In this episode, the guys chat about the incredible legacy of Fred Rogers and how every time people tried to use his likeness or intellectual property for branding purposes it never ended well. Nico plays a guessing game with Chad that goes way beyond winners of an EGOT.

Burger King: Mister Rodney

Here is Mister Rogers in the first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood:

Here is ‘Mister Rodney’ in Burger King’s 1984 commercial for their flame-broiled burgers:  

Parodies aren’t uncommon in marketing. While it’s not unheard of for a parody to cross the line and be offensive enough that it gets taken down, it doesn’t happen that often. Burger King’s 1984 ‘Mister Rodney’ ad is one of those parodies that got taken down – but not for being offensive. To understand why it was taken down, it might help if we know more about Fred McFeely Rogers.

Mister Rogers – A Brief Overview
Rogers earned his bachelor’s degree in music, worked in children’s television for a few years, returned to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in divinity, and became a Presbyterian minister before attending the University of Pittsburgh‘s Graduate School of Child Development. Rogers was not only educated on child development but he also began his 30-year long collaboration with child psychologist Margaret McFarland. From there, he was able to begin developing children’s shows that had value. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ran for 33 years from 1968-2001. More than just childrens’ entertainment, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was critically acclaimed for focusing on children’s emotional and physical concerns, such as death, sibling rivalry, school enrollment, and divorce.

Why Burger King Dropped the Commercial
Or it’s half the reason. The other half is kindness. In the spring of 1984, Rogers started to receive “countless” phone calls from parents complaining about the commercial. Having seen the ad himself and taken issue with it, Fred Rogers contacted the Senior Vice President of Burger King, Don Dempsey. Many people who take offense to being parodied cite libel or copyright infringement, or lack of royalties.  But not Fred Rogers. He said, “To have someone who looks like me doing a commercial is very confusing for children.”
Rogers didn’t threaten Burger King with any legal action. He simply called them and politely asked them to stop running the commercial. Rogers explained that “It’s a real testimony to what fine things can occur when people of goodwill can talk to each other.” No lawyers. No mess. No fuss. Just gentle, kind conversation. That’s the Mister Rogers way.

Target and Mister Rogers

A decade after his death, the Fred Rogers Company licensed “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the theme song from Mister Rogers Neighborhood, to Target in 2013.  2013 Target ad. 

 William Isler, president of Fred Rogers Co, told The Globe and Mail  “when we were first approached by Target, we immediately felt very comfortable with the respect they had for Fred and his legacy. That is paramount to us.”

Like Burger King in 1984, it’s easy to understand why Target would want to use Rogers in their marketing. But why would the Fred Rogers Company license out the legacy of a man who was so outspoken in his stance against commercialization?  

Google and Mister Rogers
In 2018, Google launched an ad for the Google Pixel 3. Unlike the Target ad from five years earlier, rather than using a cover of one of Rogers’ songs, in Google’s commercial Rogers’s own voice can be heard talking and singing about wonder. It seems there are two ways to view the ad:

The first being that in Google’s defense, Mister Rogers always tried to instill a sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity in his audience members and Google hoped to do the same with the Pixel 3. 

The second is that Rogers was also very clearly, explicitly, and publicly against not just advertisements aimed at children, but his voice and image being used to advertise to children.  Suzanne Masri, marketing and communications director for Fred Rogers Productions,  confirmed that FRP, which holds the publishing rights to Mr. Rogers’ catalog of music, agreed to license “Did You Know?” to Google. She said, “We wouldn’t ordinarily, but we felt it was tastefully done,” and pointed to how Mr. Rogers featured technology on the “Neighborhood,” including a computer. Masri did not disclose how much Google paid for use of the vocal track in the ad.

What Can We Learn?

  • Honesty is the best policy: Mister Rogers was known for honesty and transparency with his viewers. Advertising is commonly perceived as or assumed to be manipulative and motivated solely by profit. Sell your core competency but always be honest when you advertise. Transparency with consumers denotes trustworthiness, a valuable characteristic to own. 
  • Don’t just entertain, create value: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood focused on creating authentic value for the viewer, not just entertainment.
  • Consent from endorsements: how can a person’s image or voice be effectively used to push a product in a commercial when part of their legacy was how anti-comercial they were?
  • Kindness goes a long way

We speak about:

[03:35] Mister Rodney
[07:00] Why does the commercial feel wrong?
[08:20] Who is Mister Rogers – a brief overview
[15:20] Target and Mr. Rogers
[19:30] Google Pixel 3 Ad
[21:35] What can we learn?

Episode Script Writer: Grace Wall
Research Analyst: Gertruda Gilyte

Episode mentioned: EP15: The Tactic That Shouldn’t Be Used


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