Tale of the Tiger

Chicago advertising giant Leo Burnett was a man of maxims. Here’s one: “We have no pride of authorship here. Nobody knows for sure who produced which of our ads.” What was he thinking?

Pride of authorship is a force not quite as strong as hunger. What’s the point of whatever you did in life if the credit goes somewhere else?

In Danville, California, a retired adman suffers. The credit that cascaded Don Tennant’s way last month when Tennant, a former exec at the Leo Burnett agency, died in Los Angeles demonstrated to Jack Tolzien, now 82, that the campaign he’s waged since 1976 has not been won. The industry does not remember him as the creator of Tony the Tiger.

“The pinnacle of his career was creating Tony the Tiger, one of the most celebrated and successful icons in the history of our industry,” said an in-house memo to Burnett employees eulogizing Tennant, who’d joined the agency in 1950 as its first full-time radio and TV writer-producer. Advertising Age mourned, “He was the creative director on many of the early campaigns for Marlboro cigarettes, and in 1952 he created the ‘Tony the Tiger’ character for Kellogg’s Co.’s Frosted Flakes cereal.”

This was the third time, by Tolzien’s count, that Advertising Age got it wrong. In 1976 it had run an obit giving the credit for Tony to Gene Kolkey, who succeeded Tolzien as a Leo Burnett art director in 1953, soon after Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes were launched nationally. Tolzien wrote Advertising Age to set the record straight, and the trade paper ran a correction.

In 1985 he wrote Advertising Age again about an article that named Tennant as Tony’s creator. “Don was not even on the account at the time I created the tiger concept,” protested Tolzien.

Now he must hope yet again to correct the record. He’s written Advertising Age. He’s written the Leo Burnett agency: “I gave both Burnett and Kellogg a great symbol. I am frankly both astonished and hurt by the grossly misplaced creative credit Burnett has been giving out to the press.” He’s written Kellogg’s. He’s written the Associated Press. After spotting a crawl line that announced the death of Tony the Tiger’s creator, he even wrote CNN. “It was like a slap in the face to me,” he told the network. “Not once, but twice, my finest hour has been blatantly stolen from me. I’m too old to take such treatment with grace.”

Tony the Tiger isn’t the only famous icon the obits have attributed to Don Tennant. The AP said he’d also created the Marlboro Man. Bloomberg News added the Pillsbury Doughboy. According to an Advertising Age ranking, the Marlboro Man is the most successful icon of the century. The Pillsbury Doughboy was listed sixth, Tony the Tiger ninth. If all three sprang from the brow of one man, that man was an advertising genius. Because posterity can’t afford to make mistakes about who the geniuses were, retired Burnett execs who’d never heard of Jack Tolzien were nevertheless troubled by the tributes. They discussed signing a letter to Advertising Age. One old Burnett hand called me.

Trying to sort out the truth, I came across an Advertising Age Web site that listed history’s great ad campaigns. It told me, “Tony’s original designer, children’s book illustrator Martin Provensen, first created an orange cat with black stripes and a blue nose who walked on all fours.” The site also honored the giants of the biz. Here it said that in 1935 Leo Burnett opened an agency “that spawned a distinctive ‘Chicago school,’ i.e., sentimental ads drawn from heartland-rooted values. He created such evocative icons as the Jolly Green Giant, Pillsbury Doughboy, Charlie the Tuna and Tony the Tiger.”

So in one place or another, Advertising Age was telling us that Tony the Tiger had been created by Tennant, or by Provensen, or by Burnett himself. To make the matter even more confusing, the Chicago illustrator Marilou Wise died a few days after Tennant, and the Sun-Times obit remembered her as the “commercial artist who created the Tony the Tiger cereal cartoon.”

“Nobody else was involved,” Tolzien says. He remembers the Kellogg’s account executive notifying him in late 1952 that the company had a new cereal coming on the market and that it was up to Burnett to create an image for it. “It took me about two months of fooling around, but finally the tiger symbol jelled in my mind. I named him Tony, and to give him more meaning, I gave him the line ‘They’re gr-r-reat!'”

