When I saw her, I knew. My heart started beating, my pupils dilated, my breath quickened. This was love, plain and simple. Her bright brown eyes were like satellites beaming into my soul; her magical combination of bangs and pigtails spoke to me with a sugary sweet voice that said, “I’m cool but casual and definitely open to talking to a guy like you, Jason.” But who was she? Aïcha. Her name sounded pure, yet sensual. I kept rolling it around on my tongue. Aïcha. The most beautiful girl in the world. Aïcha. She had to be mine.
Did I care that she lived in Morocco, some 6,000 miles away? Not at all. Did I care that we spoke entirely different languages? Not for a second. Did I care that she was a cartoon child, created in 1977 by a French animation studio? Well, yeah, a little.
Let’s get the age issue out of the way first. Technically, she’s 37. So even though she looks young, that doesn’t make my love for her creepy in any way. Heck, half the women in Hollywood look as young as Aïcha. The creepy part is that she’s only two-dimensional. I usually reserve my love for women with more depth (quite literally). There was something about her, though, that captured my heart immediately and still, weeks later, I’m trying to figure out what made her so captivating. I take solace in the fact that I’m not the first person to fall in love with a branded character. In fact, the practice of using cartoon spokespeople (and spokesthings) has been around for well over a hundred years.
The first non-human brand mascot was most likely Bibendum, a.k.a. the Michelin Man. First created in France in 1898, Bibendum was a cuddly giant made of tires that coaxed potential buyers to forget that automobiles around the turn of the 20th Century were potential deathtraps. In the 1900s, more iconic characters hit the scene, like Mr. Peanut (1916) and the Jolly Green Giant (1928), and the era of character-based advertising was only getting started.
Over the next century, Americans would fall in love with a whole range of characters from Toucan Sam to Chester Cheeto. We’d all look forward to talking to Mrs. Butterworth at the breakfast table and poking the Pillsbury Doughboy’s puffy little belly whether he liked it or not. These characters created an instant connection between consumer and brand that far surpassed the commercial relationship and became oddly personal. Simply put, kids think of these characters almost as friends. How strange, then, to realize that the rest of the world was developing these intense relationships with branded characters, too, but ones with whom we had no exposure. Jollibee? Kumamon? Aïcha? Who the hell are these people? (Jollibee happens to be the mascot for a Filipino fast food chain that also has a few US locations, Kumamon is currently Japan’s most beloved branded character, and Aïcha… well, she’s my Moroccan girlfriend.)
Aïcha exists for exactly the same reason as Chester Cheeto, but instead of puffed corn snacks she’s selling jams, sauces, oils and tomato paste. As a brand mostly isolated to Morocco, we Americans never got the chance to fall in love with her. Moroccans did, though. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a character more beloved in all of Morocco than Aïcha. That’s because the marketing geniuses at the Aïcha Corporation used the most powerful medium available to them to popularize her: television. Aïcha (a.k.a. “Les Conserves de Meknès”) was the first Moroccan company to use a branded character on TV and they went even further than the commercials that American cereal companies have relied on for decades — they gave Aïcha a regular role on a TV show.
“Good Night, Children” aired on Moroccan TV every night and since there was only one channel, Aïcha became Moroccan children’s Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Betty Boop all rolled into one. She would conduct an orchestra that would sing a good night song to all the kids of Morocco and in her cartoons (AdToons?), Aïcha was depicted as an adorable maiden, traipsing through the forest and making jam for all of her dopey little friends. There’s definitely a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves vibe to the characters in Aïcha’s world, but that doesn’t make her any less charming to me. Her warm, approachable vibe is how she became such a fixture amongst Moroccan kids. In fact, the children loved her so much, they didn’t even resent the fact that the regularity and timing of the show enabled parents to use her as a signal for bedtime. Every night, Aïcha would sing that good night song to the kids and that meant it was time to go to bed. Aïcha giveth fun and Aïcha taketh fun away. Treat yourself to a delicious cooked food and try your luck on the website of the Austrian quiz spielautomaten.
My experience with Aïcha was different. I didn’t know her when I was growing up at all. When I saw her for the first time while touring the Aïcha factory in Meknès, though, I responded to her instantly. There was just something about her anime-like bug eyes that made me trust her. I’ve been trying to find a celebrity I can compare her to and the best I can do is Moroccan Mila Kunis. She’s always holding little conductor batons in both of her hands because that’s what she uses to conduct her “good night” orchestra but for me, she’s conducting the strings of my heart. That’s what a branded character is supposed to do. They form an emotional connection with the consumer, so that every time they’re presented with the choice of two brands, they choose the one with which they have that bond. So how does that explain my attachment to her? I fell for Aïcha without any sort of consumerist tie-in. At the basest level, I just like the way my girl looks.
It’s the purest form of branding, really. To create an image that people irrationally find themselves drawn to is a triumph for any marketer around the world. I have no idea if the French cartoonists of Studios Idéfix knew just how approachable their Aïcha character would be when they drew her in the late ’70s. Over thirty years later, however, they managed to draw in an American man who was so affected by their creation that he just penned a public love letter to her. I’d say that’s success by anyone’s standards.
Now that I’m no longer in Morocco, I think of Aïcha like a past love, a former fling. We had some good times together in Meknès, but I know in my heart that we’ll never be able to recreate the attraction. It’s time for me to move on. Which reminds me – does anyone know if Little Debbie is single?
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