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9 Times Companies Used Puppets to Sell Stuff

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DIRECTV's latest advertising campaign was designed to promote the broadcast satellite provider by spreading the message that unseemly wires were no longer required as part of the service (even though that is technically impossible). Instead, the commercials — which revolve around a seemingly normal human adult male, his insecure marionette puppet wife, and mopey, insecure marionette puppet son — have been widely mocked and criticized as creepy or sexist.

The risk of creeping people out is always involved when puppetry is used to sell products, but sometimes they're welcomed as a nice change of pace. Here are nine puppets that companies have used to shill products.

1. RICO

In 2010, a rodent puppet named Rico became the spokespuppet for Air New Zealand and peppered the airwaves with his painfully obvious sexual innuendos. Rico teamed up to collaborate with Snoop Dogg, David Hasselhoff, and Lindsay Lohan, and was ultimately "murdered" by Richard Simmons.

2. GODADDY AND PUPPETSBYGWEN

During this year's Super Bowl, GoDaddy ran an ad starring a real-life machine engineer who made puppets during her free time. After being selected out of one hundred people who wanted to commit to their own business full-time, Gwen Dean announced to the country that she was quitting her job to focus exclusively on puppetsbygwen.com, now boosted by an ad with an audience of 111.5 million people. She officially sent a letter of resignation right after the commercial aired, and her boss was cool about it, calling the commercial "great."

3. ABLA FAHITA

Earlier this year, the continuing tension in Egypt produced an odd news story when a popular puppet was accused of sending terrorist messages in a Vodafone ad. Abla Fahita is a "gossipy widow" puppet character who claimed in a 2013 commercial to have lost her late husband's SIM card in a shopping mall.

Conspiracy theorists came to the conclusion that the Fahita puppet was a British agent who was expressing veiled bomb threats and coded messages through the ads. Even though there was an official investigation — albeit one that was "widely mocked" by Egyptian citizens — Fahita "herself" appeared via Skype on an Egyptian CBC station to deny the allegations.

4. BAR NONE: THE PETS.COM DOG'S SECOND ACT

Pets.com was the quintessential bubble company. The website that sold pet supplies directly to customers had a high-profile marketing campaign during its twenty-seven-month existence starring a popular dog sock puppet. The spots were created by the advertising firm responsible for the classic Apple "1984" commercial and the Taco Bell chihuahua.

Pets.com ended up losing money and self-liquidated in November of 2000, but that did not spell the end for its most famous employee. For the price of $125,000, Bar None acquired the puppet's rights, and the car loan company also adopted a new slogan: "Everybody deserves a second chance." Advertisements featuring the dog continue to run today, to only the possible exasperation of the previous star of the Bar None commercials, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton.

5. THE SNUGGLE BEAR

The adorable Snuggle Bear, a.k.a. Snuggle the Fabric Softener Bear, first appeared in 1983 and was voiced for many years by veteran voice actor Corinne Orr (who also voiced all of the female characters in both the original anime Speed Racer and the 2008 movie).

Plenty of people found Snuggle Bear to be creepy, especially when it came to his watchful eye over an infant in this ad. This led to The State and MadTV producing parodies where the housewife in the iconic ads gets frightened and beats up Snuggles.

If that weren't enough, 150,000 Snuggle "Teeny Bean Bears" that came with the fabric softener were recalled in 2001 for possessing a choking hazard. One year later, 4 million plush Snuggle bears were voluntarily recalled because the eyes and nose were detachable and delicious-looking enough for some kids to put in their mouths. Fortunately, no casualties were reported in either case.

6. LIL' PENNY

Launched on November 4, 1995, Nike's "Lil' Penny" campaign was great advertising for Orlando Magic guard Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and comedian Chris Rock, possibly more so than the sneakers themselves. The commercials gave the 24-year-old Hardaway a cool persona to accompany his continuing ascent into NBA stardom. Rock, on the other hand, was at a crossroads, two years removed from his unhappy stint on Saturday Night Live, and at a time when he considered himself a "has-been." But the ads and the 1996 premiere of Rock's stand-up special Bring the Pain made the comic one of the biggest stars in the country. But before Rock was famous enough himself to make his first official debut on Oprah, Lil' Penny scored a sit down with Winfrey.

