You see them everywhere — as flashing signs on the side of the road, as obnoxious talking displays at the supermarket, as the only thing small children give a crap about at sporting events, and even as gigantic floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Everywhere you turn it seems like there’s a mascot strategically placed and designed to keep the products they represent top of mind for consumers in an always-changing marketplace.
Technically, a mascot is anything used to represent a group, organization or brand’s public identity. Typically it is a fictional character used as a spokesperson or ambassador, but in some cases real people (or live animals) fill the role too. Mascots play a crucial role in merchandising — specifically for sports teams — but really carry their weight when it comes to advertising.
In the early days of advertising, nearly every product had a mascot, presumably to draw attention and differentiate itself from competitors on the shelves of general stores. Back in those days, advertisers couldn’t rely as much on innovative packaging (lack of resources), commercial jingles (lack of radios and exposure) or funny TV spots (lack of being invented) to give their products an edge on the others. So they used fictional characters to represent the products they sold and created product associations that consumers would remember.
As time has moved on, more and more brands have shifted their focus and relied less on mascots to push their products out the door. It’s safe to say that the trend is a result of the sophistication and a general increase in intelligence of the average consumer. Plus many people consider a grown man dressed in a chicken suit to be a bit juvenile. A mascot for any product or brand that isn’t aimed at children in today’s culture is either:
A) trying desperately to cling to the good old days (the Michelin man for example — why else would he still be around?);
B) has embraced the role of goofy and/or creepy (the Froot of the Loom dudes who dress up a fruit; the Burger King king who shows up in your bed) to be different and memorable;
or C) is just throwing crap at the wall and hoping it sticks in the minds of potential customers (GEICO Gecko, GEICO Caveman, GEICO Googly Eyes).
I’ll give credit where it’s due though and admit that mascots do provide some key benefits — particularly in the form of nostalgia. Everyone can relate to and be taken back to the days of sugary breakfast cereals and Saturday morning cartoons. While the strategy behind lovable characters and food that’s terrible for you would almost assuredly be questioned in today’s society, it takes us back to when things weren’t so blatantly politically correct and corporate. Mascots also give brands a unique identity that people will remember — and brands will seemingly do anything to make sure you know their product.
Here are some classic mascots that would most likely be re-imagined if they were created today and a few that I just think are really sweet:
Miss Chiquita Banana: She dates to the mid-1940s and was originally some kind of female banana. In 1984 Chiquita morphed her into a real woman.
Mrs. Butterworth: This is the first of a few representatives on this list with some racial undertones. Mrs. Butterworth was originally a stereotypical African-American woman from the South that many felt was racist. She got a makeover sometime in the 1970s, but the one thing that’s never changed is the iconic bottle in the shape of Mrs. Butterworth.
Colonel Sanders: The founder of KFC with the secret recipe of herbs and spices was actually a real person, although he was never actually a colonel. Back in the day Sanders was given the honorary title for his achievements as a restaurateur and he just rode with it. I feel like it’s safe to say that his restaurants achievements probably wouldn’t garner the same prestigious honors in today’s culture and the outcry that the KFC Double Down created, but the guy sure knows how to cook a bird.
Charlie the Tuna: The face of StarKist Tuna is some kind of hipster tuna fish who was introduced in 1961. I’ve always wondered if Charlie was a cannibal because, afterall, he’s a tuna fish who encourages others to eat/buy tuna fish. Who would sell out their own kind like that?
Aunt Jemima: The second syrup on the list is also the second example of what was once considered an example of racism. In her early days, Aunt Jemima was depicted as what appeared to be an African-American slave with a kerchief on her head. After the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, Aunt Jemima transformed into a middle-class housewife.
The Kool-Aid Man: This gigantic pitcher of red Kool-Aid smashes through your wall and yells “Oh yeah!” but no one really ever seems to get upset that there’s a hole in the side of their house. The Kool-Aid Man is one of the most popular mascots ever and even had two video games and a comic book series in which he starred.
Uncle Ben: The last in the racial conversation is Uncle Ben, who was introduced in the 1940s and depicted as an elderly African-American with a bowtie that implied he was a domestic servant. The image is still used today but under the assumption that Uncle Ben is the company Chairman who just likes the bowtie look.
The Trix Rabbit; Tony the Tiger; Coco the Monkey; Snap, Crackle and Pop; Lucky the Leprechaun; Sonny the Cuckoo Bird; Toucan Sam; Buzzbee the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee; Cap’n Crunch; Count Chocula; Frankenberry: Without question the most recognizable and popular mascots are the ones aimed at children. General Mills and Kellogg’s have made a killing off these mascots over the years, and while their presence isn’t what it once was because of government sanctions to protect children from marketing, these mascots all live on. Even if it’s just in my heart.
Honorable mentions: Ronald McDonald; the Jolly Green Giant; Keebler Elves; Twinkie the Kid; Chick-fil-A cows; the Energizer Bunny; the Scrubbing Bubbles; Mr. Clean; Flo from Progressive (super annoying); The General (super stupid); the Aflac Duck.