Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Secret Life of Ronald McDonald (and other beloved commercial mascots)

You know that cute Aflac duck? A Loman-esque sad-sack life insurance peddler.

Mr. Clean? Not only is he gay but he’s got OCD. (That cleaning fixation? Hello!)

The Energizer Bunny? … I have two words: “Meth addict.” As he put it in his recent autobiography, Bang the Drum As Fast as I Can:

“The company never knew that I was cranked up. I told him it was Starbucks. After a while, I crashed and burned. Energizer let me go. I hit the skids. At one point, I was working as a bike messenger. I even did some gigs as the Easter Bunny, but they thought I was ‘too intense’ for the kids.”

And don’t even ask about Ronald McDonald, saddest of all clowns and slow-mo serial killer peddling trans fats to his child victims.

Cap’n Crunch. The Frito Bandito. Spuds Mackenzie. Mr. Peanut. These are universally recognized icons. Utimate branding symbols. Innocent reminders of childhood and objects of nostalgic affection for generations of Americans. These commercial mascots have moved product like nobody’s business and served as the benign face of multinational corporations.

But where did they come from? And, more to the point, what do they do when we’re not watching?

The official story is that these adorable characters sprung fully-formed from the heads of Madison Avenue hucksters – marketing’s brainchildren. We’re supposed to believe that the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the Jolly Green Giant are simply images on animation cells or CGI files, fictional imps that do their giggling and ho-ho-ho-ing and then disappear in the electronic ether.

However, here's the real story: These allegedly two-dimensional cartoon characters are autonomous creatures with secret lives that belie the feel-good corporate P.R. Lives that have seen more of their share of heartbreak, tragedy and scandal.

I have unearthed secret corporate dossiers that reveal the sordid, ironic machinations of these beloved product symbols, the shocking truth that the multinationals – often with the help of law enforcement – have buried.

You would be shocked to discover the grim reality behind the cheery façade of the characters you've grown to know, love and, often, eat. Facts such as:

• Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, who spent the best years of his life testifying that he was “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” has been in a padded cell in the avian wing of Creedmore Psychiatric Institution for the past nine years, diagnosed with an incurable case of chocarexia nervosa.

• The Michelin Man (a.k.a. Bibendum) was the victim of a Nazi experiment in which Dr. Josef Mengele tried to cross a Frenchman with a rubber tire. After the war, the beleaguered Bibendum worked as a carny freak, billing himself as “the rubber man” and asking for volunteers from the audience to “Go ahead and kick me.”

• The Cosa Nostra launched Chef Boy-ar-dee and once forced him to market Bonnan-Os, canned pasta in the shapes of Mafioso chieftains. However, he made them with such uncanny accuracy that the FBI was able to hunt down several of the Dons based on their macaroni likenesses. To escape the wrath of the Mob capos, Chef Boy-ar-dee entered the Federal Witness Protection Program and is currently living in an undisclosed location out West and working as a sous chef for Olive Garden.

• There is no greater symbol of the ravages of industrial capitalism than the Hamburger Helper’s “Helping Hand,” which was detached from the body of a worker in a meat processing factory mishap. The Hand is cryogenically frozen and partially thawed before each commercial appearance. The amputee has sued General Mills, the maker of Hamburger Helper, over ownership of the Helping Hand, while the Hand has become a grotesque celebrity who among other macabre stunts, threw out the first ball on opening day for the Kansas City Royals.

• Sure, we know that the Quaker Oats Quaker was a lifelong pacifist. But did you know he was also a political agitator? During World War II, he was jailed as a conscientious objector (and for wearing his goofy Amish-like outfit to his draft board induction). In the 1960s, his protests against the Vietnam War led J. Edgar Hoover to tap his phone, and he was finally killed during the invasion of Grenada by Cap’n Crunch. His remains were mixed with dehydrated berries and reintroduced as Dead Man’s Crunch, a short-lived breakfast cereal featuring the Grim Reaper on the box.

• Samuel Adams wasn’t the only Founding Father who made his own hootch. Madison, Jefferson and Hamilton all owned their own breweries, and recent scholarship reveals that the Founders wrote the Constitution during a keg party. (This may explain why Negroes were reduced to the status of three-fifths of a man, as well as the Electoral College.)

(Tomorrow, the true story behind the Jolly Green Giant.)

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