The legacy of the commercials continues. The 6-foot 7-inch version of Penny would never win a championship and injuries plagued him for the remainder of his 14-year career, but Hardaway became the first NBA player not named Michael Jordan to have his Nike sneaker line continue after his retirement. In 2009, Nike successfully went back to the well with ads featuring Kobe Bryant and LeBron James puppets.

7. THE LITTLE CAESARS

The Little Caesars were a four-piece band that performed and sang in the name of Little Caesars and of the joys of pizza in general. Above is a 1992 music video for a song that changes the lyrics of "Wooly Bully" to "Pizza! Pizza!" In a second commercial, the group performs their own unique version of Shirley Ellis' "The Name Game," which promoted both pizza and spaghetti (added to the Little Caesars menu in the summer of 1993), which by August was available in various bucket sizes including "Big!Big!"

8. FARFEL THE DOG

Named after the pellet shaped noodle, Farfel the Dog got his start on television in the 1950s, regularly joining dummy Danny O'Day and his creator, ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson, on The Toast of the Town (later known as The Ed Sullivan Show) and on the Milton Berle-hosted Texaco Star Theater. Farfel and O'Day began to sell Nestle's Quik in 1955, initially as live ads on The Jackie Gleason Show. Farfel would always bring the ads home, answering his companion's "N-E-S-T-L-E-S/Nestlé's makes the very best" with a drawn out "Chawwwc'-lit."

Farfel became a breakout puppet celebrity, and in 1959, he came close to music stardom when Everly Brothers producer Archie Bleyer wanted Farfel to say the spoken word lines on "Bird Dog." Bleyer, though, was overruled.

The Nestle ads concluded in 1965, but Farfel was not forgotten. In the 1991 Seinfeld episode "The Dog," Jerry was forced to take care of an unruly canine named Farfel. Just in case some viewers didn't get the joke, Elaine made herself a glass of chocolate milk during a scene where Jerry is struggling with the barking mutt.

One year later, Farfel made a comeback promoting Nestle candy for the holiday season. In the commercial he sings the classic Nestle theme, joined by five dog puppets that one can only presume to be members of his then never-before-seen family, who all shop at the same store for their seasonal sweaters.

9. THE MUPPETS

Companies and ad agencies have learned that you can rarely go wrong with a muppet. The first commercials with muppets ran in 1957 and were 10 seconds long, promoting Wilkins Coffee during station identification breaks. A muppet named Wilkins (who sounded a lot like Kermit) would ask a muppet named Wontkins if he wanted a Wilkins coffee. Wontkins always lived up to his name and would not, and, as punishment for his wrong decision was punched in the face, shot in the face, electrocuted, stomped on, and more. Wontkins continued to work with Wilkins in commercials for other regional companies, including the then-Michigan-exclusive Faygo soft drinks in 1958 and 1959. No matter the product, they would tend to end with Wontkins down for the count.

A fair share of companies through 1970 asked for Jim Henson-created characters to grace their ads, including IBM, Hawaiian Punch, and RCA. Once the premiere of Sesame Street and later The Muppet Show gave The Muppets regular exposure, the ads tapered off. Within the last ten years, though, we have seen the likes of Miss Piggy appearing in a Dove ad and shilling for Pizza Hut with Jessica Simpson, and Kermit promoting the Ford Hybrid during the 2006 Super Bowl.

In 2014, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem drove Terry Crews crazy in a Toyota, Miss Piggy ate a bunch of pistachios, The Swedish Chef got a job as a sandwich artist at Subway, and the gang enjoyed Go-Gurts with their faces on them.

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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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