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5 Famed Retired Corporate Mascots

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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):

Golly
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." golly.gifThe 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.

The Noid
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 the-noid.jpgCharms), 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:

Speedy Alka-Seltzer
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 speedy.jpgpresence, 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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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