Owl commercials have been around a long time. At least since 1969, when Tootsie Roll’s Mr. Owl first tried to answer the question, “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop.”
Whether Mr. Owl was really wise or a fraud taking advantage of a curious but naïve little boy is not clear. But we can be sure of one thing. Mr. Owl got the part because owls are supposed to be wise.
The wise owl is a trope. Let me define trope. A trope is any recognizable character, plot, setting or other dramatic device. Tropes repeat a characteristic or pattern of behavior or occurrence we’ve seen or read before and recognize as such. A movie chase scene, a spouse who dislikes their mother-in-law, deliberately going down to the cellar in a horror film — all tropes. If a trope becomes too predictable we call it a cliché. The wise owl is probably a cliché but let’s be charitable.
The wise owl trope is important. It’s the main hook for advertisers like America’s Best Eyeglasses, Trip Advisor and XYZAL. We’re going to look at their owl commercials in a minute.
But the wise owl trope isn’t the only owl trope in commercials. Especially not in the last few years, with so many more owl commercials on television.
Why so many more owl commercials? Partly because owls are just more prominent in the culture. We see owls in music videos by Drake and Justin Bieber, in the Harry Potter movies and on television shows like Parks and Rec, Archer and Family Guy. There are even non-documentary movies starring owls like “Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.”
A few years ago someone posted a forum comment with a list of well over a dozen instances of owls he had recently spotted on television, which he said was a small fraction of what he had managed to jot down. The frequency of owl sightings has probably increased since then.
When you make owl commercials these days, you need to appreciate that audiences are more sophisticated. They just know more. This is good because as comedian Del Close says, “the more you know, the more you can make fun of.”
How many owl tropes can you spot in an owl commercial? After watching a couple of dozen recent owl commercials I counted at least seven.
- Wise owl
- Nighttime bird
- “Who” and other owl vocalizations
- Rotating head
- Extraordinary sight
- Extraordinary hearing
- Spooky owl
In a commercial for the GMC Terrain SLE-1, an owl turns its head 90 degrees as the voiceover says the truck has a rear vision camera. (Rotating head trope)
Often tropes are combined. The Cracker Barrel Campfire Meals commercial shows a campfire by a lake in a woodsy setting. As a large human hand picks up a match, strikes it and lights the campfire, we’re surprised to learn we’re looking at a picture. The owl in the picture registers its surprise, too, by spinning its head 360 degrees a couple of times. (nighttime bird and rotating head tropes.)
At the end of a Simply Orange commercial (“Plant Tour”) emphasizing how Simply Orange is not made from concentrate, just natural oranges, an owl, “the night watchman” of the orchard, we’re told, says, “Who, who, who.” (Nighttime bird and Who tropes)
The “who” trope is very popular. GEICO uses it in one of its “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance” non-sequiturs. “Did you know some owls aren’t that wise?” a woman asks her husband after seeing a GEICO billboard. Scene shifts to a couple of owls talking:
Female Owl: Don’t forget I’m having lunch with Megan tomorrow.
Male Owl: Who?
Female Owl: Megan, my coworker.
Male Owl: Who?
Female Owl: Seriously, you met her like three times.
Male Owl: Who?
Female owl sighs.
(Wise Owl and Who tropes)
A real-life couple, Jordan Peele (MADtv) and Chelsea Peretti (Brooklyn Nine-nine), wants a perfect wedding destination. They use Booking.com and consider getting married in a yurt on a sandy beach. Their fantasy is interrupted when they see an owl in the yurt puffing itself up, probably to frighten away possible predators. ( Spooky owl trope)
The Spooky owl trope is new, so maybe it’s not really a trope yet. As people learn more about owls, maybe more owl behaviors will become tropes, such as how owls need to eat about 20% of their own body weight per day. Or how Pygmy owls have false eyes in the back of their heads to deceive predators. Or how most owls don’t build their own nests, they use nests built by woodpeckers and others. Or how female owls are usually bigger than males. So many new jokes await viewers of the future.
There may be more owl tropes today, but the anchor trope, the wise owl trope, is essential. It’s why advertisers like America’s Best Eyeglasses, Trip Advisor and XYZAL have owls as their spokes-animal.
America’s Best Owl
When America’s Best Eyeglasses introduced their new owl icon in 2015, “we wanted to show the personality of the brand in a way that was both endearing and enduring,” said Dale Hruby, principal of The Richards Group, which created the ad campaign for America’s Best.
The running gag is that the America’s Best Eyeglasses owl is a pretty hip bird. He’s an authority on getting the best deal when buying eyeglasses and he knows all the owl jokes. He — it’s a he, the owl is played by Chris Fries (“Want Fries with that?” is his slogan for pitching VO gigs) — either sets up the humans for the joke or cracks it himself with his droll sense of humor.
In “Who,” a man carrying groceries is told by the eyeglass-wearing owl that he paid too much for his glasses.
“Who?” asks the man.
“You. You paid too much.”
“Practically everyone. Unless you shopped at America’s Best.”
“America’s Best, where two pairs of glasses and a free eye exam are just $69.95.”
“Yeah, that’s American’s Best.”
“Just keep up,” says the owl.
It’s a nice reversal of roles with the man saying “who” instead of the owl.
In “Air Optix Colors,” the “Who” trope is reversed in another way. The owl answers the man’s questions with all the interrogatives except “who:”
Finally, the man says, “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s funny,” says the owl.
In “Stop It,” the owl talks to a woman on park bench. When she starts getting a little too cute with all her “who’s” and “too’s,” he tells her to “stop it.”
