Pondering the Push and Pull of Protagonists in Food Marketing.
As someone who appreciates character branding, I’ve had a certain fascination with Fast Food Mascots, and their role in pop culture. One of my earliest memories was of my second (or was it my third?) birthday party, with my family at a McDonald’s in downstate Michigan. Now, living in the small town of Mio, back in 1985, they didn’t have a McDonald’s. So, unlike many other folks today, I can actually REMEMBER a time when eating at a McDonald’s was a rare occasion. Obviously, the things that stood out to me were the reds, and yellows. They had the Playland gimmick going on, although, if my memory serves me, it was before the ball pits. Cartoon characters, everywhere. Fry Kids. Grimace. Mayor McCheese. All that fast food #swag. The one thing I remember most? Taking pictures with my siblings next to one of those ceramic, life-sized Ronald McDonald statues.
Fast food, breakfast cereals, afternoon snacks: many of the foods that could be looked back upon as some of the main contributors to the current obesity crisis in America. They all had its own cartoon mascot. It’s safe to say that McDonald’s took a page right out of the playbooks of companies like Hasbro and Mattel, and decided to create an intellectual property that ultimately could just be written off as mass produced brain-killing escapism. So much so, that it lead to cross-promotional marketing stratagems, which at the time was unheard of. This is how the iconic Happy Meal was born. Before binge-watching She-Ra on Netflix became a viable drinking game, we were being treated to talking Chicken Nugget puppets, and giant yellow birds in aviator goggles. Burger King’s knock-off Kids Meal even had a cool looking motley crew of outcasts and freaks fighting, well, SOME good fight against, well SOMETHING that I can’t recall. That entire lot reeked of vintage Clairemont/Byrnes ‘76 Marvel. These assorted food products not only had mascot characters, they had a fully fleshed out stories and cannon!
It wasn’t enough that our modern mythologies came packaged with a cheap toy and a quarter hamburger in a cute cardboard lunch pail. Breakfast cereal made sure we were all being reminded of our socialist toils in Smurf village and anti-terrorist skirmishes against COBRA continued on, despite having to count down the days until Saturday morning to see it play out. Mom didn’t want you rotting your brain on Metroid before school? Back in my day, in the dark ages before Game Boy, we had to settle for the Nintendo Breakfast System. Which, basically was a box of fruit-flavored corn tooth-rot being pushed as a breakfast cereal. It was cool though, because unlike most cereals at the time, Nintendo’s cereal gave you OPTIONS! That’s right. The illusion of free will was being spun to us as a choice between the yellow and gold Legend of Zelda pill, or the red/blue sugary mushroom trip that was Super Mario Bros. Yes, these companies actually had the gall to think that shoving two cereals into a cardboard box and letting you choose your own adventure on the road to diabetes-town was a cool thing to do to a kid! Just thinking about this makes me want to find the nearest eighties nostalgist, and club him in his funny bone.
As we progress on a societal level, big change is inevitable. Back in the eighties, Americans found out their Joe Cool Camels were responsible for heaping amounts of health problems. In turn, this led to consumers going after tobacco lobbyists with pitchforks and torches. Seeing how we live in a just world that champions truth and justice, those tobacco lobbyists were publically shamed, and were forced to give back their ridiculous six-and-seven figure salaries…
Or, we would have, if we lived in said idealist society. Those same people had found themselves in lucrative jobs as food chemists and advertisers for corporate food conglomerates like PepsiCo, and General Mills.
The real ego bruiser was realizing that while running an individual out of town on a rail back in the eighties was difficult, thirty years later, its damn near impossible. Years of casual junk food consumption have left us all with extra pounds of high glucose corn syrup and trans-fat that weighs down our hobbit frames. So, running them out of town on a rail, essentially turned into a rigorous medium paced jog; one that leaves us winded after about three blocks, and walking home in regret. For roughly the last 20 years commodified food has dominated our daily eating habits. Much like cigarettes with the Joe Camel character, there was even debate as to whether advertising with cartoons and toys could even be considered ethical, once it became apparent that obesity in our nation’s youth spiraled out of control.
