Mascots Vie to Be No. 1 Ad Icon

Don't laugh at the hyperactive pink bunny or the 7-foot-tall peanut in spats. Mascots are our masters. They tell us which cereal to eat, which batteries to put in our CD player. Respect the bunny. All hail the peanut.

This week, Mr. Peanut and the Energizer Bunny are not only selling their products, they're selling themselves, competing with 24 other advertising icons in an online vote to be America's No. 1 advertising icon.

It's Mr. Peanut vs. Mr. Clean; the Michelin Man vs. the Coppertone Girl; Ronald McDonald vs. the Jolly Green Giant.

Will the M&M Spokescandies put the squeeze on the California Raisins? Can McGruff the Crime Dog take a bite out of the AFLAC Duck?

If you mistake this for the Olympics, you're as cuckoo as the Coco Puffs bird. Still, the top five vote-getters will have their names immortalized in concrete on Madison Avenue's new Advertising Walk of Fame.

At a TV news conference to kick things off, Miss Chiquita went negative, pointing out that Mr. Clean was full of chemicals, while Woodsy Owl vowed to stop candidates from trash-talking.

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch lectured Tony the Tiger, the Kool-Aid Pitcher and other mascots on the finer political points of hand-shaking and baby kissing. The Wise Potato Chip Owl handed out campaign buttons, as Ronald McDonald bragged about being endorsed by Mayor McCheese.

Maybe this entire election smacks of self-promotion. But isn't that true of all politics? And it's still interesting to see who will be the master of the mascots.

The results will be revealed Sept. 20 as part of Advertising Week in New York City, when industry leaders gather in New York. Fans can vote for their favorite at http://promotions.yahoo.com/advertisingweek_2004.

Just as important, now that these icons are candidates in an election, we can scrutinize them more closely.

At first I wondered why the St. Pauli Girl wasn't in the running. Then I learned that at least four former St. Pauli Girls have posed in Playboy, including Heather Kozar (Playmate of the Year 1999), Neriah Davis (Miss March 1994), Jaime Bergman (Miss January 1999) and Lisa Dergan (Miss July 1998). "Being in Playboy doesn't hurt your chances to be the St. Pauli Girl," says Dergan, who worked for St. Pauli last year and is now a Fox Sports Net reporter. "You actually make a better product representative."

Even the cleanest of corporate mascots can't help but get involved in a little bit of controversy.

Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, made a comeback a few years ago with a noticeable tummy tuck, perhaps to keep his career from going stale. Still, you'll never see him shot from behind, because he's very sensitive about his buns.

Let's just call these mascots products of their environment, and let's take a look at a few.

1. Battery Bunny Wars

The Energizer Bunny keeps going and going and going. But he wasn't the first pink bunny to sell batteries on TV. That honor goes to the forgotten Duracell Bunny. The Energizer Bunny is something of a copycat.

In a 1974 TV commercial, Duracell demonstrated its long-lasting alkaline batteries with a mechanical toy rabbit beating on a drum, racing other battery-powered rabbits, and always winning.

Energizer introduced its own "spokes-hare" in 1989, to take on Duracell, after Duracell's rabbit retired.

At first, Duracell sales went up, apparently because so many consumers associated the pink bunny with Duracell. Now, 15 years later, the Energizer Bunny has starred in 107 commercials, and is now kicking off a new $68 million ad campaign.

And just about every hyperactive newsmaker — from Regis Philbin and John Edwards to Dick Clark and Michael Phelps — is dubbed an "Energizer Bunny."

Who's a Duracell Bunny? Maybe Howard Dean. 2. AFLAC Annoys Affleck

You've got to give the squawking AFLAC Duck credit. Not only has it made AFLAC one of the fastest-growing insurance companies, but it also annoys Ben Affleck.

"Everywhere I go, no matter what I do, there is always some drunk lady screaming 'AFLAC,' " the actor groaned on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

People magazine tried to help matters by pointing out that the AFLAC duck had never laid an egg, whereas Affleck had starred in Reindeer Games.

3. Raisin Hell in Washington Raisins are a natural source of energy, but apparently the California Raisins didn't have enough energy to march in the inaugural parade in 1989, when the first President Bush was sworn into the White House.

The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports invited the singing, dancing raisins to march alongside its float as part of the "Stay Fit America" campaign.

Unfortunately, the rotund raisins weren't fit enough to march the 2½-half-mile parade route in their heavy costumes and were forced to decline.

To make matters worse, on the final weekend of the campaign, Bush had been quoted disparaging the sun-ripened mascots, saying that he canceled a planned return to a California town because he did not want to see those "damned dancing raisins" again.

Apparently, the red-hot raisins had gotten a bigger applause than the future president at one political rally with their rendition of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

The wrinkled mascots eventually put petty politics aside and rode a float past Bush's viewing stand.

"His remark certainly didn't warm the cockles of our heart," Robert Phinney, a spokesman for the California Raisin Board told reporters, "but his people said he said it in a joking way."

4. Nuts to You, Senator:

Never underestimate the political clout of a 7-foot-tall nut. When Mr. Peanut goes to Washington, politicians have no choice but to embrace the lovable legume — or else.

"As much as we appreciate Mr. Peanut and the production of peanuts, were it not for the fact that the Planters plant was a mainstay of the economy in Suffolk [Virginia], I would not be posing with a peanut," then-Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia told The Washington Post in 1991, at a Capitol Hill event celebrating the Planters mascot's 75th birthday.

"Is this going to be in the paper tomorrow?" he asked. And, of course, it was.

These days, Mr. Peanut is heavily courting the NASCAR vote, cruising the country in his Nut Mobile.

5. Quakers Flaked-Out by Oats:

Quakers are famously committed to pacifism, but they've been so angry over the Quaker Oats man, they've sued to have him removed from cereal boxes.

Contrary to popular belief, Quakers never ran the cereal company. In 1877, company founders created the logo in honor of the early American settlers who belonged to this Christian sect, also known as the Society of Friends.

Feeling exploited in the name of breakfast cereal, some Quakers petitioned Congress to ban using the name of a religious denomination in a product — but to no avail.

"If you'd like to sell Methodist Waffles or Catholic Bran Flakes, you're free to do so," says author Laura Lee in The Name's Familiar.

The Frito Bandito came under similar fire in the 1960s, with some Hispanics complaining that the mustachioed, singing corn chip bandit was an ethnic stereotype. 6. Woodsy Owl Endangered:

Smokey Bear's "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute" sidekick became something of an endangered species in the mid-1980s. The U.S. Forest Service stopped using Woodsy Owl when controversy erupted over the spotted owl.

The timber industry clashed with environmentalists, who argued that logging was endangering the rare bird. The Forest Service feared that if Woodsy appeared at a state fair, some folks in logging communities would be upset. Some people even suggested Woodsy should adopt a new slogan: "Give a Hoot, Don't Shoot!"

Woodsy, however, has a higher profile again, and often appears with Smokey at events. He re-emerged in the mid-1990s with a sleek design and a new slogan: "Lend a Hand, Care for the Land."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to know when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.

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