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Candy Crush: The Bizarre History of Those '90s Mentos Commercials

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In the fall of 1996, Liam Killeen walked into a convenience store in Erlanger, Kentucky, near the U.S. offices of Van Melle (now known as Perfetti Van Melle), the candymaker behind Mentos. While paying for his purchase, Killeen—Mentos's vice president of marketing—noticed that the cashier was eyeing him with a mixture of suspicion and disgust.

Killeen asked if there was a problem. She pointed to the Mentos logo on the company jacket he was wearing. “Mentos?” she spat. “I hate those commercials. They’re so cornball! So stupid!”

It was not the first time Killeen had heard such a strong, visceral reaction to the ad campaign he helped devise. Beginning in 1992, the Netherlands-based confectioners had stormed the States with a series of inexplicably odd television spots that featured an earwig of a song (“Fresh Goes Better”), hammy acting, and a general sense that the ads were trying to approximate American culture rather than actually be a part of it—not unlike a robot mimicking the emotions of its human counterparts.

Some people loved the ads; a lot of people didn’t. (In 1994, USA Today voted it one of the worst advertising campaigns.) But the ads did what they were supposed to do. In 1991, Van Melle sold $20 million worth of the hard candies. In 1994, that number doubled to $40 million. By 1996, it had tripled to $120 million. By either design or accident, Mentos became a leader in the sweets industry by producing commercials that were almost incomprehensibly stupid.

It was during a train ride to Poland in 1932 that brothers Michael and Pierre van Melle originally had the inspiration to develop and market a peppermint-flavored caramel candy. Calling the bite-sized pieces Mentos, Van Melle began exporting them in the 1950s; in 1972, Mentos arrived stateside.

With minimal marketing and little name recognition, Mentos were largely lost in candy aisles, selling modestly for nearly 20 years. Around the time Killeen joined the U.S. sales office in 1991, the decision was made to begin a more aggressive grab for market share. First, Mentos would reduce the number of available flavors from 50 to just two: mint and mixed fruit. Second, they would pursue a global ad campaign marketed directly to consumers instead of the trade ads Van Melle had typically produced for candy distributors and suppliers.

Ad agency Pahnke & Partners out of Hamburg, Germany was enlisted to conceptualize the spots, which had several recurring themes: A young, attractive couple would find themselves in some sort of bind that would usually be remedied by popping a Mentos and subsequently having a spark of inspiration. One of the leads would hold up the Mentos package and give a thumbs up. Throughout, a song would play that was intended to sound catchy no matter where in the world the commercials were airing.

In one spot, a man decides to don a tablecloth and pretend to be a waiter in order to garner better service. In another, traffic impedes two lovers from embracing. At the climax of the 30-second spots, a brand slogan—“The Freshmaker”—would appear onscreen.

Viewers who spotted the ads when they premiered in July 1992 were driven to distraction by one intangible: The ads seemed disconnected from actual human behavior, and the song itself was critiqued for appearing to be an English translation that didn’t get the lyrics quite right. (“It doesn’t matter what comes, fresh goes better in life.”)

By the mid-1990s, both news media and the burgeoning world of the internet had become preoccupied with the unreality of Mentos. Much of the speculation revolved around whether the commercials were shot in the U.S. or elsewhere. (According to the company, three of the commercials were shot in the States, while seven were produced overseas.) An early "Mentos FAQ" was set up by Purdue University student Heath Doerr, who pored over minutiae in a way that would foreshadow the obsessive online fan cultures that followed.

Van Melle recognized a phenomenon when they saw it and rarely responded to media requests for information about the campaign. "It's almost more fun to have consumers off on their own," Mentos brand manager Tricia Gold told The New York Times in 1995. "If we added our input, it would stop the free flow of information."

People could mock and inspect the ads all they wanted. For Van Melle, the curiosity led to brand awareness that couldn’t have been obtained purely through ad buys. By 1996, Mentos had reached $135 million in sales and was being mentioned or parodied in a number of high-profile spots. The Foo Fighters released a video, “Big Me,” which mocked the cheesiness of the ads; the candy was name-dropped in 1995’s Clueless; the brand got sustained exposure during an entire season of Baywatch.

The novelty began to wear off around 1999, when Mentos's sales had leveled despite major growth in what Ad Age dubbed the “strong mint category” of treats. Altoids was eating into market share, and Mentos-sponsored college concerts weren’t making much of a dent. After roughly a decade of near-constant rotation, the Freshmaker campaign began to settle down in 2002. Despite their reduced role in popular culture, Mentos remain a top-ranked mint in the confection business.

Jesse Peretz, who directed the Foo Fighters's parody video, may have summed up Mentos mania best. “The commercials,” he told Entertainment Weekly, “are total lobotomized happiness.”

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Cracking the History of L'eggs Pantyhose
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It was Robert Elberson’s job to take stock of a woman’s legs, and what he saw didn’t please him. It was 1968, and the recently-appointed president of Hanes Hosiery Mill Co. observed a growing number of pantyhose customers were grabbing cheap stockings at grocery stores for the sake of convenience. While a woman might shop for food multiple times a week, she would likely only head to a department store once every month or two. Rather than wait, she would purchase undergarments when it was most convenient.

