A Beatnik Tuna (Fish)

[8 September 2009]

By Chris Justice

Advertising guru Tom Rogers created Charlie the Tuna in 1961, and the ocean-dwelling beatnik eventually starred in more than 80 commercials during the ‘60s and ‘70s. He also re-emerged in the late ‘90s in Starkist ads designed to promote healthier tuna products and will be highlighted in Starkists’ most recent effort – the Think Tuna campaign – which will feature flavorful pouches of tuna and emphasize the nutritional aspects of the fish: its low fat, high-protein, and mineral- and vitamin-rich meat. The campaign is reportedly designed to focus on busy contemporary families and will feature Charlie’s return to television for the first time in more than a decade.

Rogers’ beatnik friend Henry Nemo, also an actor and musician, inspired the creation of Charlie, who in commercials with his red beret and horn-rimmed glasses adamantly believed his hip, cool persona demonstrated his “good taste”. However, another sea creature – another fish, electric eel, etc. – was usually beside Charlie to remind him that he’s confused; a hook with a note that politely stated “Sorry Charlie” rejected him, and the narrator chimed in to explain. That note became a popular national catchphrase expressed to convey a “Thanks, but no thanks” attitude.

Why was Charlie so often rejected? Enter the advertising campaign’s main point: Starkist wanted tuna that tasted good, not tuna with good taste.

And what did Charlie do to demonstrate his good taste? In one commercial he “rearranged the rocks” to show his interior decorator, an octopus, his good taste. In another, he planned to race thoroughbred horses and lassoed a seahorse. And in yet another, he made “art” by spray painting a canvas and shooting it with a slingshot.

Interestingly, those verbal exchanges between Charlie, the other sea creatures, and the narrator are ripe with connotative cultural critiques. The ad’s pun is an homage to the Beat generation’s playfulness and experimentation with language. Here “taste” assumes two radically different meanings, and it’s the beatnik fish that’s on the semantical fringe. Also, the commercial rejects the artsy lifestyle that so many countercultures represent. Underlying the entire commercial is a sense that The Mainstream is “dissing” its outsiders, but Charlie wants in.

Charlie’s origins are tangled in some controversy. According to one legend surrounding his creation, Maila Nurmi, the legendary horror icon known as Vampira, once claimed that Hollywood god James Dean sketched the tuna while in a Los Angeles coffee shop six years prior to the tuna’s emergence in Starkist commercials. However, there’s little evidence to support her claim, and Rogers has generally received full credit for his creation.

Pop culture landmarks punctuated Rogers’ career path. According to the article, “Charlie the Tuna Creator Tom Rogers Dies” (Joe Holley, The Washington Post, 8 July 2005), in the early ‘50s, the Minnesota-native worked for a local advertising agency, and one of his first assignments was to assist with the production of a radio show featuring the Minneapolis Lakers’s superstar center George Mikan. In 1960, Leo Burnett Co. hired Rogers, which was the company that eventually established adverting giants such as Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro Man, and the Jolly Green Giant. Besides Charlie, Rogers also helped create Morris the Cat and the Keebler elves. Ironically, 44 years after creating the legendary fish, Rogers drowned in his family’s pool in 2005.

Even NFL fans know about Charlie. NFL icon, inevitable Hall of Famer, and former Giants, Patriots, Jets, and Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells, who is now the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Miami Dolphins, is notoriously known as “The Big Tuna”, a moniker he earned early in his career. When his players tried to lure him to an all-you-can-eat Thanksgiving dinner (at a restaurant that didn’t exist), the portly Parcells replied, “Who do you think I am? Charlie the Tuna?,” referring to the fish’s innocent gullibility. Parcells has been known as The Big Tuna ever since.

Charlie wasn’t perfect, however, and neither was Starkist: the company has received its share of criticism over the years. Some was for using fishing nets that accidentally trapped dolphins; another recent criticism involved exemptions from minimum wage increases due to loopholes in US tax laws that once exempted companies in American Somoa from adhering to minimum wage mandates. Many Starkist canneries are located in American Somoa.

Arguably its most notorious gaffe occurred in 1985. “Tunagate” implicated Canada’s Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, John Fraser, and ultimately Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who allowed millions of cans of rancid Starkist tuna, declared by inspectors as unfit for human consumption, to be sold in stores (“The tainted Star-Kist tuna scandal”, CBC Digital Archives, 17 September 1985). This criticism inevitably brought more attention to Charlie and Starkist’s unsophisticated ecological messaging.

In many commercials it states, “only good tasting tuna get to be Starkist” as if tuna choose to be captured, processed, canned, and eaten by Starkist. Another commercial reveals Charlie selfishly re-channeling the electricity from an electric eel to illuminate a neon sign that proclaims “Charlie’s Got Good Taste”, a reminder that Starkist might do anything to promote itself, regardless of the impact on other sea creatures. Many environmentalists argue to this day that dolphins are still endangered by tuna harvesting practices.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny Charlie’s hip vibe and determination, two qualities that have helped make Starkist one of the leading seafood producers in the United States. Not only did Charlie make Starkist tuna fish popular, but he made fish in general seem misunderstood, artful, and well… kinda cool.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/110305-charlie-who-charlie-the-tuna/