Leo Burnett (October 21, 1891 – June 7, 1971) was an advertising executive famous for creating such icons as the Jolly Green Giant, the Marlboro Man, Toucan Sam, Charlie the Tuna, Morris the Cat, the Pillsbury Doughboy, the 7up “Spot”, and Tony the Tiger.
In 1935, he created his own agency in Chicago, which is now known as Leo Burnett Worldwide. He was inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame in 1961, and retired in 1967.
Burnett followed Walter Lippman’s philosophy of creating an image around the product. Until his time, advertising centered on long text descriptions of the product, with detailed arguments as to why it was better than competing products. Burnett concentrated on style, creating icons as a symbol of the product. He stressed that the creator of an ad needed to somehow capture and reflect what he called the “inherent drama” of the product.
One of his most important uses of internal corporate symbols were the red apples placed on every receptionist’s desk. Any visitor or employee was free to take one. This stemmed from a prediction from a Chicago newspaper columnist that Leo would fail miserably in his agency launch in 1935, made in the depths of the Great Depression, and would soon be on the street selling apples instead. Upon reading those words, Leo vowed to give away apples instead.
Another important internal symbol Leo Burnett created was an icon of a ‘hand reaching for the stars’, which he explained with the saying, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either”.
A third symbol was the “black pencil”, an Alpha 245 of the type commonly used by Burnett in his lifetime. To Burnett it symbolised a commitment to the warmth and humanity of ideas, and to the work of the people who create them.
Burnett’s use of the animation medium to sell products was slyly given a nod in the anime series Pokémon. Disguised as muffled backwards dialogue, the character James of Team Rocket, is heard mumbling a line in the grip of a Pokémon’s mouth. The line is “Leo Burnett and 4Kids are the devil, Leo Burnett!”, mocking both Leo’s introduction of animated commercialism, and 4Kids (who are known for upsetting fans with poor anime dubbing), which promotes the Nintendo games of the same title.