Metlife, one of the world’s largest insurers, announced the end of its 30 year run of using the Peanuts gang as its pitch characters, with Snoopy the star of the show. The company cited a new branding campaign and the withdrawal from retail life insurance as principal reasons for terminating the use of the iconic comic strip cast. While the casting off of the little comic strip stars is one of the most radical advertising moves in recent memory, it is hardly uncommon.
Taco Bell makes the dog walk
In 1994, a little chihuahua named “Gidget” graced the stage of American advertising for the first time and spoke the legendary phrase, “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” The fast food Tex-Mex chain, attempting to capitalize on Super Bowl ad kitsch, staked its claim to this slice of advertising genius and the rest was history. Over the near 15 years, the “Taco Bell Dog” was in a variety of commercials for the chain, some of them featuring a “girlfriend” dog, others in silly scenarios such as the “Drop the Chalupa” ads. Other ad gimmicks included the pitchdog donning a Castro-style uniform for the “Viva Gordita” campaign, while one memorable ad tied, in to the Godzilla movie hype, featured the dog with a box-and-stick trap featuring Taco Bell food as “bait,” leading the dog to say the non-infamous line “uh oh, I think I need a bigger box.”
The dog was not without controversy. Immigration activists decried the campaign as racially insensitive and accused the chain of stereotyping Mexicans. The campaign itself came to an end in 2009 shortly after a federal court ruled Taco Bell had to pay the creators of the advertising gimmick nearly $50 million for breach of contract. Shortly after, the Taco Bell dog was never heard from again.
Domino’s Pizza struck advertising gold in the mid-1980s when it unveiled The Evil Noid, a red-suited, rabbit-eared advertising anti-hero which looked like a cross between a Claymation character and Stretch Armstrong. Taking a page from the animation craze of the day which made the California Raisins cartoon famous, the Noid’s evil schemes encouraged customers to look at Domino’s delivery window promise as a value-added services. Their slogan of “Avoid the Noid,” featured the Noid in a variety of plots to ruin pizza orders for hungry patrons. The gambit worked, with the Noid putting Domino’s Pizza on the map nationally. Soon, Noid merchandise was made available through Domino’s franchises, some of which is still available on Ebay.
Despite being what Fastco Design described as one of “the most inexplicably popular mascots in corporate history,” the Noid himself could not defeat real-life foolishness, and Domino’s retired the mascot after a mentally-ill Kenneth Lamar Noid robbed a Dominos’ Pizza in Atlanta, Georgia. While in prison, the real live Mr. Noid stated his belief that the company created the mascot to “persecute” him.
Izzy-is or Izzy-aint?
Few mascots flamed out faster – pardon the pun – than the one devised for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, named “Izzy.” Critics branded the mascot “Dizzy,” for its Olympic Rings-themed design, which left both opponents and enthusiasts dazed and confused. According to officials for the Atlanta Olympic Committee, Izzy was actually devised to help promote the games to kids and tourists coming to Georgia from outside the United States. The little blue bugger appeared at a variety of promotional events and groundbreaking ceremonies, and made an appearance at the Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta.
Sadly, Izzy never really gained traction as a viable advertising mascot. Unlike its cousin from the 1992 Barcelona Games, which resembled a cartoon cat (but really wasn’t), Izzy’s fortunes were doomed by poor design, as well as some religious fanatics who actually claimed the mascot, whose powder blue color scheme closely resembled the United Nations flag, was the “Mark of the Beast” of the biblical antichrist. On a humorous note, when a college newspaper in Georgia did a poll of what students thought the mascot looked like, one international student called it “a big hairy monster.” It quietly vanished after the opening ceremonies and was never heard from again.
The mid-1980s were famous for advertising mascots, and the beer industry did its part when Anheuser Busch brought out a bull terrier named “Spuds.” Dubbed “The Original Party Animal,” the pooch was featured in countless advertisements for the Budweiser and Bud Light, often alongside scantily clad college aged women. While the Spuds campaign was short-lived, his impact on beer advertising and American culture could not be understated. Two decades later, Target rolled out “Target Dog,” another canine mascot bearing a very suspicious resemblance to the beer pitchcanine.
An direct joking reference was made about Spuds in the Futurama episode “Fry and Slurm Factory.” A spoof of Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory, this episode features Philip Fry, the main character, getting to spend an entire day on the planet Wormulon with Slurms McKenzie, the “Original Party Worm,” and pitch slug for the futuristic, and highly addictive soft drink Slurm.
The Bud Bowl/Budweiser Frogs
Anheuser Busch again jumped on the silly advertising bandwagon in the late 1980s with the Bud Bowl concept, featuring animated beer bottles duking it out on a fictional gridiron. Team Budweiser and Team Bud Light annually battled it out for title of America’s Favorite Beer. The brewer put a Super Bowl III style twist on the ad spectacle during Super Bowl XXV when it rolled out the character of “Bud Dry,” a “franchise quarterback beer,” along with a series of advertisement jokes including extending of a short-neck bottle to a longneck to catch a ball, and the “Freezer,” an oversized can of beer designed to play off the nickname of William “The Refrigerator” Perry. The ads were a hit for several years but, as usual, the brewer rolled another gimmick, the Frogs.
In the mid 1990s, Anheuser Busch debuted a trio of bullfrogs blurting out the now-immortal “Bud”, “Wiiise”, “Eeeerrr.” The frogs were a hit for a year or two, then the beer giant added two vindictive ignuanas and dopey ferret to try to dethrone the frogs from their pads. Creators of the ads reveled at how, in one episode of The Simpsons, the frogs were eaten by an alligator which groaned “Cooooooors.” After several years, the shtick wore off, and Budweiser abandoned the swamp characters in favor of the more traditional advertising featuring their signature Clydesdale horses.
Metlife’s decision to move on from the Peanuts is not necessarily a slap in the face of customers, but an acknowledge of corporate advertising realities. As the insurance giant departs the retail life insurance arena, the need for its signature branding is greatly reduced. The Peanuts gang’s primary role was that of selling life insurance products to prospective and current customers. Rather being faced with litigation or public relations gaffes, Metlife simply did was Anheuser Busch did with its advertising; it recognized a changing market, adjusted accordingly, and will now roll out new branding. It is highly unlikely this is the last we’ve seen on the Peanuts gang in advertising; their timeless, cross-cultural appeal will make them the most valuable free-agent advertising property in the world.