When did commericials start featuring recurring characters and overarching storylines.

I was thinking about this watching football on Sunday. A lot of commercials these days feature long running story lines with a cast of characters. I’m not talking about spokepersons or mascots. I’m talking about things like the Progressive commercials.

For example, there’s a commercial where the Progressive “crew” all goes to Jamie’s house to discover he’s super rich and has a beautiful wife. You would never get the “joke” behind the ad unless you had seen all the previous ones that show Jamie being the loser of the group.

In the US, I think it was Taster’s Choice in 1992.



Country crock spread had a hand-sy thing for awhile.

The pre curser to the above, also a Nestle brand, was the serialised campaign for Gold Blend instant coffee, a love story which ran in the UK from 1987 to 93.

The final episode was watched by 30 million people, well over half the population at the time.

Mr Whipple?

Or maybe the “Time to make the doughnuts” guy?

Oh, oh. The manacurist and the Palmolive dish liquid.

The Trix Rabbit is working toward a goal, man.

I thought mascots didn’t qualify. But if they do, then Captain Crunch had a continuity.

For live humans as opposed to cartoon characters or people only providing voices we have Mr. Whipple, Palmolive Marge, and the Maytag repairman started in the 60s.

Before all of them though was Ronald McDonald, played by Willard Scott in the DC area starting in 1959. This version wasn’t an official corporate character through. He was later played by many people over time as the official McDonald’s spokesman, and by multiple people appearing personally at any one time, but only one person at a time played him commercials. Because of the inconsistency of the character he may not count as the oldest such character.

The Marlboro Man was in print media before that, not sure when he appeared in commercials, and he was played by several different men over time. I don’t know if the character ever had any lines.

At that, consider the GEICO Cavemen: as soon as the first commercial set up the idea by having a guy storm off, it didn’t matter whether he was one of the offended cavemen in a followup commercial: he could be, but didn’t have to be, either the guy who ordered the roast duck with mango salsa or the guy who doesn’t have much of an appetite (any of whom could’ve then been the guy who spends commercial after commercial talking with his therapist; but that guy could also have been a new character, since what’s doing all the work there is the continuing premise).

These were the first I thought of, along with Mrs. Olsen from Folgers Coffee. The Palmolive spokesperson was Madge - a family member with the same name got a lot of teasing because of those ads.

I’ll note that most of the examples of spokespeople / mascots that have been suggested really don’t meet the OP’s question – the OP is also noting that the Progressive ads are buiding on what had been established about the various characters in those ads in previous ads. Most of the examples given (like Mr. Whipple, Madge, etc.) are essentially the same character, with the same quirks / storyline, used again and again over time. Once you’ve seen that character / campaign once, you “get it,” and most of those campaigns didn’t really build on earlier ads as they progressed.

I don’t know that I’d go as far as to say that the Progressive ads have “an overarching storyline,” in the way that the old Taster’s Choice campaign did, though they clearly do build on what has gotten established over time about those characters:

  • Jamie is a dork and a bit of a loser
  • Janice is Flo’s highly apathetic sister
  • The two guys in the suits work for another insurance company, and they’re obsessed with Flo and Progressive

I agree with your point. There was little progression of the stories with most characters. However, Ronald McDonald has a storyline that extends into McDonaldland and other characters, along with real life activities.

Right, Madge, not Marge. As a kid when I first saw one of these (and I’m old so that’s a loooong time ago) I thought her name was Marge because I’d never heard of anyone called Madge, sounded like a mistake to me.

I remember an article in the 60’s that said “Who are the most memorable celebrities? Mr Whipple and Madge top the list. You may be annoyed by them, you may hate them, but you remember them.”

My favorite all time Progressive character is Flo’s sister. Always looking at her phone.

The Man From GLAD and Mr. Whipple seem to have posed up around the same time. They’re the first two I remember.

Since everyone seems to be missing your point, let me ask - when Jamie is helping the single mom with the two kids (You’re not my dad!), is he just supposed to be helping her with her insurance, or is he supposed to be dating her? And if so, are we supposed to have forgotten he has a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife? And I may ask myself, how did he get here?

Yeah, that’s more what I’m getting at. Another example might be the Bud Knight. Started with a simple joke (Dilly Dilly!) and now has expanded into a whole medieval storyline.

He’s not dating her just helping with insurance. The mom tries to interrupt to explain, but he just launches into the whole thing like he the step-dad. Same as it ever was.

He’s so obsessed with insurance that he assumes that insurance agents are supposed to have a relationship with the entire family and that now that the mother is using Progressive, the children must get used to the fact that he’s there in place some previous agent. (Time isn’t holding us, Time isn’t after us)