Tolzien says he drew some preliminary sketches himself, then sent an art rep named Jack Kapes out east to sign up Golden Books illustrators Alice and Martin Provensen to create a finished Tony. “Poor Jack came back and said, ‘We can’t use them,'” says Tolzien. “Our deadline was so tight they couldn’t deliver on time. So we used an artist named Phoebe Moore in Chicago. I think Phoebe did the first Tony for $350. It’s almost comical, it’s such a reasonable price for such a symbol.”

The first ad appeared in 1953 in a daily paper in Miami, where Frosted Flakes were being test-marketed. The next ad helped launch the national rollout. It ran in Life. But then Tolzien quit over money, which he figures made it easy for the agency to forget all about him.

“Burnett’s not backing me up,” he grumbles. “I gave them this great icon they got all this mileage out of, and they’ve continued to ignore me. You can imagine my exasperation.” Though the Provensens soon took over the cereal box illustrating, by Tolzien’s account neither they, Burnett, nor Tennant brought Tony the Tiger into being. It’s clear that Marilou Wise didn’t either. Her friend Garnet Fay tells me he gave the Sun-Times biographical information that the paper misunderstood. “Marilou was an artist who drew Tony the Tiger,” says Fay. “Her studio contracted with Leo Burnett. She also worked on Snap, Crackle, and Pop and a lot of other recognizable artwork. I did not mean to convey she was the creator in terms of the idea. She did claim to create Diggum the Frog, which is a lesser personality in that world.”

The odd thing is that other Burnett alums agree that Tony the Tiger was the one icon Tennant probably deserved full credit for. Hal Weinstein, who joined Leo Burnett in the late 50s and became executive creative director, says Tennant did the crucial deed: he turned a tiger on a cereal box into an animated TV commercial star.

Actually, Weinstein isn’t certain. He remembers that after the first round of commercials the Frosted Flakes account passed from Tennant to another TV guy named Bob Noel. “Bob was sensational at giving personality to characters,” he says. “He invented TV’s Jolly Green Giant and TV’s Keebler Elves.” Was it Noel or Tennant who a half century ago turned a drawing of a tiger into a personality? Weinstein says this mystery boils down to these two questions: Who hired Thurl Ravenscroft to be the voice of Tony the Tiger? And who penned the immortal line “They’re gr-r-reat!”?

Noel, now retired, says it was Tennant: “He designed the character. Of all the stuff listed in his obit, his claim to Tony is the most legitimate.” And Ravenscroft, who’s in his 90s, remembers Tennant sending him a drawing, a script, and a description of a “very lovable, warm character.” Ravenscroft says, “I came up with the ‘Gr-r-reat!’ and 50 years later I’m still doing it. I’m retired except for Tony. And they just told me that this year I’m going to be busier than ever.”

But Tolzien insists his written “Gr-r-reat!” preceded Tennant’s scripted “Gr-r-reat!” immortalized by Ravenscroft’s boffo delivery. Tolzien backs up his claim by pointing to the “Gr-r-reat!” on what he says is a copy of the original Life advertisement.

“It sounds pretty authoritative to me,” says Weinstein, who joined Leo Burnett after Tolzien left and had never heard of him. Other alums are more skeptical. They offer still more names from the ranks of the long gone and nearly forgotten who’d been proposed over the years as Tony the Tiger’s creator. I was told that even art rep Jack Kapes once built a home he called “the house that Tony the Tiger built.”

What about Tennant and those other icons?

“He had nothing to do with the Pillsbury Doughboy,” says Bob Noel. “Don worked on the Pillsbury Doughboy, but Rudy [Perz] wrote the Doughboy. It was his idea, and he wrote it. The Marlboro Man was a creation of the print department to begin with, and Don, I believe, wrote the television commercials. The idea of having a masculine Marlboro Man with tattoos and all that stuff was done by print. I think it was largely Leo.”

