At right is a publicity image of Mr. Magoo from the 1950s, one of many images and cels from the period that show Magoo with a cigar. In this era of political correctness with self-appointed nannies(1) lobbying to restrict choices and re-write cultural history, it’s increasingly difficult to remember that there was a time when images of people smoking were as common as images of people using cell phones are today. Not only was smoking prevalent in daily life but it was seen in movies, advertising and television shows. Even theatrical cartoon characters could be seen smoking from time to time as their intended audience was adults. UPA's product was the most cosmopolitan of all the animation studios and their keystone character, Mr. Magoo, smoked a cigar. No one thought twice about it as it was part of his character and a visual shorthand to describe his type. When Hank Saperstein took over in 1960 and changed the studio’s direction, UPA began making cartoons expressly for children. Model sheets from that period eliminated Magoo’s ever present cigar as one of his characteristics.
Beyond the idea of a cartoon character smoking, another image which seems to be shocking to modern eyes is the image of a classic cartoon character selling beer, in particular, Mr. Magoo. The airwaves of the 1950s were filled with animated commercials which were often more sophisticated than the live-action competition, and Magoo, being a sophisticated product, was a natural choice for an advertiser. Magoo had the distinct advantage of being a well-known character while the other animated beer salesmen, like Bert and Harry Piels or the Hamms bear which later became advertising icons, had to be built from the ground up. Today, headlines on Youtube proclaim the Magoo beer commercials as being “banned” due to content but the fact is they were never banned but stopped airing when the advertising agency moved to a new campaign. Many people are aware of those ads but it turns out that Mr. Magoo was selling beer even before those spots.
It started in early 1956 when ad agency Foote, Cone and Belding employed Magoo to help sell Rheingold beer, the first time he was used in any advertising campaign. In that era, the market for breweries was mostly regional and Rheingold billed itself as “New York’s beer”. However, the trade announcement for the Mr. Magoo campaign specifically mentions the Southern California market using “TV spot announcements and newspaper ads”. The 60 second commercials were directed by longtime Magoo director Pete Burness and the announcement indicated that there were ten planned for the series. One featured Magoo mistaking the Mojave desert for the seashore while another had him confusing an oil derrick for the Eiffel Tower on a balloon trip to Paris.
|Storyboard from one of the Rheingold spots|
Magoo was a natural to join the list of celebrity Rheingold endorsers: in 1956 alone, the brewery used Dorothy Malone, Victor Borge, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Van Heflin, Cole Porter and James Mason to promote the brand. The print ads for the celebrity endorsements were full page magazine ads; in the Southern California market, Rheingold bought thumbnail sized ads promoting television programs in the TV section of local newspapers. To date, very little has survived from the campaign; above left is one of a series of bar mirror or window stickers from the campaign, above right is one of those tiny ads.
Stag Beer, for the Midwest region in a two year campaign. Although Magoo had recently sold beer for Rheingold, neither company had a national reach, either through distribution or advertising so there was no danger of a conflict with Magoo shilling for two competing brands so closely together. Unlike Rheingold, Stag beer had a bigger advertising footprint, taking out half page ads in Midwest newspapers. The Stag commercials have survived on various vintage commercial compilations while the Rheingold spots have yet to be uncovered. A couple of Stag ads can be viewed here.
As I discussed in my book, the Carling Brewing Company seriously contemplated sponsoring Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol through their Carling Ale division before Timex signed on the dotted line. Timex found their association with Magoo to be even more profitable than Carling and after their stunning success with the first run of the special, ended up being the sole sponsor for another four years.
(1) Activists contend that the mere image of a cartoon character smoking will provoke copycat behavior in children. If so, America should be choking under a cloud of cigarette smoke. For well over 50 years, children viewed images on TV of cartoon characters smoking, primarily in vintage cartoons. Instead of the smoking rate increasing, it decreased by almost 50% from the 1960s to the 1990s, when images of cartoon characters smoking were most prevalent.