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Marketers turn to ‘toons in holiday ads

Playful polar bears. Grouchy gingerbread men. Generous penguins. An under-the-weather Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. These are just a few of the animated characters appearing in holiday TV ads.

The cartoon parade comes as companies try to foster good will – and sales – in the key holiday retail season. Consumers are expected to shell out $474.5 billion in November and December, says the National Retail Federation.

Some of the animated ads are touchy-feely sweet: Penguins give hot coffee to a cold window washer in a Starbucks’ TV spot.

Others have edge: A gingerbread man is annoyed by humans who eat his home in a commercial for AT&T’s prepaid GoPhone.

But they all have the same mission: to stand out from the glut of holiday promotions.

“A lot of parents say the holidays will be a good time to give a phone,” says Daryl Evans, head of advertising for AT&T’s wireless unit. The offbeat cartoon will help AT&T “break out from all the other holiday ads,” he says.

Rival Alltel Wireless had similar thinking. It recreated its live-action TV commercial stars – handsome Alltel spokesman “Chad” and nerdy sales guys representing its wireless rivals – as cartoon caricatures using stop-motion animation. In one ad, Santa consults with Chad on gift ideas.

The Alltel ad’s style creates an “emotional connection” for viewers who recall stop-motion holiday classics such as 1964′s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” says Mark Simon, executive creative director at Alltel agency Campbell-Ewald.

Alltel’s ads may be fun, but making them certainly isn’t child’s play. The process involves frame-by-frame manipulation of figures made of clay or other flexible material.

While a live-action commercial can be done in as few as two weeks, Alltel’s holiday effort took seven weeks.

“The process is pretty laborious,” says Simon. “Even with technological advances, it’s essentially the same process that (was used) for ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’ ”

Some themes from marketers tapping into animation for their holiday ads:

Reviving cultural icons. Aflac re-created characters from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for a TV spot. The insurance company’s ad agency, The Kaplan Thaler Group, licensed the rights to images such as Rudolph, Hermey the Elf and The Abominable Snow Monster. Their twist on the idea: The Aflac duck leads Santa’s sleigh.

Coca-Cola’s holiday polar bears are back. This year, it is reprising the ad first aired in 2005 in which the animated bear family joins a group of partying penguins.

“Animating “real” people. Like Alltel, teen clothier American Eagle Outfitters turned humans into caricatures for online promotions. Animated versions of TV celebrities, such as “Friday Night Lights”‘ Adrianne Palicki and “Heroes”‘ Milo Ventimiglia, star in holiday-themed webisodes at ae.com/77e.

Sweet, sincere characters. Starbucks’ Pass the Cheer campaign shows animated humans and anthropomorphic animals spreading good will. In one TV spot, a man gives a chilly reindeer a cup of coffee. In another, a woman gives a brown bear a big bear hug.

Characters with grit. When a gingerbread boy in the AT&T ad says he wants a GoPhone, his dad replies, “Well, I want people to stop eating my house, but that ain’t gonna happen.” Then the father adds, “I’m just yanking your chain, son,” and tosses him a GoPhone.

Former “Saturday Night Live” star Norm Macdonald is the voice for the son, and actor Steve Buscemi (“The Sopranos”) is the dad.

“We didn’t want to go the expected route,” says Susan Credle, executive creative director at AT&T ad agency BBDO New York.

She believes the ad stands out because viewers think, “Wow, I wouldn’t have expected AT&T to go there.”

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