The Life and Death of Spuds MacKenzie, The Original Party Animal

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There's a moment in Spuds MacKenzie's interview with Dick Clark when Clark shifts gears and, as if by obligation, brings up the recent bad press the bull terrier has been the subject of. "There are these vicious rumors," he begins, addressing not the tuxedo-wearing Spuds, but one of the beautiful spokesmodels—or "Spudettes"—who accompany him. "Is there any truth to the fact that he is female?" The Spudette, clearly trained for this type of question, asserts, "He's got three women around him, and I don't think we'd be following him..." Clark, thrusting his fist forward, interrupts, "He's a full-out macho guy?" A few men in the audience let out ferocious whoos! and yeahs! They are relieved to hear that their hero is, like them, a cool dude.

Spuds MacKenzie was, in fact, a female dog. Her real name was Honey Tree Evil Eye, and Jackie and Stanley Oles, the humans who owned her, called her "Evie." This was all revealed in a 1987 People magazine article that set out to debunk rumors that the bull terrier had died in a limo accident, or while surfing, or in a plane crash ("a la Ritchie Valens"). In a stunning breach of privacy, the article also published the Oles' home address. Soon after the People piece came out, Jackie Oles was sitting with Evie on the stoop of her suburban Chicago house when a reporter confronted her, unannounced. "I don't talk to reporters," she said before hurrying inside. Oles was wearing a Spuds MacKenzie sweatshirt at the time.

If, by chance, you don't know who Spuds MacKenzie is, it's probably because he hasn't been on television in over 20 years. (NOTE: I will be using male pronouns for Spuds the character and female pronouns for Honey Tree Evil Eye from this point forward.) Spuds sold beer and—this may be hard to believe—he was one of the most famous living things on the planet.

Honey Tree Evil Eye was bred to be a show dog, and the Oles joined Chicago's Fort Dearborn Bull Terrier Club and coached her for competition. Evie performed relatively well within her breed, but never placed at Silverwood, America's premier bull terrier event.

At a show in Chicago, Evie caught the attention of DDB Needham. The ad agency was scouting for a dog-centered campaign, and the splotch over Evie's left eye made her stand out. She was invited for a photo shoot, and soon posters of her as Spuds MacKenzie sitting behind a goblet of Bud Light while wearing a "Delta Omicron Gamma" fraternity sweatshirt began to pop up at college campuses. The premise—cool dog is cool—proved so popular that wholesalers demanded Anheuser-Busch put Spuds on television.

Evie's demeanor was unusually calm for her breed and she behaved more like a lap cat than a rough-and-tumble terrier. Her breeder told the Bull Terrier Club of Dallas that “she was very mellow and low key. The owners sometimes used a yo-yo in the ring to get her to spark up and show." She was known to lounge about and munch on Raisin Chex, which was hand-fed to her. Relaxed and undemanding, Evie was a perfect candidate for TV work.

Spuds' first prime-time TV appearance came during Super Bowl XXI in 1987.

The spot features a narrative arch that would become the go-to formula in the Spuds MacKenzie oeuvre: 1. Spuds shows up at a party. 2. Everyone is thrilled to see Spuds—especially the women.

Robin Leach provides the voice-over, which hammers home the fact that not only is Spuds a cool party dude, but he also is obscenely wealthy. This stolid, fat, rich dog surrounded by adoring models and sycophantic buddies begs to be seen as both a result of and response to the late 1980s—but then you might be missing the gag.

The reaction to the original ad was enthusiastic, and what followed was a full-on marketing assault and nationwide in-joke that acknowledged, dismissed, winked at, and embraced nearly every advertising cliche.

The key to the campaign's success, Bill Stolberg tells me, was the fact that they never acknowledged that Spuds was a dog—they would insist he was a man. Stolberg's name comes up a lot in old press clippings about Spuds' meteoric rise to fame. He worked for Fleishman Hillard, the PR firm Anheuser-Busch used for the campaign, and Stolberg traveled with Spuds and acted as his brand manager and voice. He recalls, "The first question we'd always get would be, 'What kind of dog is Spuds?' To which I replied, 'He's not a dog, he's an executive.'"

As Spuds grew in popularity, so did the beer. According to the New York Times, Spuds helped increase Bud Light's sales by 20 percent between 1987 and 1988. Serious business journalists began contacting Stolberg for insight on the campaign and its star dog, but he wouldn't break character. Stolberg would insist that Spuds was a human man—a Senior Party Consultant, to be specific—and that he was so cool he didn't have to speak verbally. "It would drive them crazy," he says.

The hallmark of late-'80s advertising was overt self-awareness. Audiences were wise to BS—or at least marketers decided audiences should be hip to it—so commercials and spokespeople were done as parody. It's why Coca-Cola used Max Headroom, a satirical version of a super-slick television host doomed to live inside a computer, and why Isuzu had Joe Isuzu, a pathological liar of a spokesman whose audacious claims would be corrected by on-screen text overlaid during his ads. The pervading idea was that you're in on the joke too, friend. We know you're smart—doesn't that feel good?

