Consumer product companies love finding a memorable corporate mascot who can get the buying public to open their wallets. A great mascot builds brand equity for decades, while a bad one can be an embarrassing smear on a company's history. Both types often meet the same fate, though, when it comes time for forced retirement. Here are a few of our favorites, some still mourned, some still mocked.
The Frito Bandito
As a general rule, if your product is delicious enough to inspire men to commit larceny, it's probably worth buying. This logic pervades ad character lore from the bumbling Trix Rabbit to McDonald's beloved Grimace, who was originally a shake-stealing kleptomaniac before becoming an inarticulate gumdrop. The Frito Bandito fit into this mold, but he one-upped the others by having a serious pedigree. Introduced in 1967, the Frito Bandito sprang from the pen of Tex Avery and received his voice from Mel Blanc; this team is much more famous for teaming up to create such characters as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
Unfortunately, the Bandito was a bit more offensive than anything from those beloved cartoons. The character pretty much embodied every negative stereotype he could find. The Bandito was heavily armed. He wore a garishly oversized sombrero. He spoke in an accent that made Speedy Gonzales' sound reasonable. He stole and conned his way into delectable corn chips. He led around a burro. Early versions of the character even had a gold front tooth and unkempt hair. The National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee was not amused by this astoundingly racist creation and convinced the chipmaker to clean up the character's image, including whiting over the gold tooth. According to a piece in Slate, the Bandito permanently holstered his guns after the RFK assassination, but even that couldn't save him. The Bandito eventually found himself in retirement following a 1971 House subcommittee hearing on ethnic defamation in broadcast media.
Here's an example of the Frito Bandito's schtick. (Skip to around 23 seconds):
The Golliwogg or Golliwog is a fictional children's book character created by Florence Kate Upton in the late 19th century; she described the character as a "horrid sight, the blackest gnome." The character was an obvious offshoot of blackface minstrel iconography, which made sense since it was supposedly inspired by a minstrel doll Upton owned as a child. To the modern viewer, such a character looks like the product of the worst sort of racist tradition. When British jam manufacturer John Robertson saw Golly in 1910, though, he had a rather different reaction, which probably sounded like, "That obvious racial caricature would make a fine mascot for a line of jams!" Golly started appearing on Robertson's marmalade and jam jars in that year, and the company later distributed buttons with the character's likeness on it.
The promotion was wildly successful, and collecting Golly buttons became a popular hobby. Eventually, though, Golly eased into retirement in 2001. Was this finally a victory for sensitivity? Hardly. Robertson's spokespeople told the BBC that the discontinuation had nothing to do with Golly being offensive; he simply was no longer popular. Characters from Roald Dahl's books took his place on the company's jars.
Calling the Noid a corporate mascot is something of a misnomer. He was really more of a spokesvillain who appeared in Domino's Pizza ads throughout the 1980s. While other mascots have at least relatively well-defined motives (generally theft and/or protection of their Lucky Charms), the Noid was a pizza-smashing kindred spirit (and possibly inspiration for) Cormac McCarthy's Anton Chigurh. Viewers and victims couldn't deconstruct or analyze the Noid's motivations; he was little more than a vacant and implacable destructive force who only lived to ruin pizzas. That was the bit in its entirety: a guy in a red suit with floppy rabbit ears who wanted to damage your pizza, possibly by throwing a cartoon bomb into the box. Only Domino's could "avoid the Noid" and deliver a suitable pie to your house.
The Noid was so wildly popular that he inspired two video games: a PC adventure called "Avoid the Noid" in 1989 and 1990's NES romp "Yo! Noid." CBS told the New York Times it was developing a Noid cartoon series for its 1988 Saturday-morning schedule. Others weren't quite as keen on the little red guy. In 1989, Kenneth Noid walked into a Domino's in Chamblee, Georgia, and used a .357 magnum to take two employees hostage. He demanded $10,000, a getaway car, and a copy of the 1985 novel The Widow's Son; he ended up getting little more than a Noid-avoiding Domino's pie and a ride in a squad car.
Check out the Noid's elemental malevolence for yourself:
Throughout its history, Alka-Seltzer has marketed itself as a cure for all sorts of ailments, from heartburn to aches and pains to headaches. It has always maintained a strong marketing presence, and the brand's most iconic character sprang into existence in 1951 when Speedy Alka-Seltzer was born. Speedy was a a small, mischievous-looking scamp who had an Alka-Seltzer tablet for a body, a magic "effervescent" wand, and another Alka-Seltzer for a hat. (For those of you paying attention, yes, within the internal logic of Speedy's world, he was basically wearing a torso for a hat.) According to Alka-Seltzer's website, the character reflected Bayer's promotional theme of "Speedy Relief," and by 1953 Speedy was appearing in television commercials. Speedy retired in 1964 after singing and shilling in over 200 TV spots. While many viewers undoubtedly wished that the boy with an Alka-Seltzer tablet chest had simply effervesced into nothingness during an ill-fated attempt at taking a bath, the character resurfaced from time to time in the following decades.
You can peruse his own sing-song sales pitch here:
The Smash Martians
If Martian robots visited Earth, what do you think they'd be interested in? Our ecology? Our technology? According to a 1974 ad for Cadbury's Smash brand of instant mashed potatoes, the aliens are really only interested in using their soulless robotic voices to mock our methods of potato consumption. Here we are, a race full of foolish earthlings who primitively peel our potatoes with knives before mashing them ourselves. These Martians know that only school cafeterias have it right: instant mashed potatoes are the way of the truly enlightened. If they had thumbs instead of metallic robo-pinchers, these aliens would be thumbing them at our entire planet. Viewers loved the spots, though, and the Martians made several more appearances.
Although the Martians aren't still around, this ad was spectacularly popular in the U.K. It won a 1999 poll conducted by the British advertising magazine Campaign to pick the top ad of the century and topped a similar BBC poll in 2006. They've also enjoyed several revivals since their first retirement, including ones in 1992 and 1999. For all their popularity, though, the joke's on the Martians; everyone knows instant mashed potatoes taste like powdered drywall.