A new marketing campaign for StubHub, the ticket-resale website, stars a 25-foot-high animatronic talking tree with tickets as leaves. In commercials, the tree, known as the "Ticket Oak," lives in a suburban backyard and doles out tickets to neighbors.
It is quite a departure from StubHub's last ad campaign, which showed people dreaming about getting a ticket to a concert or a big game. But with the Ticket Oak character, StubHub hopes to make a splash on Facebook and other media.
StubHub, a unit of eBay Inc., EBAY +2.20% is just one of a number of marketers that have turned to characters—both live action and animated—to help sell their products in the past year. Hormel Foods Corp. HRL +0.81% now has a little cartoon knight named Sir Can A-Lot. Diageo DEO +1.99% PLC launched an ad campaign for its Captain Morgan rum last May that starred a live-action Captain character. It is the first time the character has appeared in TV ads, although the rum's label has long included a drawing of the pirate.
Ad executives say consumers on Facebook are more likely to bond with a character than the traditional company page on the social-media website.
"Consumers are less likely to have a conversation with a logo or a PR guy on social media," said Jeff Charney, chief marketing officer for auto insurer Progressive Corp. PGR +1.14% Since 2008, Progressive's TV ads have centered on a perky sales clerk named Flo, who touts the insurer's rates. She now has 3.5 million fans on Facebook, where she posts comments about new Progressive products.
Characters also offer a softer way to sell a product, which is important on social media where executives fear that blatant selling or promotion can turn people off.
"You can put fairly bald product benefits into the mouth of a mascot and it doesn't come off as hard sell," said Parker Channon, partner at Duncan/Channon, a San Francisco ad firm that crafted the StubHub pitch.
The use of characters to personify corporate brands first became popular in the 1950s, when companies such as Kellogg Co. K +0.86% and Maytag introduced figures such as Tony the Tiger and the Maytag Repairman into their ads.
Over the past decade the approach fell out of favor, particularly with younger creative executives who were eager to push ad strategies they considered more sophisticated. While it never disappeared altogether, the need to find ways to engage with consumers on Facebook or Twitter has given the concept a new impetus.
Kraft Foods Inc. KFT +0.73% recently began an ad push, crafted by ad firm Droga5, for MilkBite centered on Mel, a talking granola bar. The product's website is Mel's Facebook page where the mascot deals with his identity crisis: Unlike other granola bars, he is made partly of milk. In between, Mel reminds consumers to pick up some MilkBites.
Companies that have had success using ad characters including Geico Corp. with its popular talking Gecko and Procter & Gamble Co., PG -0.13% which saw sales of Old Spice body wash jump when the brand began featuring a comically loquacious, shirtless manly man. The character, played by Isaiah Mustafa, became wildly popular on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Progressive says it has had year after year increases in policies sold since the Flo campaign started in 2008. Several months ago, the insurer introduced a new character, "the Messenger," meant to portray the typical insurance customer. The Messenger so far has accumulated about 14,600 fans on Facebook, where he posts about ways to save money.
Maintaining a character often requires hiring staffers dedicated to keeping the mascot relevant. For Captain Morgan, Diageo has a team of eight people at its New York ad firm, Anomaly, who devise the pirate's daily chatter topics on Facebook.
The agency hired a 26-year-old man, who has a background in comedy, to be the official voice of the Captain. He spouts off drink recipes; shares photos of the Captain at parties; and offers up weekend partying tips.
StubHub said it doesn't have a marketing budget to create a Twitter account for Ticket Oak so for now it is creating only a Facebook page for the character. "We are still looking at Twitter but it's a 24/7 medium that needs dedicated resources," says Michael Lattig, StubHub's head of brand.
Some older characters are learning new Internet tricks. Aflac Inc.'s AFL +1.42% well-known duck has been around for 12 years, but two years ago the duck got a Facebook page and started tweeting. The duck has 313,500 fans on Facebook and 14,537 followers on Twitter.
Even some aging mascots are getting a new lease on life, thanks to Facebook. Last year, P&G launched a Facebook page for Mr. Clean, a brand icon created in 1957. The muscular, tanned, bald character, who has long appeared in ads, has amassed almost 280,000 Facebook fans.
"Our strategy has been not to put things like coupons and promotions" on Facebook, said Mark Renshaw, chief innovation officer at Leo Burnett, the Chicago ad firm that helped put Mr. Clean on the social-networking site. Burnett, a unit of Publicis Groupe SA, PUB.FR +2.30% has created many of most well-know ad icons including the Tony the Tiger, Jolly Green Giant and the Pillsbury Doughboy.
A recent post from Mr. Clean said: "It is the first day of spring, which means Spring Cleaning is just around the corner. Personally, I think Spring Cleaning should be a national holiday. Who's with me?" The post drew 72 comments and 774 "likes."