“We’re looking for teens and young adults and young-at-heart adults,” she added, “who are interested in being a part of something different.”
Beginning this week, the White Castle restaurant chain is introducing a campaign that features members of the animated cast of “Family Guy” like Stewie and Brian. There will be cups bearing likenesses of the characters, posters in stores and radio commercials by JWT, part of the WPP Group.
“Our brand is quirky,” Ms. Bartley said, “not a brand like Burger King or McDonald’s.”
That made the agreement to use the “Family Guy” cast for the campaign “a good fit,” she added.
The trend on Madison Avenue to develop ads with cartoon characters that not so long ago would have had their anthropomorphic mouths washed out with soap is fairly recent. The concept gained popularity with “The Simpsons,” accelerated with “South Park” and continues with the dysfunctional Griffins from “Family Guy,” which along with “The Simpsons” is part of the Sunday night lineup on Fox Broadcasting, part of the News Corporation. “The Simpsons” is probably the mildest of the three, with “South Park” at the other extreme.
Hiring rude, crude ’toons instead of warm and fuzzy animated characters “goes with the times,” said Ira Mayer, president and publisher at The Licensing Letter, a newsletter in New York owned by EPM Communications.
“Edginess is acceptable,” Mr. Mayer said, particularly in appealing to teenagers. He offered as an example the fact that girls are wearing T-shirts in public with provocative slogans “that 10 years ago girls never would have worn.”
As unusual as it may be to license animated misfits for ads and merchandise, Mr. Mayer said, “with a cartoon character you still have a certain level of control and can control the offensiveness.” With an actor or a rock star, on the other hand, you take your chances, he said.
The Subway chain of sandwich shops used Peter Griffin — a working-class guy with a New England accent — in a campaign at the end of last year that included television commercials and signs in stores.
The ads promoted a new menu item, the Subway Feast, that would appeal to the character if he were real, because it is “a large sandwich with lots of meat,” said Tony Pace, chief marketing officer at the marketing arm of Subway in Milford, Conn., known as the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust.
“Peter’s a good representation of the people who are interested in the Feast,” Mr. Pace said, and “Family Guy” is a show “that appeals to that target audience.”
Still, there was “definitely a cadre of folks who thought it was a little controversial,” he added, particularly “some customers and some people in our system who were not big fans of being involved with it at all.”
So Subway and its national agency, MMB, which was involved in the campaign, were careful in development to make sure that “relative to the content of the show, it was pretty tame,” Mr. Pace said.
For instance, of the half-dozen scripts that were considered for the commercials, “four we couldn’t use,” he added, laughing, because “we’re still a family restaurant.”
“Peter was a bit of entertainment to get people to pay a little more attention,” Mr. Pace said. “We like to use things that are culturally relevant to sell our product, but you have to appeal to the target audience without denigrating your brand.”
For the Feast, “sales were pretty good during that time” the campaign ran, he added, and Subway would consider another “Family Guy” campaign.
The Coca-Cola Company, one of the most careful marketers when it comes to matters of taste, included Stewie Griffin, a baby who affects an English accent, in a Super Bowl commercial for its flagship soft drink, Coke Classic. The spot, by Wieden & Kennedy, told a humorous tale about rambunctious balloons that come to life in a make-believe version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“We did do research on Stewie,” said Katie Bayne, chief marketing officer for the North American operations of Coca-Cola in Atlanta. “He obviously was an edgier personality.”
In Stewie’s favor was the success of “Family Guy,” Ms. Bayne said, as well as the character’s popularity as “a contemporary, young-adult icon.”