Issue 147    Sept 1st   to December 1st 2020

‘Put a Tiger in your Tank’

How many of you remember this campaign from the mid-1960s? I recently came across an old motoring magazine containing an Esso petroleum advertisement carrying this slogan and promoting Esso Extra fuel. Having had little else to do over the past few weeks I decided to research the subject and discovered that it was one of the most successful advertising campaigns ever devised.  

In his book ‘Tiger in Your Tank’ (Cassell, London, 1969) Brian Ash suggests that Esso’s first link with a Tiger symbol took place in the UK in 1936 to promote its Ethyl brand of petrol. During WW2, and for a number of years thereafter, POOL Petrol replaced branded motor spirit in the UK, but in 1953 the familiar names reappeared and Esso used a ferocious tiger image to promote its return to the forecourt. During the 1950s Esso’s Netherlands affiliate linked a cartoon tiger to a slogan that when loosely translated read ‘Put a Tiger in your Tank’!

The campaign was launched in the United States in 1964. It went global the following year and was introduced to unsuspecting British motorists on 11th April 1965. To promote the event Esso created a genial cartoon tiger who appeared in national newspaper and magazine advertisements, was beamed onto the nation’s TV screens at peak viewing times and smiled down from hundreds of posters at prominent billboard sites all across the UK.

Merchandising aids such as key-rings, windscreen cleaning cloths, lapel badges and bumper stickers filled the forecourt shops. However, it was the tiger tail (costing 1/-) that quickly became the most popular item of all – it was designed to be tied around a car’s filler cap making it appear as though motorist’s had tigers in their petrol tanks. Following unexpectedly high public demand the initial batch of 750,000 quickly sold out and new orders were rapidly placed – by the end of the year Esso had shifted an incredible 2½ million!

Life-size cut-outs of the cartoon cat were positioned beside service station entrances and posters placed strategically around the forecourt encouraged customers to ‘Put a Tiger in your Tank’. Esso Extra pumps were cleverly turned into tigers by replacing their glass globes with a tiger’s head, winding yellow and black stripes around the pump’s fuel hose (making it look like a tail) and applying vinyl stickers depicting the cat’s torso and legs to the main body of the pump.

The ‘Tiger in your Tank’ promotion continued throughout 1966 and 1967 and was refreshed from time to time with new sales gimmicks. However, in 1968 a very unusual proposal was put forward to revitalise that year’s campaign. Esso’s marketing department came up with the idea that a fictitious Advertising Manager would announce on TV and in the Press that he was dispensing with the tiger’s services, but the angry cat was not going to take this lying down and instigated his own ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign. The idea captured the British public’s imagination and although sales never reached the dizzy heights of 1965 the campaign was still very successful and once again raised Esso’s profile.

The Tiger even introduced his own merchandise, which included save the tiger lapel badges, jigsaw puzzles and ‘Instant Insanity’ a game consisting of four dices with different coloured circles on each face. On the packaging it stated that by buying the game, which cost 3/6, a vote had been registered to save the Tiger. When all the ‘votes’ were eventually counted the Tiger had won convincingly, but despite the victory Esso unexpectedly brought the four year-long ‘Put a Tiger in your Tank’ campaign to an end.

If any reader has memories of the ‘Tiger in your tank’ campaign that they would be happy to share, please pass them on to me. If enough are forthcoming there’s a possibility they could form the basis of another Chain Mail article.

Roger Day –