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Television advertisers go in with the old

By dusting off icons from Buddy Lee to Charlie the Tuna, companies are subtly pitching durability.

With Hollywood churning out remakes of classic films and television shows, it only follows that Madison Avenue would dig into its archives for pitches that also tap into feelings of nostalgia.

And in dusting off icons from yesteryear _ some dating from the dawn of television _ advertisers are sending subtle messages to consumers that their decades-old brands are durable and authentic.

Indeed, Mr. Whipple, Buddy Lee and other quirky characters now emerging from retirement may be more valuable to their corporate handlers the second-time around. In a marketplace cluttered with barely distinguishable products, an icon already familiar to a generation of TV viewers can help set a brand apart.

"Everyone is fighting for brand position," said Mikio Osaki, advertising department chair at Art Center College of Design. "You can create something new, but that is costly and time-consuming. Or you can reprise what you have."

There's no guarantee, of course, that old ad pitches will click with today's consumers. So advertisers are tweaking vintage campaigns: Star-Kist Food Inc.'s Charlie the Tuna, for example, has a thinner waistline, befitting a food touted as healthful. Green Giant's Jolly Green Giant is back with a sense of humor.

And store clerk Mr. Whipple _ played by actor Dick Wilson, now 14 years older than when he stopped pitching Charmin in 1985 _ no longer squeezes the Procter & Gamble Co. bath tissue, as he did in the original campaign that spanned 21 years.

"If we duplicated what we did before, it wouldn't have any life to it," said Sherry Nemmers, creative director for P&G's advertising agency, New York-based D'Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles. And the message about Charmin has moved beyond softness to strength, she said. "The campaign has evolved."

Before bringing Mr. Whipple out of mothballs, P&G did research to be sure he would be accepted by consumers, some of whom were in grade school when the character retreated from the airwaves. A survey showed 90 percent of adults remembered the finicky grocer.

The updated ads, which started airing in July, work Mr. Whipple's comeback into the story line, showing him abandoning fellow retirees on the golf course to hawk Charmin, whose market share has stagnated.

Advertisers said the timing is right for relaunching old campaigns. As the century nears an end, consumers look back with fondness on symbols that from the vantage of the 1990s represent a simpler time, they said. And with the steady influx of companies and technologies unheard of only a few years ago, consumers trying to keep pace with change welcome icons that seem familiar.

"We are moving into the end of the century, and there are so many things that are coming at us that are new and different and untried," Nemmers said. "In that situation, it is really great to see something that is comfortable and familiar."

Besides polishing old icons, advertisers are reviving slogans. PaineWebber Inc. last November brought back its "Thank you, PaineWebber," used from 1975 to 1987. Kraft Inc.'s Maxwell House is boasting, as it first did in 1959, that its coffee is "good to the last drop." Television ads blend images of 1990s coffee drinkers with an old-fashioned percolator. In ads for the 2000 model Impala, General Motors Corp. has revived its 1950s jingle, "See the USA in your Chevrolet," to highlight the pleasure of driving.

Updating icons can be tricky. Aware that young consumers were not familiar with Buddy Lee, Lee Jeans Co. produced two 3-minute videos that aired on Comedy Central and E! to introduce the cherub-faced doll, which adorned shop windows in the 1920s. In the film, Buddy is portrayed as a spunky survivor of a thresher machine accident, who, like film character Forrest Gump, randomly turns up at historical events. The intent is to show young consumers skeptical about advertising that Lee is an authentic and enduring brand.

In the case of KFC, its icon _ founder and longtime pitchman Harland Sanders _ died in 1980. KFC attempted to resurrect the enigmatic Sanders in 1994 using a look-alike, but consumers didn't warm to the acting double.

In October, after reviewing 500 drawings and nearly as many voices, KFC tried again with an animated Colonel _ as Sanders called himself. Careful to avoid creating a second clone, KFC allowed the cartoon Colonel to spout youthful expressions and dunk baskets, while keeping Sanders' trademark drawl, white suit and string tie. KFC credits the whimsical caricature with helping to boost sales by 4 percent when it debuted last fall.

"An icon puts a friendly face on things and gives a product character," said Jim Morton, co-author of a 1996 book about advertising icons. "If you like the icon, you're more likely to trust the product and buy it."

For KFC, a unit of Tricon Global Restaurants Inc., the Colonel serves two purposes. It reminds consumers that KFC has a long history in the fried chicken business and strengthens the chain's image in a category that already has powerful icons, such as Wendy International Inc.'s Dave Thomas and Tricon unit Taco Bell's chihuahua, the company said.

"The take-away is (that) KFC does chicken right because everything has his imprint on it," said Chris Grabenstein, a creative director at Young & Rubicam in New York, KFC's advertising agency.

For a brand that has lost its edge, vintage advertising isn't a magic bullet. The picture is mixed at Lee Jeans, a unit of VF Corp. While Buddy Lee regularly receives fan mail from consumers, Lee's market share has declined slightly this year, in part because young adults shun the department stores with which Lee does a good chunk of business.

And Philip Morris Cos. Inc.'s Miller Brewing Co. last month replaced the advertising agency for Miller Lite because commercials patterned after its successful "taste great, less filling" campaign from the early 1970s didn't improve sales. Observers said the remake, which centered on a debate over ingredients and how they affected taste, didn't engage consumers.