America’s Best Owl Commercials

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.

  1. Wise owl
  2. Nighttime bird
  3. “Who” and other owl vocalizations
  4. Rotating head
  5. Extraordinary sight
  6. Extraordinary hearing
  7. 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 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.

Three Classic Owl Commercials

Advertisers have been flocking to owls to star in their commercials the last few years. Three major advertisers have adopted owls as their spokes-animal: America’s Best Eyeglasses, Trip Advisor and XYZAL. Several others have produced commercials featuring owls or including owls in walk-on roles. I cover these commercials in another post, but in this post let’s look at three classic owl commercials.

Woodsy Owl Commercials

In the late 60s, pollution was becoming a major issue. As he was already a well-respected steward of the environment, Smokey the Bear was a natural choice to be an anti-pollution spokes animal. Unfortunately, Smokey was restricted by federal law to discussing only fire-related issues.

REPORTER: “Smokey, give us your take on whether polluted rivers should be cleaned up.”
SMOKEY: “Sorry, man, no comment. I could lose my job.”

The Forest Service (part of the United States Department of Agriculture) needed a new spokes-animal.

ThinkstockPhotos 678689860 300x264 - Three Classic Owl Commercials
Woodsy’s buddy, the great horned owl, also known as the tiger or the hoot owl, is a large bird native to the Americas. It is an extremely adaptable bird with vast range and is the most widely distributed true owl.

They called on Harold Bell, who had produced their Smokey the Bear public service announcements. Bell brainstormed some concepts with Betty Hite of the Forest Service and a couple of forest rangers, who had worked as technical advisors for the Lassie television series. They thought the new mascot should be a creature you see in both urban and wilderness forests. A raccoon, a bull elk, a rainbow trout and a ladybug were considered.

Why not a bird? An owl would be perfect. They’re birds, they’re wise. In time for Earth Day 1971, they came up with Woodsy Owl, an anthropomorphic rendition of a Great Horned Owl in green trousers, sporting a Robin Hood cap with a feather in it. Woodsy was wise but young and active, too. He didn’t spend all this time perched in a tree, cogitating. He romped with the kids and they could relate to him.

Woodsy Owl’s early commercials stressed picking up litter, stopping vandalism — such as painting on rocks and carving on picnic tables — and reducing noise pollution: “Turn your radio down; that’s noise pollution.” There were cartoon versions and three-dimensional, Muppet versions of Woodsy, which the Forest Service started licensing to educators and environmental groups for a fee.

In Woodsy’s commercials, he skips through forests and cities, lakes and mountains followed by packs of shiny, happy kids, who gleefully collect litter, plant trees and act like little do-gooders, as Woodsy sings:

Help Woodsy spread the word.
Never be a dirty bird.
No matter where you go,
You can let some people know,
Give a hoot don’t pollute.
Never be a dirty bird.
In the city or in the woods,
Keep America lookin’ good.

Woodsy Owl was voiced by several actors, including Sterling Holloway, who also voiced the Winnie the Pooh and by Barry Gordon, the voice of the Nestle Quik bunny and Donatello in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

On Earth Day, 1997, the Forest Service repositioned Woodsy Owl to sharpen his focus on environmentalism. His new slogan was: “Lend a hand, care for the land!” Along with a new message, Woodsy Owl had a new look. He had shed some weight and updated his wardrobe. He was slimmer, and now in addition to his green field pants, he was outfitted in a backpack and hiking boots.

Also, Federal law may have caught up with Woodsy, for the feather in his hat was gone. As Woodsy should have known, it’s illegal in the U.S. to possess the feathers of most owls, according to the Migratory Bird Act of 1918. Of course, Woodsy himself is an owl, but not the humans who wear the licensed Woodsy Owl costumes, and maybe that was the rub.

Wise Ol’ Towel

In this classic owl commercial for Lava Soap, first aired in 1978, a little boy and his older sister enter a bathroom. They begin to wash their hands. The towel hanging in the rack by the sink has a face like an owl wearing eyeglasses. It talks to them.

