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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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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
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Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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15 Podcasts That Will Make You Feel Smarter
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It's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the podcast options out there, but narrowing down your choices to the titles that will teach you something while you listen is a good place to start. If you're interested in learning more about philosophy, science, linguistics, or history, here are podcasts to add to your queue.

1. THE HABITAT

The Habitat is the closest you can get to listening to a podcast recorded on Mars. At the start of the series, five strangers enter a dome in a remote part of Hawaii meant to simulate a future Mars habitat. Every part of their lives over the next year, from the food they eat to the spacesuits they wear when they step outside, is designed to mimic the conditions astronauts will face if they ever reach the red planet. The experiment was a way for NASA to test plans for a manned mission to Mars without leaving Earth. The podcast, which is produced by Gimlet media and hosted by science writer Lynn Levy, ends up unfolding like a season of the Real World with a science fiction twist.

2. STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW

Can’t pick a topic to educate yourself on? Stuff You Should Know from How Stuff Works is the podcast for you. In past episodes, hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark (both writers at How Stuff Works) have discussed narwhals, Frida Kahlo, LSD, Pompeii, hoarding, and Ponzi schemes. And with three episodes released a week, you won’t go long without learning about a new subject.

3. THE ALLUSIONIST

Language nerds will find a kindred spirit in Helen Zaltzman. In each episode of her Radiotopia podcast The Allusionist, the former student of Latin, French, and Old English guides listeners through the exciting world of linguistics. Past topics include swearing, small talk, and the differences between British and American English.

4. PHILOSOPHIZE THIS!

Listening to all of Philosophize This! is cheaper than taking a philosophy class—and likely more entertaining. In each episode, host Stephen West covers different thinkers and ideas from philosophy history in an approachable and informative way. The show proceeds in chronological order, starting with the pre-Socratic era and leading up most recently to Jacques Derrida.

5. MORE PERFECT

In 2016, Radiolab, one of the most popular and well-established educational podcasts out there, launched a show called More Perfect. Led by Radiolab host Jad Abumrad, each episode visits a different Supreme Court case or event that helped shape the highest court in the land. Because of that, the podcast ends up being about a lot more than just the Supreme Court, exploring topics like police brutality, gender equality, and free speech online.

6. SLOW BURN

The Watergate scandal was such a important chapter in American history that it has its own suffix—but when asked to summarize the events, many people may draw a blank. Slow Burn, a podcast from Slate, gives listeners a refresher. In eight episodes, host Leon Neyfakh tells the story of the Nixon’s demise as it unfolded, all while asking whether or not citizens would be able to recognize a Watergate-sized scandal if it happened today.

7. LETTERS FROM WAR

Instead of using a broad scope to examine World War II, the Washington Post podcast Letters From War focuses on hundreds of letters exchanged by four brothers fighting in the Pacific during the period. Living U.S. military veterans tell the sibling's story while reflecting on their own experiences with war.

8. LEVAR BURTON READS

Just because you’re a grown-up doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the soothing sound of LeVar Burton’s voice reading to you. The former host of Reading Rainbow now hosts LeVar Burton Reads, a podcast from Stitcher aimed at adults. In each episode, he picks a different piece of short fiction to narrate: Just settle into a comfortable spot and listen to him tell stories by authors like Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

9. BRAINS ON!

Brains On! is an educational podcast for young audiences, but adults have something to gain from listening as well. Every week, host Molly Bloom is joined by a new kid co-host who helps her explore a different topic. Tune in for answers to questions like "What makes paint stick?" and "How do animals breathe underwater?"

10. SCIENCE VS

There’s a lot of misinformation out there—if you’re determined to sort out fact from fiction, it can be hard to know where to start. The team of “friendly fact checkers” at the Science Vs podcast from Gimlet is here to help. GMOs, meditation, birth control, Bigfoot—these are just a few of the topics that are touched upon in the weekly show. The goal of each episode is to replace any preconceived notions you have with hard science.

11. FLASH FORWARD

No one knows for sure what the future holds, but Flash Forward lays out the more interesting possibilities. Some of the potential futures that host and producer Rose Eveleth explores are more probable than others (a future where no one knows which news sources to trust isn’t hard to imagine; one where space pirates drag a second moon into orbit perhaps is), but each one is built on real science.

12. HIDDEN BRAIN

What motivates the everyday choices we make? That’s the question Shankar Vedantam tries to answer on the NPR podcast Hidden Brain. The show looks at how various unconscious patterns shape our lives, like what we wear and who we choose to spend time with.

13. PART-TIME GENIUS

The fact that it’s hosted by Mental Floss founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur isn’t the only reason we love Part-Time Genius. The podcast from How Stuff Works wades into topics you didn’t know you were curious about, like the origins of Nickelodeon and the hidden secrets at the Vatican. Each episode will leave you feeling educated and entertained at the same time.

14. ASTRONOMY CAST

It’s a big universe out there—if you want to learn as much about it as possible, start with Astronomy Cast. Fraser Cain, publisher of the popular site Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela L. Gay, director of the virtual research facility CosmoQuest, host the podcast. They cover a wide range of topics, from the animals we’ve sent to orbit to the color of the universe.

15. SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS

The Science of Happiness podcast from PRI is here to improve your life, one 20-minute episode at a time. Science has proven that adopting certain practices, like mindfulness and gratitude, can make us happier—as does letting go of less unhealthy patterns like grudges and stressful thinking. With award-winning professor Dacher Keltner as your host, you can learn how to incorporate these science-backed strategies for happiness into your own life.

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