A History of Pop Culture Subversion: Nine Food-and-Drink Mascots Who Totally Ruined Your Life

Hey, you! Humanoid American of non-specified ethnicity or gender born between the years of 1980 and 1985!

Are you suffering from a low-grade case of of pre-midlife malaise? Are you currently jobless, newly dumped, or suffering a case of the existential snifflies? Are you beginning to suspect that maybe you’ve totally flunked your own life?

IT MIGHT NOT BE YOUR FAULT!

I’m no “scientist,” but on this rainy first day of autumn, I’ve got some “science” to drop all the same. This may be of great interest to you, oh-malcontented reader, because it places the blame for your unfortunate Failure to Achieve squarely onto the slumpy shoulders of sinister forces far, far beyond your control.

No, I’m not referring to the already quivering clavicles of your poor, pre-diabetic parents. Nor am I referring to the hirsute upper arm sockets of that gym teacher you caught scratching his balls like six times during elementary school, although it happened to me, too, and I agree that it was totally traumatizing.

May I direct your mopey, blamey countenance, instead, in another direction entirely? Let’s time-travel a moment. Back to 8-year-old You, and to the colorful, guwaffing parade living inside the Magic Happiness Box in your childhood entertainment room.

You remember. Chester Cheetah. Tony the Tiger. The Pillsbury Doughboy. The Grape Maid.

Yes, their friendship made the years of 1985-1993 – an otherwise existentially dark period for so many – so much more comestible. But guess what? They were ALL trying to make you do bad things. And by the look of it, they succeeded.

Here’s what you might not have considered when you were so cheerfully occupied with shoveling tasty, corn-syrupy treats down your greedy little-kid gullet at 3:45 each afternoon whilst watching TV commercials entreating you to entreat your poor, pre-pre-diabetic parents to buy you even more tasty treats: You were ingesting a whole lot more than a rainbow-colored mass of reconstituted vegetable matter.

That long parade of sleazebaggy, anthropomorphic mascots didn’t just make you sort of fat and difficult to employ; they encouraged you to do drugs, waste money, and consent to questionable sexual encounters, thus corrupting your conception of socially acceptable behavior so thoroughly that you never stood a pink-coconut-frosted Hostess Snowball’s chance in Hell the Grown-Up World.

Don’t believe me? Let’s examine the evidences. Herewith, a retrospective of pop-culture subversion:

 

Chester Cheetah: The Devirginizer

He’s not quite a man. He’s not quite an animal. But he’s lanky, he’s smooth-tongued, and he was the wishful precursor to every hot, trashy, older guy you ever met at the mall food court before you reached the age of consent. This smooth-talking, snack-food-craving cat lured in his prey with a deep, syrupy voice and a come-hither stare. But so occupied was he with sating his animal hunger that he totally failed to spot life’s oncoming obstacles, be they freight trains, inauspiciously positioned lamp posts, or pesky misdemeanor probation violations. You didn’t care what your dad said about him, his saggy pants, or his long-term prospects. You were going to marry him and have a zillion of his orange, puffy babies . . . Until you went away to college and he got three years for possession. It is most definitely not easy being cheesy.

 

Tony the Tiger: The Performance-Enhancing-Substance Peddler

He’s ultra-macho. He circuit trains tirelessly. He probably knows more about sports even than Bo Jackson does, and he definitely knows more about them than that soft, squishy, Coors-light-swizzling bugger you called a father. The burly, bemuscled Frosted Flakes mascot may or may not have had a wee steroid problem, but no matter! Tony the Tiger primed you for the dubious training directives of that high school football coach who pumped his charges full of barely legal performance-enhancing substances before every single Big Game. Energy flagging? Here! Eat this bowl of crispy corn flakes covered with a mysterious white substance. And cue superhuman endurance! Outta the park! Yeah, his protein smoothies tasted like floor polish and you peed blood sometimes, but coach only wanted to push you to do your youthful best, and besides, has a double-dose creatine colada really ever hurt anybody? Yes. Yes, it has.

 

The Grape Maid: The Bible thumper

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Ah, sweet unattainable. Like many food-and-drink spokeswomen, this neutral, smiling damsel hews flawlessly to the feminine exemplar: the Grape Maid wears a red bonnet over a corona of brown curls cascading down her slender shoulders, her tiny waist obscured by a large basket of freshly plucked green grapes – symbols of ripening and fertility. This fruity bastion of purity was as virginal and unattainable as the first-row choirgirl you dreamed of banging for four years of high school and the first three months of college as well. She wore modest dresses, clear lip gloss and went to church camp, sure, but she was transmutated into your own personal Hail Mary over the course of a thousand feverish adolescent daydreams. You can stop rhapsodizing. Today, your sweet maiden is divorced with four kids, she chugs boxed wine, and her stomach and ass look like the stuff that’s left at the bottom of a cottage cheese container when it’s been sitting in the fridge for a week. Hail Mary, indeed.

 

The Jolly Green Giant: The Thug for Hire

green giant

He peddled wholesome leafy green vegetables, sure, but make no mistake: this broccoli-hued leviathan was beefcake to the core. Barely contained beneath the straining seams of that fig-leaf toga was a payload of thuggish masculine virility and cold, irony vigor. The Giant seemed harmless enough. A little jar-headed, perhaps, but as disarming as that overgrown Eastern European exchange student you befriended your senior year. Your mom thought he was “sweet,” but you knew better. He bench-pressed full kegs of beer on the weekends and slept just three hours a night on a filthy, bare mattress in a basement somewhere and didn’t even bother to peel bananas and oranges before he ate them. Despite his shit-eating grin and his nutritive bent, this guy was ready to kick some serious ass. He offered wimpy kids everywhere a dubious maxim: eat your greens and you’d maybe get big and strong like him, but in the meantime, little guy, I’ve got this sock full of sockets in my toga pocket and I’ll take out anybody who’s giving you problems for just $50, no questions asked, so whaddya say?

