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

MathUser13 via YouTube
MathUser13 via YouTube

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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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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