In “Turn Heads,” it’s the “Who” joke again at first. He tells a woman (Cyrina Fiallo who plays “Vonnie” on Good Luck Charlie) sitting at a table that she paid too much for her designer glasses. Then the eye-glass wearing owl spins his head in a full rotation. Each time his head does a rotation he’s wearing a different pair of designer frames.
When the owl says “Get ready to…,” the woman cuts him off with what she thinks he’s going to say. “Turn some heads?” she asks, triumphantly. “Save money,” says the owl. He’s still the clever one.
In “So Cute,” the a woman he’s talking to screams “so cute.” She’s a little tweaked up from too much coffee. The owl reminds her that owls have sensitive hearing.
They’re clever ads, but I have a question. Why does an owl need to wear glasses? An owl’s vision is about ten times better than a human’s.
Nigel, the XYZAL Owl
Like the America’s Best owl, the XYZAL owl seems to be troubled by poor vision. He wears a monocle. Maybe that’s why these two owls are working in commercials instead of hunting voles and other rodents.
The XYZAL owl is an animated version of what looks like a Great Horned Owl with polished British manners. We find him in a softly lit, richly paneled study full of books. It may be his home or his club. He is definitely the kind of anthropomorphic owl who would belong to a gentleman’s club. He wears a smoking jacket and a bow tie and speaks BBC English (voiced by William John Austin).
As baroque music plays in the background, Nigel stands on his brown leather club chair and tells us how allergy sufferers should try XYZAL because it “may help with itchy nose, throat and eyes as well as sneezing. . . . It’s original prescription strength with no prescription needed. So, for continuous allergy relief, be wise all, take XYZAL.”
David Hulin created XYZAL’s Nigel the Owl. Hulin has done design work for several well-known brand icons, including Speedy Alka Seltzer, Teddy Grahams Bear and the GEICO Gecko. On his website, Hulin shows the acting and character references he used and sketches he made to create Nigel.
Providing the inspiration for Nigel were Orson Welles, Sean Connery, Pierce Bronson, Richard Harris, Tom Wilkinson and Ernest Hemingway, among others. But the main inspiration for Nigel was the actor who portrayed “The most interesting man in the world” for the Dos Equis commercials, Jonathan Goldsmith. Yes, Nigel is supposed to be “the most interesting owl in the world.”
Maybe in future ads, we’ll hear strange factoids about Nigel, such as:
- If Harry Potter gave him a letter to deliver, it would arrive before Harry gave it to him.
- He is so wise, if the Buddha met him on the road he would invite him to lunch.
- He once rode a duck in Boston. Or was it a swan? Probably both. At the same time.
- If a butterfly flaps its wings in New Mexico, he will hear it in China.
- He never says anything tastes like voles, not even voles.
- He can say “Who” in 186 languages.
- He once twisted his head continuously in one direction so many times, it took three hours for it to unwind to its starting position.
He is the most interesting owl in the world.
“I don’t always suffer from allergies, but when I do, I prefer XYZAL. Stay medicated, my friends.”
Nigel’s writers can get inspiration here:
Ollie, the Trip Advisor Owl
Ollie the Owl was inspired a couple of years ago by the owl in Trip Advisor’s logo. Ollie looks like an Elf Owl, the smallest North American owl, which are about six inches tall at most, with a wingspan of about 13 inches. He gesticulates with his wings (right wing mostly) and speaks with a posh English accent.
In the three commercials I’ve seen, Ollie always wears a robe. What is it with these English-accented owls who are always in their lounging apparel? Trip Advisor, which was founded in 2003, sees Ollie as a foil to Travelocity’s Roaming Gnome.
If you don’t know, the Roaming Gnome has an interesting backstory. A few years ago people thought it was a clever prank to steal their neighbor’s garden gnome and carry it to faraway places, then send the neighbor a photo with a note from the gnome. “Hi, having a grand time at the Great Wall of China. Hugs and kisses.”
Wacky humor tends be a keynote of the Roaming Gnome Travelocity commercials. Ollie the owl’s humor is more restrained. He likes puns and rhymes. Trip Advisor avoids the owl tropes for the most part. Choosing an owl is itself a trope of course. But don’t miss the “whooo” sound effect in all the ads. They start and end with it.
In “Safe Bet” Ollie stands inside a hotel safe. He wears his bathrobe and tells us finding the best hotel price is a “safe bet” with Trip Advisor. He urges viewers to find the hotel you want and “lock it in.”
In “A Price That Fits,” Ollie, still in his bathrobe, is getting fitted for a suit. He recommends Trip Advisor to find a hotel that “fits your budget.”
There are no puns in “This Bird’s Words.” While lounging in his bathrobe, of course, Ollie just explains how people can search for the perfect deal on Trip Advisor. “Trust this bird’s words,“ he tells us, which is a clever rhyme, I guess. He thinks so anyway.
Sometimes an Owl is Just an Owl
Not all owl commercials depend on tropes. Sometimes a director will include an owl for the sake of just being an owl. In car commercials, like those for Lexus and Kia Sorento, owls in the trees along the road enhance the romance of driving a new car.
In a very funny Verizon commercial, a man is standing in his yard with his arms stretched out trying to get birds to land on him. His wife is sitting indoors faced away from him counting her Verizon points. As a dove lands on one arm, suddenly several more birds including an owl land on both arms. “You’re a big guy,” he says to the owl. Then a giant hawk picks him up and carries him off.