So far in this round-up of horrifying advertising animals, the four-legged shills we've looked at have all been artificial beasties, be they mechanical monstrosities, taxidermy rejects or Cockney geezers in funny party costumes. If you really want to take a tumble down the rabbit's hole of strange and unnerving advertising, however, then all you have to do is take a real live animal and have a bunch of humans act like they want to get freaky with it. Hence, we move onto Spuds MacKenzie, one of the defining campaigns of its era, as well as one of the more controversial. The campaign, which first launched during the Super Bowl XXI in 1987, might be viewed as a precursor to the recurring Animaniacs segment "Chicken Boo", in that it revolved around an English bull terrier whose playboy lifestyle and love of Bud Light had made him into a world-renowned sex symbol...despite the glaring impediment of him being a dog, a fact that none of Spuds' adoring admirers and groupies (odiously known as the "Spudettes") ever saw fit to comment on. The closest that anyone comes to acknowledging Spuds' caninity is in his title, The Original Party Animal. That's a cute enough pun, although I'm not sure that it's strictly accurate (my understanding is that the Spuds campaign was actually Budweiser's answer to Stroh's "Alex" campaign about a flesh-and-blood hound with a drinking addiction). The entire concept was weird as sin, but absurd enough that if you got terribly hung up on the implications, you were essentially bringing it on yourself with your own demented mindset. When Bill Stolberg, Spuds' own personal "manager", was questioned in this Mental Floss article about the campaign's implicit pro-bestiality slant, he responded, "You'd have to be pretty bizarre to think anything like that." He's got my number there, I guess.
Spuds certainly liked to play at being a playboy, although the truth is that he was a hardly-boy, and a dog (wordplay I must attribute to William Wegman, another purveyor of freaky canine anthropomorphism). In reality, Spuds was a female terrier who, when not in the spotlight, went by the funkier name of Honey Tree Evil Eye. Says Wikipedia: "The dog, a Bull Terrier, was not without its share of controversy. Shortly after Spuds' rise to fame it was learned that the dog, who was portrayed as male in the commercials, was actually female." Alright, seriously? Wikipedia has that down as a controversy? Firstly, that's really not unusual at all. We all know that for most of "his" career, Benji the dog was played by a female mutt named Benjean. The Taco Bell Chihuahua was depicted as a male but was actually a female named Gidget. Did anybody out there really feel compelled to raise hell all on account of Spuds' gender-bending antics? I mean, if you're already perfectly cool with the idea of a dog being trailed everywhere by hordes of infatuated groupies while swigging Bud Light, then surely the revelation that the dog's really a lady isn't suddenly going to make the scenario seem problematic to you? The aforementioned Mental Floss article makes reference to a tongue-in-cheek television interview Spuds once gave to Dick Clark, in which Clark explicitly raised the issue of Spuds' rumoured femininity (along with that other major sticking point about Spuds MacKenzie that no one seemed to want to talk about) and a trio of adoring Spudettes bent over backwards to defend the dog's "full-on macho" image. "He's got three women around him, and I don't think we would be following him..." remarked one Spudette, hoping that you wouldn't entertain the possibility of a lesbian posse, or even a platonic friendship between a dog and the humans who would choose to hang around with her. Like George the Hofmeister Bear, the mythos surrounding Spuds was designed to perpetuate the idea that allegiance to the brand meant participating in a culture of cool, as exemplified by its unlikely choice of mascot. Spuds' status as a media megastar was reinforced by his animal magnetism and the number of women he always had at his side (unlike George, who was no stranger to the ladies but was typically backed up by a trio of young men eager to emulate the Cockney ursine's example). Men played a more limited role in Spuds' public image, for they were presumably off observing the playboy pup from afar and regarding him with envious eyes. The ladies loved Spuds while the men wanted to be him. And yet he was, when all is said and done, a dog. The suggestion that Spuds' secret womanhood could shatter "his" image as a manly role model felt in itself like part of the underlying gag. As if being female would make Spuds any less of a party animal.
