It’s practically a given that any model or actor serving as product spokesperson is going to get a good airbrushing before the public ever sets eyes on their ad. But, as a corporate icon, you don’t have to be an actual human being to fall victim to society’s standards of perfection. Some of America’s most enduring company mascots are getting their own virtual nips and tucks. As it turns out, unless you’re the Michelin Man, in this day and age, you’d better have a good reason for carrying a spare tire.
While popular culture may be allowed to impose its weight-loss demands on corporate America, it has also force-fed companies a diet of social sensitivity. We’ve seen our mascots get changed for the better. In other cases, no amount of Photoshop could filter out the offensive -- sending them instead into early retirement.
Larry, the Quaker Oats Man
I don’t know about you, but when I’m shopping for a theologically-branded oatmeal, I expect a certain level of sex appeal from the guy on the package. Lucky for me, Larry, the Ben Franklin look-alike who’s been the face of the Quaker Oats company since 1877, looks like he just returned from mascot fit camp
Thanks to design agency Hornall Anderson under the direction of Quaker Oats and parent company Pepsi Co
(PEP), Larry has gone up a notch or two on the William Penn scale of hotness. So long chubby cheeks and double chin, hello jawline. And Larry hasn’t only dropped some weight, a couple inches
have been taken off his white locks, as well as several years off his age. The more mesomorphic Larry carries a broader set of shoulders, into which we’ll now all surely swoon.
Hawaiian Punch’s Punchy
Some product pitchmen not only undergo physical transformations, they’re forced through an anger management program. When Hawaiian Punch’s cartoon mascot first debuted in TV commercials in the early 1960s, he had some pretty violent tendencies -- cold-cocking
his sidekick in the face without provocation. Although, you could argue that Opie had it coming by answering in the affirmative to Punchy’s catchphrase: “How about a nice Hawaiian Punch?”
Now owned by Dr Pepper Snapple Group
(DPS), the modern-day Punchy has, to borrow an outdated term, mellowed-out. He’s relaxed that once balled-up fist and uses the other to clench a surfboard. Perhaps his therapist recommended recreational sports to help to temper his rage.
If turning Punchy into a surfer dude seems like a lame, politically correct overreaction to parental concerns about violence, wait till you get a load of his new look
. Dipping a little too far into the “uncanny valley,” where he looks too human for comfort, the newly computer-generated Punchy is an obvious product of the Pixar generation. While he’s probably a hit with kids, their parents may prefer the Punchy of the Hanna-Barbera era.
When General Mills
(GIS) first introduced its monster cereal lineup in 1971, the complexion of its caped mascot was less Bela Lugosi and closer to, say, Blacula
. Now Count Chocula looks like Adam Scott’s reflection in a funhouse mirror. Freakishly elongated and thin, but decidedly white
If the cartoon character with the Transylvanian accent did indeed get a “race-over,” he may have lost his religion, too. The hook nose, often used to caricature Jews in anti-semitic propaganda, was a prominent feature on Count Chocula’s face. Today, after some botched rhinoplasty, his schnoz looks like Pinocchio’s after a fibbing streak.
Incidentally, General Mills did receive backlash
from the Jewish community in 1987, not for the chocolate-sucking vampire’s nose (which, at that point, was beak-like) but for the image of Bela Lugosi on the box
wearing what appeared to be the Star of David. Although it wasn’t an artistic choice on the company’s behalf -- instead depicting Lugosi as he was dressed with the medallion in the 1931 film Dracula --
the box was nonetheless pulled from shelves and remains a rare collector’s item.
You couldn’t find a more racially charged trademark if it was barefoot in a cotton field. This mammified mascot was, after all, modeled after a black-faced performer her creator saw in a late 19th century minstrel show
Quaker Oats even gave Aunt Jemima the backstory of a former slave who was nostalgic for her days “befo’ da woh” working on a colonel’s
plantation in Louisiana. Apparently Aunt Jemima was distracted from the need to be a free human being by the smell “radiatin’” from her stacks of self-rising pancakes.
As an uneducated simpleton, Aunt Jemima’s poor grasp of spelling and grammar is certainly forgivable. “Only wif my magic recipe can you turn out dese tender, 'licious, jiffy-quick pancakes dat makes yo' family happy,” she’s made to say in an ad from 1938
. What’s remarkable, however, is that this passed the desk of her copy editor.
Only with the advent of the civil rights movement and protests from African Americans did Quaker Oats gradually begin to alter this mammy image. In 1968, the morbidly obese icon, who sported an apron and kerchief, finally shed most of her body mass and traded her bandana for a modest-looking headband. Her most recent image overhaul
happened in 1989 when the headband disappeared and she was given a pair of pearl earrings and a lace collar.
It could be argued that, like Betty Crocker, who now represents the baked goods brand in-name-only, Aunt Jemima, even with her numerous facelifts, should be nixed from packaging altogether.
It couldn’t have been a huge shocker when the National Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (MAADC) took issue with a Spanish-accented, mustachioed, sombrero- and bullet-belt clad, gold-toothed, scruffy-faced animated mascot that robbed people of their corn chips. In 1968, this creation
, brought to life by animator Tex Avery and Mel Blanc (also the voice of Speedy Gonzales), was Frito-Lay’s misguided attempt to market its flagship product to the public.
The flack from MAADC forced the softening of Frito Bandito’s image from wanted thief to relatively harmless rascal. His teeth were capped, his six-shooters were holstered, he got a shave, and he even turned philanthropic -- giving away free colored pencils
to the “keeds.”
But the post-op Frito Bandito didn’t cut it with MAADC. Bans were instituted by television affiliates, threats of a multi-million dollar lawsuit
loomed, and Congress made him the subject of a House subcommittee hearing on ethnic defamation in broadcast media. The spokesvillian took a permanent siesta in 1971.
It’s hard to believe the current incarnation of the Cleveland Indians’ trademarked logo is actually an improvement. The brick red-skinned cartoon character with the oversized nose and toothy grin that has polarized baseball fans for over half a century, is a “more respectful” version of its forefather.
Emblazoned on uniforms from 1946 to 1950, the previous mascot
was a reflection society’s tolerance of bigoted imagery in the media. Sporting an even more savage look, it mirrored depictions of Native Americans seen in cartoon series like Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series
coming from the Warner Brothers
(TWX) studio at the time.
But, let’s face it, the major league baseball team needs to take a further step back to fix the racism entrenched in its ball club. Before Cleveland can even dream of replacing Chief Wahoo, it must come to terms with the fact that it’s team name is not only anachronistic, it’s a misnomer.