“Who, Who.”
“Who’s that?” says the girl, brightly. She is not creeped out at all.
“Wise old towel. One of you’s got the wrong soap.”
“Which one?”
“You’ll see.”
The boy washes his hands with Lava soap, the girl uses brand X. They both wipe their hands on Wise Ol’ Towel.
He is not insulted. He is a towel.
“I see,” she says. Her hands are still dirty. She washes them again. This time with Lava.
“Lava, with pumice and creamy lather gets hands clean the first time,” says Towel.

The voice of Wise Ol’ Towel was Don Messick, the voice of Scooby Doo (“Ruh-roh”) and Ranger Smith in the Yogi Bear cartoons.

Over the years, several owners have washed their hands of Lava. Proctor & Gamble acquired Lava Soap in 1927 from William Waltke Company, which invented it in 1893. P&G sold Lava to Block Drugs in 1995. In 1999 Block Drugs sold Lava to its current owner WD-40.

Tootsie Pop Owl Commercials

The most famous owl in any owl commercial ever made is probably the Tootsie Pop Owl. The commercial that seeks to answer the question, “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?!” was first shown on television in 1969. It is such a classic, I’ve transcribed the full dialogue of the 60-second version (there are also 30 second and 15 second versions). One of the things that make this commercial so memorable are the actors who voiced the characters:

The Boy: Buddy Foster, older brother of Jodie Foster. He was 12.
The Cow: Frank Nelson, most famous for his “EEE-Yeeeeeeeeeeesss?” catchphrase, he appeared on many television shows from the 50s to 80s, including The Jack Benny Program, I Love Lucy and The Real McCoys.
Mr. Fox: Paul Frees, best known as the voice of Boris Badenov in The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
Mr. Turtle: Ralph James, best known as the voice of Orson, Mork from Ork’s boss on Mork & Mindy from 1978 to 1982.
The Owl: Paul Winchell, the famous ventriloquist and comedian who appeared on many shows during the 50s and 60s.
The Narrator: Herschel Bernardi, the original voice of Charlie the Tuna.

Boy: Mr. Cow…
Mr. Cow: Yeeeeesss!!?
Boy: How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?!
Mr. Cow: I don’t know, I always end up biting. Ask Mr. Fox, for he’s much cleverer than I.
Boy: Mr. Fox, how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?!!
Mr. Fox: Why don’t you ask Mr. Turtle, for he’s been around a lot longer than I! Me, heheh, I bite!
Boy: Mr. Turtle, how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?
Mr. Turtle: I’ve never even made it without biting. Ask Mr. Owl, for he is the wisest of us all.
Boy: Mr. Owl, how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop!?
Mr. Owl: A good question. Let’s find out. (He takes the Tootsie pop and starts licking) A One… A two-HOO… A tha-three..
(crunch sound effect — he bites the Tootsie pop off the stick)
Mr. Owl: A Three!
Boy: If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a smart owl.
Narrator: How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?
(six different flavors of Tootsie Pops appear, get licked down, then suddenly disappear from theirs sticks accompanied by a crunch sound effect)
Narrator: The world may never know.

The commercial’s creators have done a very effective job of drawing us into its conundrum. The curious boy asks his simple question four times (three times or twice in the shorter versions), “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?!” The question is never satisfactorily answered.

The boy is diverse with his queries. The animals he approaches represent different segments of society.

  • The cow is an average Joe.
  • The fox is a hipster.
  • The turtle is a retiree.
  • The owl is an intellectual.

Not one of them has ever had the self-discipline to actually lick its way to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop. They are all incapable of properly completing this simple task. Bite, they must. All but Mr. Owl admit their weakness though. Why is that? Mr. Owl is supposedly the wisest of them all. Is it pride? Is it cunning? Is it really ignorance?