There were, however, plenty of legitimate controversies surrounding the hedonistic Spuds - chiefly, the usual charge that he was making alcohol consumption look appealing to children, particularly in light of the large amount of Spuds merchandise that was available at the peak of the campaign. I've even heard rumours that the Spuds controversy helped to kill off an entirely unrelated property, the short-lived children's cartoon Rude Dog and The Dweebs (which was based on a line of sportswear), all because the titular Rude Dog was also a bull terrier and as such bore an unavoidable resemblance to the beer-endorsing Spuds, although I've never been able to verify this information. (Side-note: I did used to watch Rude Dog, and talk about a misleading moniker. Rude Dog wasn't rude at all, beyond telling me to slam my eyeballs against something every week.) Despite its massive popularity, the Spuds campaign proved to be relatively short-lived, and Honey Tree Evil Eye made her last appearance as Spuds in 1989.
Like Gidget the Chihuahua, Spuds MacKenzie was also subject to the kind of elusive phenomenon that can only occur when your mascot is a real flesh-and-blood entity - namely, the urban legend that said mascot met some kind of grisly end while promoting their assigned product and that their company were desperately trying to keep it under wraps. People Magazine even ran an article in 1987 designed to debunk the plethora rumours Spuds had drowned in a hot tub or in a freak surfing accident, in which they spilled all manner of beans about the dog's private life and even went so far as to publish the full home address of Spuds' real owners, the Oles of North Riverside, Illinois, leaving them open to ambushes from avid Spuds-lovers and nosy reporters. Of course, it's now 2018 and time waits for no man or dog, so you won't be surprised to learn that Honey Tree Evil Eye is no longer with us; she died of renal failure in 1993.
HTEE's boundless charisma not withstanding, I must admit that I find the Spuds MacKenzie campaign to be fairly insipid overall. Once you get past the whole, "My god, it's a dog...so why are those human females acting like they want to bang him?" angle, it lacks the skin-crawling visuals of the respective Duracell/Energizer rabbit campaigns, the self-aware nuttiness of Budweiser's Swamp Gang campaign, or even the dank sleaziness of George the Hofmeister Bear. There's a dash of kitsch in the individual commercials which call for Spuds to do something particularly outlandish, like strum a guitar or do an Olympic pole vault, but in general the appeal of the campaign rests on how charmed you are by the sight of a dog wearing people clothes. There's not really a whole lot going on besides, so it doesn't surprise me that the campaign had such a limited shelf-life. Animaniacs took this same basic gag (people-don't-realise-this-is-really-an-animal-or-do-they?) and built the perfect routine around it with Chicken Boo; by contrast, Spuds really didn't know how to keep the party going.
And yet, Spuds left an indisputable paw print on popular culture, to the extent that people were still parodying the dog long after the campaign's relevance had all but dried up. The Futurama episode "Fry and The Slurm Factory", which first aired on 14th November 1999, had a character called Slurms McKenzie, the "Original Party Worm". The Simpsons episode "Old Yeller-Belly", which first aired 4th May 2003, has family greyhound Santa's Little Helper ditching the Simpsons for a new life as Duff Beer mascot Suds McDuff. Bud Light even revived the character, briefly, for a one-off ad in 2017, in which a Honey Tree Evil Eye lookalike appeared in spectral form in order to play Jacob Marley to a young Scrooge about to commit the heinous crime of spending an evening at home by himself instead of attending a party and swigging Bud with friends. There are some in-jokes alluding to the ludicrous nature of the campaign of Bud Light past, notably Spuds' insistence that "I'm a man, you're a man." The only problem is that this new ad called for Spuds to suddenly acquire the gift of the gab, somewhat detracting from the entire conceit that Spuds is fundamentally a dog (albeit one who would occasionally get to showcase some remarkable talents) whom everyone has inexplicably accepted as one of their own. Indeed, I suspect that a large part of the appeal of the Spuds campaign is that he wasn't overly anthropomorphised as a character, and that minimal effort was made to create the illusion that a dog actually would give a damn about Bud Light. Rather, "he" was a nonplussed and indifferent creature who got to sit around being cute and unassuming while the human world insisted on acting out a barrage of silly fantasies around "him". There's not a whole lot of bite to Spuds, but I guess it reveals much about how intrinsically weird we are as a species.