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.”

A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

The Great Bart Simpson T-Shirt School Ban of 1990

Courtesy of The Captain's Vintage

At Lutz Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio, principal William Krumnow took to the public address system to deliver an important message. It was April 1990, late in the school year, but Krumnow’s announcement couldn’t wait. Over the intercom, he declared there would be a ban on T-shirts featuring Bart Simpson, the rebellious breakout star of The Simpsons.

Specifically, Krumnow was concerned with a shirt that featured Bart aiming a slingshot with the word underachiever emblazoned in quotes above him. “And proud of it, man!” Bart said. This, Krumnow felt, was an unnecessary bit of subversion in a place of learning.

"To be proud of being an incompetent is a contraction of what we stand for," Krumnow told Deseret News in May of that year. "We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids … the show teaches the wrong things to students."

Krumnow was not alone. School district administrators in Florida, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. were cracking down on the surge in Bart shirts, fearing his status as a miscreant would be the wrong kind of role model for kids to emulate.

 

The apparel ban was a result of the success of The Simpsons, which had premiered months earlier on December 17, 1989 and featured a dysfunctional nuclear family consisting of Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. It was an immediate hit for the fledging Fox network and led to a number of merchandising deals.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

While the entire cast of the show was marketable, it was 10-year-old Bart who became the licensing phenomenon. An estimated 15 million Bart shirts were sold in 1990 alone, and there was no mystery as to why the character appealed to kids: He loved skateboarding. He hated school. He was a mirror image of millions of students across America. But unlike many of those students, Bart refused to censor himself, wielding a sharp tongue to match his spiky hair.

“Eat my shorts,” read one of the shirts. “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” asked another.

While some of the shirts, which were priced from $11 to $14, weren’t as inflammatory—Bart urging “Don’t have a cow, man” was the top-seller—the more incendiary designs were what upset school officials. The language was inconsistent with what school districts considered to be appropriate attire, and several dug deep to justify prohibiting students from wearing them. They cited concerns that other students might find the words objectionable or offensive and believed Bart's rogue attitude was incompatible with a respectful environment.

At Memorial Junior High School in Lansing, Michigan, principal James Shrader got on the intercom to inform students the shirts would not be allowed. At Burnham Elementary in Burnham, Illinois, district superintendent—or, as Ralph Wiggum might say, district Super Nintendo—Al Vega was pleased no students had even attempted to wear the shirts.

“Hopefully it’s because parents feel the same way I do,” Vega said. “Why would parents allow kids to wear those to school? I, as a parent, am not going to let my kid wear that to school.”

 

Not all parents were on board with the ban. Orange, California's Jeannette Manning told People she was considering buying a shirt for her son “on principle.” Another mother, Maira Romero, couldn't understand why her 11-year-old son Alex was being reprimanded for wearing the shirt. "I’d much rather have him wearing a Bart Simpson [shirt] than one of those rock and roll T-shirts with the skull and crossbones on it,” Romero said.

Cartoonist and creator of "The Simpsons" stands 1992, with a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson
'The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening stands next to a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson in 1992.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Child development experts weren’t so sure, either. Some pointed out that when something is labeled off-limits, it becomes more attractive to teens who are prone to rebellion. Ignoring it and dismissing it as a fad was a better option, some said. At Wells High School in Chicago, principal David Peterson dismissed the idea the shirts had any kind of negative influence.

“It’s like a kid saying, ‘I hate school,’” he said. “Am I going to suspend him for that? I don’t think so.”

Students caught wearing the Bart shirts faced a variety of repercussions. At Brookwood Junior High in Glenwood, Illinois, teachers ordered students wearing the shirts to call their parents and have them bring a change of clothing. Other schools forced kids to turn the shirts inside-out. Some had teachers cover the offending words with tape. The controversy grew so widespread that by the summer of 1990, retail chain JCPenney decided to take the “underachiever” shirts off shelves in kid’s sizes. What some had dubbed the Bartlash had reached new heights.

 

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, thought the shirt prohibition was silly. “I have no comment,” he said when asked about the backlash. “My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” But Groening couldn’t resist pointing out that the word “underachiever” appeared on the shirt in quotes, indicating that it was his (fictional) school officials who had given him that label. Bart was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

“He didn’t call himself an underachiever,” Groening said. “He does not aspire to be an underachiever. If you’ll recall, this last season, Bart did save France.” (In “The Crepes of Wrath,” which aired in April 1990, Bart is sent to France as a foreign exchange student and exposes his two winemaking hosts who spike their product with antifreeze. He learns French in the process.)

While The Simpsons has gone on to broadcast another 30 seasons of television (and counting), observers who considered the shirts to be fads were correct. The furor quickly died down and kids found new iconography to wear. By June 1991, Simpsons shirts had been discarded in exchange for the cast of Fox’s other hit series, the sketch comedy In Living Color. (Homey the Clown was a bestseller.)

Today, you can find vintage Bart shirts on eBay or online clothing shops like The Captain's Vintage, which offers a classic Bart "Who the hell are you?" shirt in white for $89.99.

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