Original medium: Advertising Spokestoon
Speaking for: The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association
First Appeared: 1950
Creator: Andrew McLay
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By the 1950s, cigarettes were being advertised with Willie the Kool Penguin. Canned soup was being advertised with The Campbell Kids. Snack food was being advertised with Mr. Peanut. Frozen vegetables were being advertised with The Jolly Green Giant. And power delivered via pipe or wire was being advertised with Katie Kord, Handy Heat, Miss Flame and of course, Reddy Kilowatt. With the …

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… advent of TV advertising, the trend accelerated — that was the decade that saw the introduction of Fresh-Up Freddie, Ronald McDonald, Tony the Tiger and any number of other familiar advertising spokestoons.

But there was discord in the corporate spokestoon section of the animation industry. Reddy Kilowatt purported to represent the electric power industry, through licensing by Alabama Power Company, where he'd started in 1926. But some power companies were excluded from using him, specifically forbidden to participate by creator-of-record Ashton B. Collins, who considered consumer-owned power co-ops a form of socialism, and refused to do business with them.

Power co-ops came into being in the 1930s. Investor-owned power companies had wired up most of the lucrative urban areas, but sparsely-populated farming areas were largely without electricity. Co-ops were formed by neighbors getting together and arranging to generate their own. They often depended on government loans, which led to Collins's low opinion of them

But the demand for the service was there. Farmers knew electrical machinery could do much of the work of a farm's hired hand; and in many ways, a "wired hand" was more efficient and reliable than a human. In 1950, designer Andrew McLay, working for The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, came up with Willie as a way to represent electricity to farmers might be in the dark about the benefits of electrifying their operations. He was visiting William S. Roberts, editor of the trade magazine Rural Electrification, at the time — October 30, 1950. The representative of electrical power was originally called "Willie the Wired Hand," but by the time NRECA officially adopted him (February, 1952), he was Willie Wiredhand.

Willie's body consisted of a conglomeration of inanimate objects designed to suggest electrical power — which was also true of Reddy Kilowatt. The designs were very different, but based on the same idea, electricity personified as a servant of humans. But Reddy's owners took the point of view that only he was entitled to depict electricity that way. Over 100 power companies sued for copyright violation. It was part of an ongoing campaign waged by for-profit power companies against the non-profit associations.

Willie prevailed in court, but not without a fight. The companies didn't give up until January 7, 1957, when The U.S. District Court of Appeals decisively ruled that no such violation existed. In the process, testimony was given of the power companies' use of intimidation and harassment in suppressing such independent spokestoons as New Orleans Public Service's "Mr. Watt-a-Worker", Boston Edison's "Eddie Edison" and Bradford Electric's "Mr. Watts-His-Name".

Since then, Willie's been right up there with Charlie Tuna, Chiquita Banana and Aunt Jemima — representing his product not only on flyers, billboards and television, but also in an array of commercial products such as matchbooks, coffee mugs and Christmas tree ornaments.


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Text ©2011 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Centaur Comics