Willie the Penguin: The Story Behind the Iconic Mascot of Kool Cigarettes

Since 1933, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company’s Kool cigarettes have been many smokers menthol cigarette of choice. For years, the brand was represented by the mascot “Willie the Kool Penguin”. He appeared in all manner of media, from print ads to television commercials to merchandise and even small images stamped right on Kool cigarettes. The advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, Inc., in charge of marketing Kool cigarettes when they were first being developed, reportedly considered a few different cold-climate creatures before finally settling on the iconic Kool penguin. It seems they also discussed seals and walruses as well, though the penguin had the greatest support. An image of three penguins first appeared in an ad for Kool cigarettes in December, 1933. By 1934, the more exaggerated cartoon penguin Willie began to be featured in their ads.

For roughly the next 25 years, Willie was to feature as the mascot for Kool cigarettes. He went through a few different image changes over the years, from the more realistic original designs to a more fanciful formal look. This second incarnation of the iconic mascot featured a top hat, bow tie and monocle. Both of these were short-lived, quickly being replaced with the more animated looking cartoon penguin in 1934. The mascot went through a few different minor color changes over the next few years, and was officially named “Willie the Penguin” in 1947, before being changed to a simpler looking cartoon penguin around the late 50s.

The iconic mascot helped to lend the cigarettes an image of being “cool” and “fresh”, showing the penguin in a variety of fanciful arctic scenes in order to suggest Kool cigarettes’ mentholated flavor.  Kool cigarettes used the mascot’s image of wide variety of memorabilia and promotions, including issuing a famous set of salt and pepper shakers and for a sign on the door of air-conditioned businesses (in order to show that it was “cool” inside the establishment).

Various images of Willie the penguin appeared on the back of packs of Kool cigarettes along with a rhyming slogan describing the strong flavor of Kool. He also appeared in number of black-and-white animated television commercials in the 50s, before being replaced in the 60s with live-action television commercials. Beginning in 2000, Kool cigarettes went through their most recent image change, this time changing their slogan to “The House of Menthol” in order to associate Kool cigarettes with house music and young, “cool” club culture.

Though Kool cigarettes no longer use their most famous mascot, numerous collectors of Kool cigarettes memorabilia and vintage commercials fans still enjoy Willie the Penguin.

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