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6 Famous Advertising Dogs

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Gidget the Chihuahua, the famed Taco Bell mascot from 1997 to 2000, died of a stroke last week at the age of 15. While she settles in for a never-ending fifth meal at the 24-hour Taco Bell in doggie heaven, here's a look back at six other famous dogs in advertising.

1. Lady Greyhound

The Greyhound Corporation and running dog logo date back to 1930, but it was the introduction of a live mascot nearly 30 years later that helped establish the bus line as one of the leaders of the transportation industry pack. The company introduced "Lady Greyhound," a purebred Greyhound born in Clay Center, Kansas, on The Steve Allen Show in 1957. The white and gold dog with black eyes was just a 10-pound puppy at the time, but she would soon become the face of the franchise. By 1959, "Lady Greyhound," who often wore a rhinestone collar and tiara, had traveled across the country more than 50 times, making appearances at charity events along the way. She opened the new Greyhound terminal in Detroit by biting through a ribbon of dog biscuits, she posed for photos with Miss Universe Beauty Pageant contestants, and she was a regular guest on television shows throughout the country. The popularity of Lady Greyhound had waned by the early 1970s, but there's no denying the mark she left on the company.

2. Spuds Mackenzie

guru-timesSpuds Mackenzie, a white English bull terrier with a black mark around her left eye, was introduced as the mascot for Anheuser-Busch during a 1987 Super Bowl ad. (Though the Spuds Mackenzie character was most definitely supposed to be a male, the dog in the commercials was actually a female named Honey Tree Evil Eye. Scandal!) For the next 2 years, the "ultimate party animal," whose voiceover was provided by Robin Leach, lived the high life. In a series of wildly successful commercials, Spuds traveled the world with three beautiful Spudettes as the canine predecessor to Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man in the World. One night Spuds was pole vaulting, the next he was playing the piano. Anheuser-Busch capitalized on Spuds' popularity by selling t-shirts, beach towels, and other merchandise bearing the dog's likeness. The campaign's success concerned some public interest groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), who believed Spuds was being used to market alcohol to kids. Anheuser-Busch dumped the dog in 1989 when it debuted the Bud Bowl. Honey Tree Evil Eye died of kidney failure in 1993.

3. Nipper

RCA-nipperNipper, a terrier who allegedly got his name because he would bite the legs of visitors, lived a rather uneventful life in England from 1884-1895. Today, he's one of the most iconic dogs in the history of advertising. Three years after Nipper's death, his owner, English painter Francis Barraud, painted a picture of Nipper staring into a phonograph machine and titled it, "His Master's Voice." Barraud shopped the painting to the Edison Bell Company, one of the leading manufacturers of phonographs at the time, but was turned down. The Gramophone Company agreed to buy the image if Barraud was willing to alter the image to resemble one of its machines. Barraud happily agreed, the image was patented in 1900 and Nipper was celebrated posthumously in advertisements beginning in 1901. Since then, Nipper has been used to promote products for several companies, including Victor and RCA.

In 1990, RCA introduced a 2-month old puppy, Chipper, who has appeared alongside Nipper in various advertising campaigns for the brand since then.

4. Axelrod

axelrod
When it comes to your car, leave the worrying to Axelrod, the long-faced basset hound in the A-shaped doghouse. That was the gist of Flying A's advertising campaign during the 1960s, which starred the perpetually worried-looking hound pictured here. Axelrod, who lived in the "house that worry built," starred in several television and print ads for Flying A, a national service station business owned by Tidewater Petroleum. When Tidewater Petroleum's stations were purchased by Phillips 66 and Getty in 1966, Axelrod was retired.

5. Bullseye

bullseyeSince 1999, a white bull terrier with a target painted over his or her left eye "“ or is that a birthmark? "“ has served as Bullseye, the mascot for Target stores. One of the most recent Target dogs is owned by David McMillan, founder of Worldwide Movie Animals, a company that specializes in training animals for use in movies and commercials. Bullseye travels with her own makeup artist, who applies the target using nontoxic red paint, and trainer, and makes about two dozen appearances each year. When she's not in the spotlight, Bullseye lives a fairly normal life. "She has about 20 playmates that she runs around with," McMillan told the Anchorage Daily News during Bullseye's guest appearance at the 2008 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. "Otherwise, she's just a dog. She does a lot of lying around."

6. Ubu Roi

If you watched Family Ties, Brooklyn Bridge or Spin City and didn't change the channel immediately after the last line of every episode, you're probably familiar with Ubu Roi. The black labrador retriever is the mascot for Gary David Goldberg's production company, Ubu Productions, Inc. At the end of Goldberg's aforementioned shows, a photograph of Ubu Roi holding a Frisbee appears. Off-screen, Goldberg says, "Sit, Ubu, sit!" and "Good dog!" before Ubu responds with a single bark. Ubu Roi, who is named after the 1896 satirical play by Alfred Jarry, died in 1984. Goldberg's autobiography is titled, Sit, Ubu, Sit.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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John G. Mabanglo/Getty Images

After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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