The GI Joe comic book is probably the best known case study of a brand partnering with a comic publisher for content marketing. First published in 1982, the popular Marvel comic was part of a deliberate marketing strategy by toy manufacturer Hasbro to help relaunch the line of action figures. But GI Joe was far from the first.
Wall’s Ice Cream beat Hasbro by over thirty years, with the weekly Tommy Walls comic strip that ran in the popular Eagle comic between 1950 and 1954. Tommy Walls, the Wonder Boy, also serves as a fantastic example of how good native advertising can be.
I’ve collected both US and UK comics most of my life, with examples of both famous and long-forgotten titles going back over a hundred years catalogued neatly in folders. So I was already very familiar with Tommy Walls, having become a fan of 1950s Eagle comics as a teenager. But familiarity can sometimes blind us. It was only when I tried to come up with some new and less obvious pre-internet examples of content marketing for a recent workshop that I had the forehead-slapping moment of realising there was a fantastic and fun example right next to me on the shelf.
In 1950, Wall’s Ice Cream partnered with Hulton Press, a magazine publisher preparing to launch a brand new weekly comic; Eagle. Hulton had never published a comic before, previously known for titles such as Farmers Weekly and Leader Magazine. This might be why the publisher was more open to branded content than other comic publishers (most of whom had already turned down Eagle when the proposal was shopped around in 1949). Magazine advertorials were nothing new, so why not use the same approach in comics? Marcus Morris, the editor, knew this was an innovation, and the deal was only agreed after a lot of market research and negotiation. However, Morris knew the high quality comic was an expensive gamble. This deal meant Wall’s would pay for the space and the entire production of one page of comic strip adventure, helping reduce costs without reducing the number of comic pages.
The first issue of Eagle went on sale on April 8th, 1950 (cover dated 14 April 1950). The new comic was a sell-out, partly thanks to the front cover adventures of a new kind of space hero – Dan Dare. Only eight of the comic’s twenty pages were in full colour, and one of those was dedicated to the adventures of Tommy Walls. The character appeared throughout the early golden years of the comic, finally exiting the lineup in 1954. Eagle continued until 1969 and is still fondly remembered and celebrated as one of the greatest comics of all time.
“Thanks to the Magic ‘W’ – and Wall’s”
Tommy Walls combined product placement with childhood fantasy. By forming the magic W symbol with his fingers, Tommy could fly, exhibit super strength, and whatever else was needed to apprehend bank robbers or rescue experimental airplanes. Naturally, Tommy always credited his powers to Wall’s Ice Cream.
After a few years, the superhero elements faded, to be replaced by multi-episode adventures with more detailed plots. Tommy and his friends would assist Sir Gerald of the British secret service to defeat the nation’s (not always politically correct) enemies. The second page reproduced here is a perfect example, while still demonstrating how the brand could be squeezed into the storyline as a helpful Wall’s van driver uses a random ice cream fact to prove Tommy’s sanity – an extra bit of branded education for the reader.
Wall’s and Eagle never attempted to hide that this was marketing. The full page comic strip always carried the legend “advertising announcement” above the Tommy Walls masthead and the product placement was clear enough to make the brand’s agenda obvious. The target readership (10-15 year olds) were certainly old enough to recognise that they were being marketed to. But who cares if the content is actually good? (It’s actually very corny, but it’s fun.)
I’m sure no child reading the comic genuinely believed he or she could gain super powers or catch spies by licking a raspberry ripple and sticking some fingers in the air. But the fantasy was fun. It, no doubt, lead to more than a few Wall’s Ice Cream purchases, each one eaten with a healthy topping of imagination. Wall’s was the only ice cream that promised adventure.
For the more classically educated among you, this is also a classic example of ethos, with a healthy scoop of decorum. Ethos is one of the three appeals of rhetoric, tapping into the interests of the audience and being likeable enough to warrant attention. Decorum is the adaptation of the message, language and presentation to suit the time, place and sensibilities of the audience – surely the core goal of content marketing and, especially, native advertising.
One of the Boys
Frank Hampson, the award-winning Dan Dare creator and artist, illustrated the first six episodes. This is the comic equivalent of Orwell writing your blog posts or Coppola shooting your YouTube videos. Hampson was succeeded by a number of other leading Eagle artists, including Harold Johns (who also worked on Dan Dare), John Worsley (PC49) and Richard Jennings (Storm Nelson).
This is an important point. Unlike a lot of native advertising today, this content wasn’t produced by the brand or its content or advertising agency, supplied to the publisher to fill a paid slot. It doesn’t try to copy the house style; it is the house style. The whole strategy relied on the comic strip receiving the same creative process and production values as any other page in the comic. As a result, Tommy Walls is listed alongside all of the other Eagle characters in any documented history of the comic. He was as much an Eagle character as Dan Dare, Harris Tweed, PC49, Riders of the Range or Luck of the Legion. Not many advertising features can claim that!
Good content marketing is that which the target audience actually chooses to read. While other full page adverts might attract a moment’s attention as the reader flicked the page to the next adventure strip, Tommy Walls WAS that adventure strip. Now that’s native advertising!