 

The Hamburglar: The Miscreant

The black eye mask. The chomping buck teeth. The ridiculous flapping cape. If the Green Giant was the undercover neighborhood thug, the Hamburglar was that weasly kid from up the hill who was always shoveling clods of dirt into people’s mailboxes and trying to get you to take a shit in the bushes next to the bike path or steal packages of Juicy Fruit from Plaid Pantry. He was a deviant, sure, but only in the vainglorious kind of sense. As in: daring younger kids to eat cigarette butts and then sniveling pathetically when said younger kids’ big, pissed-off dads came pounding on his door. Robinhood stole to balance the scales of wealth, or at least to nudge them in the direction of seemliness. Hamburglar and his ilk didn’t give no truck to that do-gooder shit. It was all about creating a mood and an impression, hence the ostentatious hat and fool-nobody carnivale mask he probably stole from his mom’s underwear drawer. These two took what they wanted, then whined and cried like little bitches when caught in the act. Not so very subversive after all.

 

The Kool-Aid Man: The Failed Launch

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Remember how in high school there was that friend’s creepy older brother who had graduated like, six years ago but still lived in his parent’s pool house and tried to hang around with the teenagers? And remember how he would buy you beer and cigarettes and then invite himself and his weird older friends to your parties and they’d make huge messes and scare everyone? And remember how your parents came home that one time and found the house trashed and they didn’t let you go to that Robert Page and Jimmy Plant concert even though you had front-row tickets and you are still sore about it 20 years out because: Page and Plant! Well, perhaps you’d have known to stay away from that joy-killing ne’er-do-well had you spent less time in your formative years being seduced by graphic images of a fat, red-faced miscreant bursting, unbidden and often through plate glass, into random homes and establishments populated by bored, thirsty children and their inattentive parents. Like your friends’ creepy older brother, the Kool-Aid Man was overgrown, violent, and prone to sudden, thirst-fueled rages. Fun fact: when Kool-Aid received a star along Hollywood’s walk of fame in the 1990s, it was revealed that his shoe size was a 15XL. Some gross math, indeed.

 

The Morton’s Salt Girl: The Sugar Baby

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She’s young, she’s pale, she’s blonde. And she’s strolling obliviously through a rainstorm with an open container of salt slung beneath one careless, alabaster arm. This tiny little wastrel is accustomed to largesse, and blissfully unawares of the consequences her excess. Waste not, want not? Ha! The Morton’s Salt Girl drove home a fundamentally problematic truth about growing up in America in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: It was OK to be a wastrel and an idiot as long as you were reasonably attractive wastrel and idiot. Because reasonably attractive wastrels and idiots grew up to become beautiful adults who might snag wealthy benefactors with forgiving countenances who threw money at their fuck-ups and sometimes even bought them fancy high-rise apartments in New York City and gave them a generous spending allowance. Life plan? Check. The Morton’s Salt Girl gave attractive young women everywhere a free pass to fritter away their youth and talent and waste their time doing silly shit – just as long as they never, ever, got fat or old.

 

Mr. Peanut: The Sleazy Boss

Mr. Peanut was dapper and dandy as all get-up, a high-society hobnobber with just a smidge of nuttiness peeking out around the edges: that jauntily doffed cap, those white gloves, the unironic monocle . . . wait. Why isn’t he wearing any pants? Those unabashedly naked nether-regions should have provoked shock and horror, especially considering how much time he spent prancing around in the company of small, impressionable children. Much like that not-quite-all-there boss you had when you worked at the frozen yogurt shop in the strip mall down the road from your parent’s house, Mr. Peanut was on a quiet campaign of corruption, but he knew how to keep his nose just clean enough to avoid detection. Like that aforementioned Sleazy Boss, Peanut carried a cane – a universal signifier for sweet, old and harmless – but half of your young co-workers had “accidentally” seen his junk or butt crack at some point during the past six months. Cane or no cane, the lecherous message was clear: when you’re older and more powerful, you can get away with doing all sorts of disgusting things. When your underlings are a bunch of 14 year olds smoking pot in the walk-in freezer, that goes triple.

 

The Pillsbury Doughboy: The Sexual Outlier

No one’s ever quite been able to pin this strange critter down, and that’s precisely what made him so intriguing to a generation of buttered-biscuit-loving American children. Pills is ostensibly male, but he’s scarcely recognizable as such. Diminutive, genital-less, and draped in sagging, ageless flesh the color of uncooked dough, he was a dead-ringer for that thrillingly ambiguous kid who sat at the end of your lunch table eating packets of hot sauce. You liked him – kinda – but his intentions were deliciously tough to pin down. Was he hitting on you, or was he merely positioning himself as a sexually neutral friend available for sleepovers and popcorn parties? And if so, why did he keep asking you to poke him in his fleshy dough-belly, then giggling like a degenerate and inviting you to check out his fort in the woods? It creeped out a few of your friends, but somehow, you didn’t want it to stop. If you had lingering bad thoughts about tubes of biscuit dough or questioned your own proclivities well into early adulthood, blame it on the Doughboy.

Your turn, O Malcontented Reader! Which other questionably wholesome food-and-drink mascots belong on this list? 

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