TBT: Gargoyles and tigers and…a Pegasus, oh my!


ExxonMobil’s most iconic vintage ads and the characters that made them special

ExxonMobil’s storied past includes some of the most widely recognized brands and iconic images in the history of corporate America. Today many of ExxonMobil’s vintage advertisements are not only considered important milestones in the history of the ad business, but their striking look and memorable catchphrases make them collectible works of art in their own right.


Ad for Gargoyle Mobiloil A, Vacuum Oil Company, print ad from Punch, summer 1926

The Vacuum Oil Company was a pioneer in both lubricants and advertising. The company launched the first successful petroleum lubricants business in the 1860s and started using the familiar red Gargoyle to brand its products shortly thereafter. The Gargoyle went on to become one of the most familiar early trademarks, and was nearly synonymous with motor oil during the first decades of the 20th century.



Socony-Vacuum advertisement: “He’s Tops in Traffic, too!”

The Pegasus is a truly well-known global emblem. Its origins date back to 1911, when it was first used by a subsidiary company in South Africa. In the 1930s the icon was registered as a trademark in the United States and originally appeared on gasoline pumps and containers of motor oil. Soon the Pegasus, in the color red, became the company’s main symbol, gracing everything from floor mats to license plate toppers. The Pegasus has even served as a landmark in some cities. For example, the neon Pegasus sign that topped Dallas’ Magnolia Hotel (formerly the headquarters of Magnolia Oil Company) became a familiar beacon for airline pilots. Now the neon Pegasus sign rests on the lawn of the Omni Dallas Hotel.



One of Theodore Geisel’s many Esso ads.

In the 1930s then-unknown illustrator Theodore Geisel created a series of fantastical creatures to advertise Essolube-branded products. The Zero-doccus, Karbo-nockus, Moto-raspus and Oilio-gobelus were the names of a gaggle of shaggy beasts that would attack your engine if it was lubricated with an inferior brand of motor oil.

Geisel would later find fame creating entire books filled with similar fantastical creatures under the pen name Dr. Seuss. Still, he acknowledged the importance of his experience in advertising, saying that working on the Esso account “taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.”



Socony-Vacuum advertisement: “A Timely Tip from U.S.A’s No. 1 ’War Horse’. . .”

During World War II Mobil encouraged American consumers to make every drop of gas count by keeping their engines functioning at peak efficiency with Mobiloil lubricants. Various characters reminded patriots on the home front to conserve precious resources for the fight against the Axis, but perhaps none was as beloved as “the War Horse.”



Happy the Esso Oil Drop Man

Happy the Esso Oil Drop Man, a cartoon character drawn in the shape of a droplet of motor oil, first appeared in a campaign to explain fuel shortages to Danish customers during World War II. However, Happy’s boundless optimism fit in well with people’s more buoyant postwar mood, so he became a familiar sight in Esso advertisements in the United States by the end of the 1950s. With his catchphrase “Happy Motoring,” Happy graced everything from print ads to travel literature, and he even had his own theme song.


1959 An advertising copywriter in Chicago comes up with the advertising slogan “Put a tiger in your tank.”

An example of the Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign

The fictional character Don Draper had nothing on the very real character Sandy Sulcer. The copywriter cum account man was the driving force behind Esso’s famous Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign. Madison Avenue legend has it that Sulcer ended his creative presentation to the company by pulling back a curtain in the meeting room to reveal a live tiger borrowed from the zoo. The story may be apocryphal, but the campaign still went on to be one of the most successful in advertising history.


Planet Retro, Mobil Gas Pegasus
Promote Signs blog
Omnihotel blog, #Attheomni
American Oil & Gas Historical Society, Seuss I am, an Oilman


Image sources:
Hero image:
Source: UCSD
Credit: Standard Oil Company – Essolube advertisement, between 1930 and 1940, Dr. Seuss Advertising Artwork. Special Collection & Archives, UC San Diego Library
Embedded images: (from top to bottom)
1: ExxonMobil Historical Collection, di_03787, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.
2: ExxonMobil Historical Collection, di_03640, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
3: Standard Oil Company – Essolube advertisement, between 1930 and 1940, Dr. Seuss Advertising Artwork. Special Collection & Archives, UC San Diego Library
4: ExxonMobil Historical Collection, di_03641, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin
5: By Ella Mullins, on Google images
6: Briscoe Center for American History -ExxonMobil collection
Tags:   carsEsso lubeEsso Oil Drop ManMobil gasMobil Oilmotor oilpegasusTBTThe GargoyleTiger in your tankVaccum Oil Companyvintage advertisements
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