The message was clear: Hanes needed to get its product into supermarkets. They would also have to stand out from the 600-plus other manufacturers who were producing pantyhose. Elberson needed a radical departure from the mundane cardboard packages. What his advertising firm came up with ended up revolutionizing the undergarment industry, and made the grocery store aisle practically competition-proof. It was called L’eggs, and it became a piece of retail art.

Ladies' undergarments experienced several radical paradigm shifts in the 20th century. Man-made nylon stockings, introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, provided an alternative to silk, which was pleasing to the eye and soft to the touch but tended to run and snag. When nylon was co-opted for the war effort, women drew “seams” on their legs to replicate the look and then practically rioted when stockings were once again made available.

In 1959, single-piece pantyhose made the labor of garters largely a thing of the past. Cheap to make and distribute, hundreds of companies glutted the market with product. But unlike other major consumer categories, there was no Coke or Pepsi—or even an RC Cola—of the pantyhose world; consumers had no brand loyalty. Pantyhose were pantyhose.

What women did prefer was buying them outside of department stores. This became even more apparent as the miniskirt and other slender fashion offerings made hem lines undesirable, and sales of hosiery climbed. Women, Elberson noted, embraced the convenience of tossing a pair of pantyhose in their cart along with bread and milk, even if the quality was poor. Hanes had been sticking with department stores. It was time for a change.

In 1968, Elberson and Hanes planning manager (and future executive vice president) David E. Harrold instructed their employees to begin work on designing a product that would capture a woman’s attention in the supermarket aisles. Because they feared department store buyers would revolt, they codenamed the project “V-1” and relegated it to the basement of the Hanes plant in Weeks, North Carolina. They enlisted graphic designer Roger Ferriter, of the ad firm Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, to revitalize the clichéd packaging common at the time: hose stretched over a piece of cardboard and inserted into a plastic sleeve.

Ferriter’s idea came to him the morning he was scheduled to make his presentation to Hanes. Crumpling the pantyhose in his hand, he realized it could fit inside an eggshell—and eggs, in Ferriter’s mind, were representative of something new, fresh, and natural. He gave it the name “L’eggs” and won over the Hanes executives in an instant.

Another designer, Fred Howard, developed the perfect complement to the egg-shaped package—a revolving display that housed the L’eggs shells and nothing else, so stores would be unable to stuff competing pantyhose in the rack. Hanes also eliminated wholesalers; they sold stores the product on consignment and hired sales reps to maintain the displays.

The one-size-fits-all L’eggs eggs made their debut in 1971. Hanes knew women wanted pantyhose in grocery stores. But how would they respond to an egg?

Within months, L’eggs was the top-selling brand in the hosiery market. Consumers were captivated by the package, the fact that the product largely held up over time, and the idea that they no longer had to feel obligated to run to a clothing or apparel store in order to replace a torn pair of stockings. Hanes recorded $120 million in L’eggs sales in 1972 alone. By 1976, they had taken 27 percent of the entire grocery store pantyhose business, virtually double that of their nearest competitor.

Like the Quaker Oats can and actual egg cartons, the L’eggs containers proved to be an enduring presence in the household. Some people used them as holiday decorations, party favors, or planters; Hanes had tremendous marketing success tweaking them in different colors for holiday promotions. They even released a book offering dozens of craft ideas. It sold 23,000 copies in its first month of release.

Despite the fact that L’eggs appeared to be a utilitarian product purchase, the growing eco-consciousness of consumers in the 1980s began to reject the idea that Hanes’s plastic design was good for the environment. From the perspective of Hanes, it was also a shipping hassle: the “dead space” in the egg not taken up by the rumpled pantyhose added to delivery costs. In 1992, the company unveiled a new, recyclable cardboard package with an ovoid top resembling an egg.

While the original L’eggs package reappears periodically for anniversaries and promotional duties, the design has largely been rendered obsolete by waste concerns. As a monument to retail design, however, it was once stocked in some of the most valuable shelf space in the world: the Museum of Modern Art.

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Jug Life: A History of the Kool-Aid Man
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When Robert Skollar joined the General Foods marketing team at Grey Advertising in 1988, it didn’t take him long to realize that there were certain perks that came with the job. As the executive behind the Kool-Aid ad campaign, Skollar inherited the Kool-Aid Man, the anthropomorphic pitcher of sugar water that had been a staple of the brand for more than a decade.

Two stories stand out: The first, Skollar says, is when he was working late one night and decided to try on the Kool-Aid Man’s fiberglass costume for himself. It was like being inside a Christmas ornament. “It’s hard to hear anything in there,” Skollar tells Mental Floss. “You just hope you don’t fall down.”

The second was when Skollar got caught up in the trend of New York professionals putting on elaborate birthday parties for their kids. Skollar asked Richard Berg, the voice of Kool-Aid Man’s “Oh, Yeah!” catchphrase, to actually wear the costume for a personal appearance at his son’s sixth birthday party. (Normally, Berg just recorded the line.) “It was the voice in the costume, which was a first,” Skollar says. “And half the kids were frightened to death.”

