This Tootsie Pop ad has withstood the test of time

If I have an obsession with my study of advertising it lies in these two areas:

  1. Ads that had an immense impact from a single airing, and
  2. Campaigns that endured and produced results over decades

In the former category, there are ads like MacManus’s “The Penalty of Leadership” for Cadillac. Or Tony Schwartz’s Daisy ad for LBJ.

And in the latter category, there’s the Absolut Vodka print campaign, as well as DeBeer’s “A Diamond Is Forever.”

But perhaps my favorite “Ad that stood the test of time” is this fairy-tale-esque masterpiece for Tootsie Pops:


Ad agency Doner created and aired this commercial in 1969 and it has run, mostly unchanged, for the last 50+ years.

Keep in mind, I’m not talking about a campaign that has run for 50 years, I’m talking about a single ad that still runs to this day and still drives results.

So what’s behind the magic?

Start with Sound Strategy

Let’s start with strategy.

Doner was specifically tasked with creating an ad that would increase consumer’s desire and craving for the product.

So they took a similar approach to Eggo Waffles.

In that they modeled the desired attitudes and behaviors they wanted to see from consumers onscreen.

Tootsie Pop’s differentiator from other lollipops is their Tootsie Roll center.

So Doner’s ad portrayed characters that couldn’t wait to get to that delicious center; they had to bite through the hard candy shell rather than waiting for it to be licked away.

The goal is to seed the idea that everybody bites rather than licks out of a universal desire to get to the chewy Tootsie Roll goodness at the center.

This concept of “showcase the consumer behavior you want to see” really is an amazing strategy that more brands really ought to use.

Burying The Persuasion in the Set-Up

The thing about stories is that your mind is forced into accepting the reality of the story world in order to understand and enjoy the story.

And that goes double for those story-world realities that are established in the opening scenes of the story.

There’s a reason that the opening scene of It’s a Wonderful Life involves two angels talking about George Bailey. Since an angel will play such a pivotal role in the film, Capra wisely chose to establish that story-world reality as immediately as possible.

In a similar fashion, the opening scenes of any James Bond movie always establish the action-fueled, larger-than-life world of the super spy.

And for the Tootsie Pop ad, the story opens with a young boy curious about “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?”

This, of course, begs the question: why doesn’t he already know that if he has a Tootsie Pop in hand?

And the answer is immediately implied by the first animal the boy asks: because it’s too tempting to bite past the hard candy shell rather than lick it away.

Now here’s what makes this magic: the persuasion is buried in the story world’s presuppositions.

Your mind is forced into accepting that of course that boy is too tempted to bite the Tootsie Pop.

If you don’t accept that, the story doesn’t make sense.

And since there’s no “neutral parking” in your mind, as soon as you accept that premise and get sucked into the story, the persuasive power of that mental image goes to work on your subconscious mind.

Choosing Talking Animals to Fable-ize the Story

Imagine how much of the charm of this ad would evaporate if the boy asked other humans for the answer instead of animals?

By having the boy interact with talking animals instead, the ad instantly establishes an Aesop’s Fables-like mise-en-scène.

It creates an atmosphere for imparting age-old, universal lessons, like “sour grapes,” through the interaction of talking animals.

It also allowed Doner to make use of the characteristics that humans already project onto different animals to power the story.

We expect foxes to be clever and owls to be wise.

And those expectations help fuel the plot in which each animal admits their own defeat by the Tootsie Pop temptation, but hopes that a cleverer or wiser animal might not have given in.

Even better, this “fables with animals” approach is further strengthened by the ad’s picture-book style of animation.

Making Use of Mirror Characters to Set (and Upset) Expectations

In keeping with the fairy tale angle of approach, Doner used the technique of mirror characters to set up the viewer for their final pay-off.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term and technique, I have an article that examines mirror characters in depth, but the quick and dirty is that they are a tool for creating contrast for the purposes of comparison between choices, actions, and outcomes.

The first two (foolish or lazy) little pigs create the contrast necessary to understand the third little pig’s wise and sound decision to build with stone rather than straw or sticks.

In the case of the Tootsie Pop ad, it is the first four animals that set up an expectation of contrast for the Owl.

The other animals admit they bite rather than lick their way to the center of the Tootsie Pop.

So the set-up is that the Owl will be different.

And indeed, the owl presumes to be able to withstand the temptation and attempt to experimentally determine the answer to the boy’s question.

The pay-off happens when the owl also gives into temptation but fails to admit it, passing off his “wise owl” answer as “Three Licks.”

So the boy goes away, with just the stick of his Tootsie Pop in hand, ticked off and disappointed.

Leaving the viewer still curious about just how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

And that unanswered question did indeed gnaw at the popular imagination, as proven by multiple scientific studies conducted to actually answer the question.

With the answers ranging from a few hundred to a thousand licks, depending on the University conducting the study and the methods used.

Lessons Learned from this Gold-Standard Ad

While I’m sure you’ll have your own take-aways from this legendary Tootsie Pop ad, my personal lessons-learned are:

1. Sound Strategy and Strong Story-Craft Can Overcome Limited Production and Ad Media Budgets

Now this isn’t an absolute. Having enough money to buy sufficient frequency and reach still matters.

But high impact ads can indeed 10X your results, helping to even the odds when you’re going up against bigger and better-funded competitors.

This was not an expensive ad to produce. No live-action video, special effects, celebrity spokespersons, etc.

And yet it beats the pants off just about any other expensive television ad featuring all those budget-eating features.

2. Never Underestimate the Power of Charm to Fuel Likability and Familiarity for a Product or Brand

An ad or campaign doesn’t necessarily have to be liked to be effective, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Charming, entertaining, and winsome ads go a loooong way towards boosting recall, likability, and sales, almost entirely by those qualities alone.

Add in sound persuasive strategy to the mix, and you’ve got gold, Jerry — Gold!