How Many Licks? The Science is Not Settled

Unless his backstory is someday revealed, the world may never know Mr. Owl’s motivation. Regarding the conundrum at any rate, “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop!?” there have been several scientific and quasi-scientific studies:

  • Students at the University of Cambridge concluded the answer is 3,481 licks.
  • Across the pond, far fewer licks were needed. Student research at The University of Michigan revealed 411 licks.
  • The kids at Purdue used a licking machine to calculate 364 licks; though when student volunteers were used the average licks per student were 252.
  • A student at Swarthmore tested a group that represented fast and slow lickers and came up with a median of 144 licks.
  • A group of real academics at the University of Florida used Tootsie Pops to get a scholoarly paper published about “the effects of biology, corrosion, and mechanical agitation on the wear of Tootsie Roll Pops.” Independent of licking style, the researchers concluded it takes 130 licks with a standard deviation of 29 to get to the Tootsie Roll Center of a Tootsie Pop.

On YouTube, the Tootsie Roll test is shtick for vloggers like Ryan Higa and “Ian is Bored,” who couldn’t complete the task. He had to go to the ER, he said, his mouth hurt so much from licking.

I want to know when Pewdiepie takes up the Tootsie Pop challenge.

Parody Is Homage Gone Sour

I haven’t counted but there might be more “how many licks” tests in YouTube videos than Diet Coke and Mentos experiments. That’s not the only legacy of this commercial, though, which is almost 50 years old. It’s so iconic it has also inspired countless parodies. Two of the most popular jokes revolve around the injustice of Mr. Owl biting the Tootsie Pop and how the little boy doesn’t seem to be wearing any clothes.

In one version the boy simply says what anyone who’s ever watched this commercial has to be thinking. “Are you kidding me? You just bit it. You didn’t even lick it!!”

In another version, the director shouts “Cut. Damn it, Mr. Owl. You’ve got to stop biting the Tootsie Roll. It’s not cute anymore…We’re not trying to see how many times an owl can fuck up a commercial.” Meanwhile the boy asks the director, “Can I put some clothes on now?”

Many of the parodies are quite violent, with the boy shooting the owl after he bites the Tootsie Roll Pop.
In a another version the boy says, “You think this is funny? You just ate my lollipop, you jerk. Let’s see how long it takes a bullet to go through your thick skull.” Then he counts, “a one, a two-HOO, a three.”

Sometimes the “how many licks” question is asked of different animals. The boy asks a pit bull, “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?” The pit bull bites his head off.

Sometimes the boy asks a different question. In one parody, the boy hands a bottle of whiskey to the owl and asks, “Mr. Owl. How many DUIs does it take to become a convicted felon without parole?” “Let’s find out,” says Mr. Owl. He then drunk-drives a car resulting in three at fault injury accidents. From behind bars, Mr. Owl answers, “Three DUIs.”

Some humorists have been inspired to create multiple parodies:

  • Mr. Owl shoots the boy because he always asks the same question
  • Mr. Owl bites the Tootsie Pop, falls dead from his perch and lands on top of the boy
  • Mr. Turtle takes the challenge and bites the Tootsie Pop on the count of one
  • Mr. Owl interrupts the boy and says, “I’ve got a better question, little boy. Where are your clothes?”

When you were a kid yourself, you may have seen this commercial several times a day, every day for several years. In another series of dark, gruesome and often twisted parodies, one of the jokes is a reaction to this repetitiveness. In one segment (at 3:20), after the curious boy poses his “how many licks” question, Mr. Owl cannot contain himself:

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Oh, no, you goddamn kid. What’s wrong with you? I tell you every single fucking day the same answer and you just come back with the same question. What do you want from me? What have I ever done to you? …“
(Mr. Owl grabs the Tootsie Pop and starts licking.)
“One, two, threeeeeeeeeeeeeee. It’s three. It’s always been three, always will be three and never will be anything but three. Slit my throat. I can’t take it anymore.”

“Parody is homage gone sour,” said Brendan Gill. Maybe like a sour green apple Tootsie Pop? My favorite.

No wonder this owl commercial is often included in short lists of the best commercials of all time.

Get Your Clean Stick Award

By the way, you can take the challenge yourself and send your number of licks to Tootsie Roll Industries. According to their website, they will send “a certificate we call ‘The Clean Stick Award,’ to each person who mails in a response to the question of how many licks it takes.”