Fortunately, that was hardly the typical reaction. Introduced in 1975, Kool-Aid Man became one of the most beloved characters in advertising history, with a recognition factor that sometimes outpaced that of Ronald McDonald. He got his own video game, his own comic book, and his own museum display in Hastings, Nebraska.

Not bad for someone who started out as a disembodied head.

By the time advertising executive Marvin Potts created a sentient pitcher of Kool-Aid in 1954, the powdered soft drink mix had been on shelves for 27 years. Conceived by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, as an alternative to glass bottle drinks—which were expensive to ship—what was then known as “Kool-Ade” became a cheap, popular way to flavor water.

When Perkins sold the brand to General Foods in 1953, their contracted advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding trialed a few different television spots. Potts’s idea—a large, bulbous container of Kool-Aid with an animated mouth and eyes named Pitcher Man—was the most popular. (Company lore says Perkins came up with the idea after watching his kid draw a smiley face on the condensation of a window.)

In the 1960s, Kool-Aid opted for celebrity spokespeople like The Monkees and Bugs Bunny, relegating Pitcher Man to the sidelines. “I think they found out Bugs was overwhelming the whole campaign,” Skollar says. “Kids would remember him but forget the ad was for Kool-Aid.”

That ceased to be a problem in 1975, when Alan Kupchick and Harold Karp at Grey Advertising developed the idea for Kool-Aid Man, an evolution of Pitcher Man. His face stopped moving, but the addition of arms and legs gave the character a more bombastic personality. It also allowed him to commit sensational acts of property destruction.

Skollar recalls that the iconic breaking-through-the-wall sequence wasn’t necessarily planned. “From what I’ve heard, someone on set said that Kool-Aid Man really had to make an entrance, and someone else, maybe a producer, suggested he come through the wall.” Breakaway bricks were set up, and the character's fiberglass shell—“the same material used for a Corvette Stingray,” Skollar says—effectively became a wrecking ball.

Although he was never officially named Kool-Aid Man at the time, the mascot helped propel sales of the drink mix. “It was a phenomenon,” Skollar says. “Here you had this 50-year-old product that’s not really convenient and not particularly healthy, and it’s huge.”

As Kool-Aid Man’s star grew, so did his opportunities to branch out. The property got its own Marvel comic—The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man—as well as an Atari 2600 video game. The latter could be redeemed with 125 points earned from purchasing Kool-Aid, which amounts to about 62.5 gallons of sugar water. (You could also send $10 with 30 points.)

When Skollar was handed control of the campaign in 1988, the advice was pretty clear. “It was basically: Don’t screw it up,” he says, “and make it more contemporary.”

Skollar says he took inspiration from Pee-wee’s Playhouse and the Peter Gabriel music video for "Sledgehammer" to conceive of an entire Kool-Aid Man universe—one bursting with frenetic activity that kids would find exciting and adults would find impenetrable.

“Most kid ads had a storyline at the time,” he says. “This didn’t. It was just surreal.”

This Lynchian Kool-Aid Man was no longer 7 years old, as previous marketing campaigns had implied, but 14 years old—old enough to play guitar and surf. Once naked, he now sported jeans and cool shirts. Skollar believes that the kinetic spots helped usher in a new wave of kid advertising that relied more on visceral, MTV-style cuts.

Not all of Kool-Aid’s efforts were focused on hyperactive kids, however. The drink mix was not without its controversies, having once been associated with the Jonestown massacre in 1978, where cult leader Jim Jones coerced his followers into drinking Kool-Aid and Flavor Ade laced with cyanide. There was also the matter of Kool-Aid suggesting gobs of sugar be added to the drink for flavor.

“We did a campaign targeted to moms, ‘Having Kids Means Having Kool-Aid,’” Skollar says. “And we told them they could control the amount of sugar they used. We also pushed that Kool-Aid had Vitamin C.”

Under Skollar, Kool-Aid sales shot to third place in the soft drink category—behind only Coke and Pepsi.

Kool-Aid Man makes an appearance at the NASDAQ
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Skollar stayed on the Kool-Aid campaign through 1994, at which point the account was passed to Ogilvy & Mather. Eventually, the fiberglass costume became nylon and computer effects began to enhance his features.

CG was something Skollar had already started to experiment with, but eventually discarded it for the analog outfit. “There was something about that rawness, that awkward-looking pitcher breaking through walls,” he says.

One of the original costumes from 1975 sits in the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Hastings, Nebraska, a testament to the character’s enduring appeal. Skollar says he once had research data supporting the fact that over 90 percent of kids could recognize Kool-Aid Man on sight.

The same wasn’t necessarily true of adults. “I remember one time we were shooting an ad where Kool-Aid Man was walking over a hill at sunset, holding hands with a little girl,” he says. “And a junior brand executive taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘We can’t see his face. How will we know who he is?’”

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