Products of their environment Advertising mascots may seem like wholesome friends of the family, but there's another side to the story.

Popular Culture

October 25, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

When the Jolly Green Giant first appeared in 1925, he was, in fact, neither green nor jolly. He wore a bearskin outfit and scowled. And forget about any "ho-ho-ho"-ing.

It wasn't until the 1930s that someone in marketing apparently realized that an advertising character better described as the "Angry White Endocrine Freak" probably wouldn't sell very many frozen peas. So the giant donned a suit of leaves, started reading Dale Carnegie and had his skin dyed a dramatic green.

This is just one of many shocking tales that turn up in a brief but semi-serious investigation of some of America's most celebrated ad icons. From the Pillsbury Doughboy to Betty Crocker, the characters we've blithely invited into our homes all these years turn out to have personal lives easily as warped as those of any president or politician.

Consider the cases of Mrs. Butterworth and Mrs. Paul. When asked for biographical information on the mascots' husbands, a spokesman for Aurora Foods confessed that neither character had ever been married. He acknowledged that the "Mrs." title might be misleading, but said it is legally accurate and not impeachable.

Next to be called was Quaker Oats. The subject: Aunt Jemima. Whose aunt is she, exactly?

Answer: nobody's. Corporate genealogists could produce no evidence of nephews or nieces, or relatives of any kind for that matter.

It seems someone should open a dating service for product mascots; none seems to have a spouse. A few possible exceptions are at General Mills, home of the Trix rabbit, the Lucky Charms leprechaun, Betty Crocker, Frankenberry, Count Chocula and Sonny (the CooCoo for Cocoa Puffs bird). When asked about the marital status of these characters, spokeswoman Pam Becker replied: "I don't know. We don't delve into their personal lives."

But nearly every other icon scrutinized - from the Ty-D-Bol man to Charlie the Tuna (sorry, Charlie) - is single. The Energizer bunny's official biography, for example, says he is "interested in a long-term relationship but too busy at the moment." (So what is he beating the drum for, then?)

About the closest thing to a nuclear family that could be found was 46-year-old Tony the Tiger and his son, Tony Jr.

Is there a Mrs. Tony?, a Kellogg's publicist was asked.

"Uh, no," the publicist admitted.

Wait. How can that be?

Good point, said the publicist: "We can't have Tony fathering children out of wedlock. Let me look into this." About a week later, Kellogg called back to report that Tony Jr.'s mother, who has no name, did once appear in a TV commercial, but hasn't been seen since. The publicist also discovered that in 1974, which was the Chinese year of the tiger, Tony also briefly had a daughter, Antoinette.

Another suspicious family history involves Jack in the Box's clown mascot, Jack, who had a near-death experience in 1980 (when his own company blew him up), then reportedly remained in hiding until 1995. The new Jack, who lives in La Jolla, Calif., and wears Armani suits, has a look-alike son and a human wife. Company officials say Jack Jr.'s physique "proves that the gene for large white, plastic heads is passed down on the male side of the family."

Life in a product mascot family can be hazardous. The Chicken of the Sea mermaid, for instance, originally had an older sister, but the sibling must have been caught in a tuna net or something. Company officials can no longer account for her whereabouts.

But then, they can't provide a name or exact birth date for the surviving mermaid either. "She's a very mysterious person," a company spokesman said. "We think she's about 45 years old."

Likewise, the Pillsbury Doughboy - who has been poked in the gut an estimated 57,000 times during his 33 years - once fraternized with a doughgirl and a doughdog, but they also vanished suddenly and mysteriously. Come to think of it, that little laugh of his always has sounded slightly evil.

Even Toucan Sam's innocent young nephews were given the Jimmy Hoffa treatment shortly after they hatched.

Just what Sam knew about their disappearance is not known. But in the early 1970s, he underwent a Witness Protection fTC Program-style identity change: a "beak job" to shorten his nose and cosmetic surgery to brighten his feathers. He also was ordered to stop speaking Toucanese (a variation of pig Latin) and to lose the towering Carmen Miranda-style fruit hat he wore in his 1963 debut.

Other mascots who have had makeovers include Kellogg's Snap, Crackle and Pop, of Rice Kripsies fame. The guys began life as gnomes with huge noses, floppy ears and oversized hats, but in 1949 adopted boyish haircuts, new uniforms and smaller facial features. We do have to sit down to breakfast with them after all.

But sometimes cosmetic surgery can backfire.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Kellogg is so convinced that the Exxon tiger is becoming a Tony the Tiger copycat that the company recently sued for trademark infringement. It alleges in court papers that Exxon's "whimsical tiger" illegally emulates Tony because he "walks or runs on his two hind legs and acts in a friendly manner."

God forbid that consumers thinking about Frosted Flakes think gas at the same time.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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