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.
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:
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’s that?” says the girl, brightly. She is not creeped out at all.
“Wise old towel. One of you’s got the wrong soap.”
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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDwpNenln5E.
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!!” https://youtu.be/jYwKC4V_jRI
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?” https://youtu.be/oz0-ri9waBo
Many of the parodies are quite violent, with the boy shooting the owl after he bites the Tootsie Roll Pop. https://youtu.be/OJpau0DVulU
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.” https://youtu.be/ZB1Qt22-UN0
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. https://youtu.be/1th7o5DVDgg
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.” https://youtu.be/yAmDFtKlgBw
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?” https://youtu.be/pTO1Mn2gNE4
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:
(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.” https://youtu.be/36NWy9Z3vuY
“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.”