For this installment in my round-up on weird and unsettling advertising varmints, I want to go way back, to one of the earliest chapters of my childhood, and to what might just have been my first ever experience in having my psyche dented by a television ad intent on selling me junk I didn't need (I think it even predates the frightening experiences with a Honey I Shrunk The Kids TV spot described here). Somewhere, buried within the dark depths of my subconscious, is the weakly-repressed memory of an advertising campaign that terrified the snot out of my pre-school self, with the explicit threat that if I munched on a particular brand of granola bar, a legion of squirrels would materialise out of nowhere and devour me. For years, I was never entirely sure if the campaign really existed, or if it was just an exceptionally twisted nightmare induced by a mild Calpol overdose. Then YouTube came along and confirmed it. The killer squirrels were a thing, circa late-1980s, and they resented you pawing at their Quaker Harvest Bars. This is the first campaign I've reviewed to revolve around the concept that the cuddly mascots harboured nefarious intentions for consumers of the product in question, and it's every bit as peculiar as you'd imagine.
The original ad, in which a mob of sciurines close in on an unsuspecting park-goer and chase him into the sunset, is an exercise in flagrant absurdity, and yet it hits enough of the right notes in the ominousness department as to play authentically like a miniature horror piece. Conceptually, it visibly takes its cues from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), with a slow-building score that's reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975). All the elements are there - the brooding atmosphere, the hauntingly solitary victim, the weirdly grotesque visuals (check out the peepers on those squirrel puppets, with their disproportionately huge pupils). I'm not sure how this is supposed to make me hungry for granola bars, but it does make me weak at the knees in the best possible way. Animal attack horrors have always thrived by tapping into that latent fear that our status as the planet's dominant species is not as set in stone as we'd perhaps like to think, or at the very least that we can be knocked a couple of tiers down the food chain under the right conditions, and that's something that this particular ad nails down beautifully. Jaws and its long cycle of imitators are essentially reactionary films in which man gets to reassert his supremacy over a particularly monstrous member of the animal kingdom intent on making humans its prey, but some Man vs. Nature films insist on going deeper under the skin still. We may feel comfortable in the knowledge that other species are probably too far behind us on the rationality scale to be capable of launching any kind of coordinated rebellion, so any insinuation that our animal neighbours are actively conspiring against us can scarcely fail to seem disturbing. The Birds plays this scenario at its purest, most nightmarish level, offering no explanation for why the birds have apparently decided to declare war on humankind (no explicit explanation, although it's blatantly Jessica Tandy's character. She's the one that's doing it!). Other films, such as Colin Eggleston's Long Weekend (1978) have a clear environmentalist rhetoric, in which nature is actively responding to mankind's abuse of his planetary mastery, while in others the hostile fauna may even be a manifestation of their target's guilty conscience for their broader failings as a human being - the Devil Rodent of Joseph Sargent's Nightmares (1983) had a personal reason for her enmity with Richard Masur's businessman, but seemed to be punishing him for the sins of his yuppie-worshiping wallet as much as his crimes against her own flesh and blood. Here it's a simple case of nut envy, in which the squirrels and humans vie for control of the world's hottest nut-based products, with the squirrels intent upon harvesting the organs of any human brazen enough to flaunt one of coveted items in their presence.
The squirrels continued to harass Quaker-hungry humans across the latter end of the decade, although the outright horror elements were definitely toned done for subsequent installments, as you can see from the above ad in which the sciurines outfox a particularly cocksure kid who thinks he's got their number. By now, the squirrels have learned to use chainsaws, which should in theory make them all the more terrifying, although in actuality, it pushes them further along into the territory of Looney Tunes cartoons. Here, the squirrels have less in common with the avian avengers of The Birds than they do the pestilent villains of the Gremlins and Critters franchises, in that they're more quirky and mischievous than they are outright scary - in part because they look a lot more plush toy-ready this time round. The manner in which a couple of the puppets flex their ears as they swing into view is certainly a nice touch, and makes the squirrels appear more lively, but the horrible gawking eyes seen on those earlier models are very much missed.
To my knowledge, no plush toys ever surfaced, but if you bought packs of Quaker Harvest Bars back in the late 80s then you might have gotten your hands on some of these neat freebies. I would love a fall set of the squirrel hologram cards, although probably not for the insane price I last saw them going for on eBay. On second thoughts, perhaps the "Crikey, it's them!" card is the only one that I need.