That’s right, says Weinstein. “Don had almost nothing to do with the Pillsbury Doughboy. The Pillsbury Doughboy was created almost single-handedly by Rudy Perz. Don was a terrific songwriter, and he wrote the song that says ‘Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven’ because the Doughboy was already a success and Don wanted to contribute, so to speak.” Weinstein also credits Tennant with the jingle “You get a lot to like with a Marlboro. Filter, flavor, flip-top box.” But the campaign itself–the tattoos, the cowboys, the branding–that was Leo Burnett’s vision. “He said, ‘We have to make this a man’s cigarette. Here’s a picture of a cowboy. You can’t be any more manly than that.'”

Rudy Perz on the Pillsbury Doughboy: “I created the concept. Somebody else designed it. The boy popping out of the dough was mine. I’m not an expert on Tony the Tiger.”

Perz understands that in advertising, authorship is elusive. He asked me, “Do you remember the line ‘When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer’? Hal Tillson, the media director, was at lunch, sitting at a bar, having a beer, when two guys next to him ordered a couple of Budweisers. And one of them says, ‘Boy, when you’re out of Bud you’re out of beer.’ Tillson overheard it. Where do ideas come from? Many of them from anyone, anywhere, anytime. And somehow when they’re successful you find a lot of fathers.”

No one’s accusing Tennant of blowing smoke while he lived. It’s simply that an LA PR firm hired by Tennant’s sons turned out a press release that enthusiastically listed just about every memorable ad campaign Tennant so much as breathed on (and once he became the agency’s creative chief he breathed on all of them). Then the obit writers–who would always rather stress their subjects’ singular brilliance than their collaborative skills–did the rest.

An old Burnett hand dropped Weinstein a note that said, “I never once knew him to take credit for something he didn’t do.” Weinstein accepts that. Nevertheless, it was Weinstein who decided to correct the record with a letter to Advertising Age. He called Bob Noel and Rudy Perz and talked it over. “I advised him not to do it,” says Noel. “Just let it alone. Who gives a damn.”

Weinstein started the letter but gave it up. “It comes off as petty,” he says, “and it comes off as complicated when you try to apportion credit. Your readers will say, ‘Why all this fuss? Who cares?'”

Old admen do. Here’s one reason why. Weinstein says that in the wake of Burnett’s staggering triumph with Marlboro, he coveted a cigarette of his own. So Burnett assigned him another Philip Morris account, and a group he led came up with Virginia Slims. “It was such a success that in its first year it made more money for Philip Morris than the entire Leo Burnett company made. In three years or so it made Philip Morris enough money to buy 7-Up.

“The power of advertising is just enormous,” Weinstein goes on. “When you say Frosted Flakes with Tony the Tiger made Kellogg’s a lot of money, I think it’s probably incalculable. I think it’s probably closer to hundreds of millions of dollars than tens of millions.”

News Bites

The euro is forcing the nation’s copydesks to make a hard choice. The obvious plural is euros, but the European Union prefers simply euro, though this spelling, its Web site (europa.eu.int) acknowledges, “may be seen as departing from usual English practice for currencies.” Euro is also the official plural in Danish, German, Italian, Dutch, and Swedish, yet it’s euros in Spanish, French, and Portuguese and euroa in Finnish. This should put the kibosh on the notion that the new money is imposing brute uniformity on the continent.

One big question remains. In many Western European countries where the distinction applies, the local currency–the peseta, the lira, the mark, though not the franc–is a feminine noun. But euro is everywhere masculine. What’s the story? Who’s been caught napping?

My last column described the crisis faced by National Writers Union members in Chicago and elsewhere now that their health insurance provider, Employers Mutual, has gone into receivership. But at least NWU members in Chicago have the option of switching to the much more expensive Aetna. A reader E-mailed me to say that in California, where most of the affected writers live, that choice doesn’t exist. And she asked, “How’d you like to be asked for $600 for a quarterly renewal premium this month for a plan that might never pay your claims?”

The same column also commented on a new Sun-Times editorial page feature, “What the ‘experts’ said,” where the paper sneers at anyone who ever doubted that the campaign in Afghanistan would be anything but a smashing victory. Here’s an excellent example from back on September 17: “Much more doubtful is whether such a strike would root out the terrorists, while it costs this country global support and sympathy now professed all over the world.”

But don’t expect the Sun-Times to snicker at this worrywart. He’s Robert Novak, its own prized syndicated columnist.