Spuds MacKenzie fits into this category, but the joke was twisted and pushed far beyond the restrictions of TV. When he went on tour, whether to appear on Good Morning America or to throw out the first pitch at a National League playoff game, his marketing team would go to extremes to perpetuate the Spuds MacKenzie mythos. "We'd put him in limos and rent him his own hotel rooms," says Stolberg. "He would be dressed in a tuxedo and walk through the airport with the Spudettes. People would see him, and that's how it would grow."

The death rumors were a sign that Spuds had truly made it. Stolberg recalls showing up at his office to find a stack of missed-call slips an inch thick, all from people who were trying to get in touch to see if the spokesdog really did die in that limo crash or via hot tub electrocution while soaking with the Spudettes.

The Spudettes were key to this success, and the troupe made up of models and aspiring actresses became a cultural phenomenon in their own right. In fact, Sir Mix-A-Lot says he wrote "Baby Got Back" as a response to "the Spuds MacKenzie girls, little skinny chicks looking like stop signs, with big hair and skinny bodies."

If Spuds was a gag on the cliched spokesman, then the Spudettes riffed on the idea that "sex sells." The benefit of presenting the latter as a joke is that it still does the job as well as its more sincere analog. Posters of Spuds and the Spudettes were the most popular pin-ups in the country, "easily outdistanc[ing] TV's 'Alf,' No. 2 in the poster market," reported the L.A. Times, which also called Spuds "the Nation's Most Unlikely Sex Symbol."

Pretending that a dog was a human man who loved—and was loved—by women seems like it would present some problems, and when I asked Stolberg if he was ever worried about this, he insisted that the idea was ridiculous. “You’d have to be pretty bizarre to think anything like that.” 

While everything about Spuds MacKenzie was a joke, the dichotomy of people who wanted to get it and those who didn't defined and caused much of Spuds' success. While Morning Zoo DJs and targeted consumers laughed at and championed the idea of an expressionless lump of a dog who drove women wild, reporters saw him as the origins of a market-driven phenomenon that, given the time period, must have been of great importance. It's why People magazine talked to both a Chicago account executive and a UC Berkeley "urban humor expert" in that scoop about the party dog's real gender that featured the Oles' full home address.

"It was kind of nuts," Stolberg says. "[The Oles] were totally unprepared for all that silliness, but they were good sports about it." Jackie Oles would travel with Spuds wherever he went, and one can only imagine what she thought as she sat in the green room and watched David Letterman interview her dog.

In "Spuds Is A Dud As A Party Guy—He's A Girl," the Chicago Tribune's follow-up to the People piece, Illinois State Senator Judy Baar Topinka said of the Oles, "The family has tried to be really low profile." Topinka had tried to pass a resolution in the Senate honoring her district as the home of Spuds MacKenzie. Anheuser-Busch protested the resolution and it was eventually pulled, but this wouldn't be the last time lawmakers discussed Spuds MacKenzie.

Less than a year after Spuds' national TV debut, Strom Thurmond stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate chamber and waved a stuffed Spuds MacKenzie doll. He accused Anheuser-Busch of using the mascot to sell alcohol to underage drinkers, saying, ''I am not confident in the voluntary efforts of the alcohol beverage industry to increase public awareness of the hazards of alcohol abuse with 12-year-olds drinking wine coolers and wearing Spuds MacKenzie T-shirts.'' He made his case while standing in front of huge posters featuring the "Ayatollah of Partyollah" himself, Spuds MacKenzie.

A month later, Ohio stores pulled all Bud Light cartons that featured images of Spuds MacKenzie dressed up as Santa due to a law that prohibited St. Nick from being used to sell alcohol. Across the country, schools were banning students from wearing popular Spuds MacKenzie gear.

In response to all this, Anheuser-Busch eventually switched its $50 million Spuds MacKenzie campaign from Bud Light to a responsible drinking initiative. This is why Super Bowl XXIII's 15-second spot features Spuds playing guitar with no beer in sight, along with the tagline: "Know When to Say When." One year prior, Super Bowl XXII featured an ad where MacKenzie wins an Olympic Gold Medal in hockey and shares an ice cold Bud Light with a gorgeous Russian woman.

Spuds' TV appearances became fewer and fewer as the decade neared its end. "A really good campaign doesn't last much longer than 18 months," Stolberg says, "The joke gets old." Spuds lives on through the over 200 officially licensed items of Spuds merchandise (as well as the knock-off party animal gear that was once sold on street corners and at beach resorts like Phendi handbags) that you can buy on eBay

"You'll still sometimes see those plastic Spuds MacKenzie signs in bars," Bill Stolberg says, marveling at how long it has been. He left Fleishman Hillard in 1995 to start his own consulting firm, which he still runs. I ask him what Spuds MacKenzie was really like, if he was always as calm as he seemed in the commercials. "Ah ah ah," he interrupts, "Mr. MacKenzie is not a dog."

Honey Tree Evil Eye died of kidney failure at the age of 10 in 1993—she had an average lifespan for a healthy English bull terrier. Her death was reported at the time with the headline "Spuds MacKenzie Really Dead This Time." Unlike the actors who played Max Headroom and Joe Isuzu, Evie didn't need to worry about what she would do with her career once the ad work dried up. It is understood that she spent her retirement lounging with her family and eating Raisin Chex.

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April 24, 2014 - 12:20pm
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