With consumer concern, the food industries would dial back on their blatant targeting of impressionable minds. Their playbook was made public with documentaries like Supersize Me and Fed Up. In response to consumer pressure, the advertisers representing these companies shifted focus away from zany cartoony antics. In Modern America, Ronald McDonald no longer gallivants with puppets in McDonaldland; he’s seen jogging in parks and hanging out on the street corner. Cereals not only no longer offer incentive toys, but their collective recipes as we know them are being changed as a casualty to the GMO proponents. Advertisers can only push X amount of food products during certain advertising blocks, as to not oversaturate impressionable minds with too many fruit snacks to obsess over.
Because of Americans change of artery-clogged heart, fast food sales are slumping. You can’t deny this, because all of the fast food places are virtually pawning their food off on us. Monthly BOGO coupon solicitations are now standard for companies like McDonald’s and Burger King; a practice neither utilized more than once or twice a year in the past. Taco Bell has expanded their hours of operations into the morning, and opted to push their edgy D-Generation X Deep Fried captain Crunch Breakfast Revolution, time-traveled from a marketing department in the mid-90’s. They’ve even taken massive losses creating customized flavoring and aesthetic options for things like pizza, in an attempt to reach across the aisle to Millennial “foodies”, throwing around buzzwords like “Sriracha” and “Balsamic” as a means to convince us their frozen fast food dough is worth putting in our digestive lining.
The most unsettling thing that I see advertisers doing these days, involves the mascots, themselves. As we’ve grown older, our mythologies have grown with us. Go to any billion dollar opening weekend Superhero movie, and you’ll find no shortage of characters who, once bright and optimistic in their approach, are now battered, bleeding. Standing around in tattered costumes in the rain, beating the hell out of each other, instead of a defined villain. It’s understandable that directors would want to take these characters, and reimagine them as “Gritty”. They do this to center a fantastic out-of-this-world concept in a situation rooted in cynicism and disbelief. That sort of thing is necessary for establishing a good narrative for a story. Now we are seeing advertisers taking their advertising icons, and doing the exact same thing! Now, this line of advertising had been successfully done before. In 2003, Burger King created a cross-media advertising campaign that centered around their King mascot, reimagined as a ghoulishly comedic Fast Food Michael Myers in a Halloween mask, staring you down with a Croissan’wich in hand while you slept. It was brilliantly absurdist, and it was funny. It was also, without a shadow of a doubt, aimed at their aging demographic who grew up in their play pens eating their cheeseburgers.
Initially the campaign was successful. As time went on, though not only did Creeper King manage to falter as an advertising icon, the advertising company behind the concept, CP+B, ended up losing a lot of money for Burger King over a seven year period. This was again attributed to a shift in public health consciousness. Around 2007, Frito-Lays chip mascot Chester Cheetah took a twist from Bart Simpson-esque cool cat, to revenge-pushing sociopath. Audiences found entertainment value in the unusually weird edge in these characters, which has culminated in a recent resurgence of “reimagined” brand mascots, corned up and humanized to unnecessary degrees.
This year, we’ve seen McDonalds bring back their iconic Hamburglar, as an edgy, five o’clock shadow sporting suave jewel thief brought out of retirement to heist a burger promotion that didn’t even last a full month. This campaign seemed to fall flat on its face, as word slipped about the character rebranding- in a company executive’s own words- as a “sleek, sexy hipster”.
Branding may be important. But in the 21st Century, it is important to remember that they can rotate the entire 1995-1996 Saturday Night Live cast to rotate in and out as Colonel Sanders, relying solely on a mascot’s allure isn’t going to fill restaurants or pantries. Advertisers are looking at an entire generation of kids from the eighties and nineties, and thinking that our attachments to our commercialized intellectual properties of our past are going to continue riding them along to their retirement. And while the nostalgic line of thinking certainly provides bank for cinema and television (at least for the moment), those attachments stem from a far more intimate experience than what we ate after school, while watching Reboot. I don’t know about you guys. But looking at these kind of advertisements, the ones that rely on gritty reimaginings of colorful Sid and Marty Krofft knock-offs, doesn’t that seem just a little bit… Insulting to our sensibilities?
Rick McDowell, AKA Comic Geek Punk is a writer, blogger, and gentleman adventurer. His credentials include being featured on an Adult Swim bumper at two in the morning, and having captured all 720 Pokemon through six game generations. You can reach out to him through any of Blueswade Cartoons various online media, or check out his stuff at facebook.com/comicgeekpunk.