette brand was dropped from the title, but for six issues (April, 1951 through April, 1952), Willie the Penguin joined Etta Kett, Freckles & His Friends and other licensed properties at Standard.

Another way Willie differs from Joe is in their modern impact on the American consciousness. Tho he hasn't been in actual use during this century, Joe was at the center of enough controversy to ensure most people have heard of him — in fact, many even have opinions about him.

Willie, however, is as forgotten as a long-unused advertising icon can expect to be. The company stopped using him in 1960, in favor of suggesting coolness with wintry outdoor scenes, and never went back. Kool Cigarettes are marketed to this very day, but it's decades since Willie was used as part of their promotion.


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Text ©2009-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company.