Advertising icons are an important part of our cultural lexicon. The use of advertising mascots is centuries old, with itinerant peddlers and established merchants occasionally illustrating their carts or shops with colorful characters. The advent of mass production led to a host of brand ambassadors in the early twentieth century that still appear today, including Planters’ Mr. Peanut (1918), the Minnesota Valley Canning’s Jolly Green Giant (1928), and Borden’s Elsie the Cow (1936). During the post-war television age, advertisers launched an unprecedented variety of mascots to distinguish their products and provide someone or something with which to identify. Presenting and preserving these icons in a digital format not only allows us the chance to revisit the times and history associated with them, but also creates the opportunity to further our knowledge and understanding of their impact, expand access and public engagement to those who are not familiar with their history, and preserve the cultural record for the near and distant future.
Through Mr. O'Keefe's long career in mass media and promotion, he became familiar with and gained affection for the numerous mascots and icons used to create commercials. His collection started with receiving gifts from clients and colleagues but grew larger when he started to add items that he found in his work and travels and the collection is now 300+ items and still growing. The collection is currently displayed where the advertising program is housed. While these items are accessible to the students and faculty in the program, the collection is not easily accessible for anyone who is not part of that group.
In Mr. O'Keefe's words:
"The collection started 30 years ago as a small shrine to some of the advertising icons I grew up with in Detroit, including Big Boy and Little Caesars. I started a shelf for these in an advertising agency I owned, and soon, my wife Cristy and I began to expand the collection.”
"Cristy ran a small collectibles business at the time, so she spent every weekend at estate sales, auctions, and yard sales. This gave her exposure to a lot of wonderful advertising icons. People I knew also started to give me icons as gifts, so over time, the collection became quite large.”
"As the collection grew, we started to spend more time in pursuit of rare items. These include some of my favorites, like McGregor’s “Happy Foot,” a large store display of a foot with a face on it, which made a disturbing icon for a sock company. And the Charlie the Tuna lamp, a gift from a coworker, has always been a favorite. I also love the “Little Raj” which was a gift from a student from India.”
"When the new VCU Brandcenter building was built, our director asked if we’d consider moving the collection to the school. We did so, and it has been on display ever since.”
"While the collection has grown over the years, my all-time favorite character remains my very first one, the Big Boy. I now own several versions of this icon, including a 7-foot tall version that remains at my home. It reminds me of times in my youth when we would go to Big Boy for a burger or a snack. Digitizing these images and making them accessible to all can provide a valuable resource for researchers interested in the history of advertising and brands, but we hope the collection also brings a moment of joy to those who use it. We all have our favorites, and it’s fun to reminisce about times when we ran to the TV to see people like Snap, Crackle, and Pop entertain us."
The photographs were taken by Brandcenter employee PJ Sykes.