The corporate pantheon: How well do you know your mascots?

When the ancients wanted to understand how or why something happened, they would look to the gods. Why did the sun go across the sky? Well, because Apollo's son stole his flaming chariot! Why is it cold in the winter? Obviously, because Persephone ate three pips from a pomegranate and now has to spend three months of the year in Hades!

The constant struggles of gods and heroes produced all the phenomena that influenced daily life. What's more, by watching their insane behavior, humans could learn important lessons about conduct. For example, if you ever find yourself staring into your reflection for too long, remember Narcissus and ask yourself if you really, really want to end up as a flower. Similarly, stealing from the gods could lead you to having your liver eaten and re-eaten for eternity. If you don't want to end up like Prometheus, don't steal!

Science was clearly a blessing: it's nice to know why the sun rises and sets, why winter happens and why the tide comes in and goes out. On the other hand, there's a lot to be said for the romance of the gods, the incredible stories that they had. The Big Bang just doesn't have the same resonance. While we're at it, science doesn't really do too much to offer a moral compass.

Thank the gods for commercials. Watching thousands of hours of commercials, I have learned some of the most important lessons that our culture has to offer. I know, for example, that nothing says loving like something from the oven, that Trix are for kids, and that milk does a body good. I realize the importance of just going and going (and going, and going...), that Cocoa puffs will probably drive me coocoo, and that if I tell two friends and they tell too friends and so on and so on...well, something big will probably happen.

If commercials are the holy writ of American culture, then mascots are the prophets who carry the word. Teaching the most important lessons that children can learn, they present themselves to each generation, which learns from them time and again. How long has the Green Giant been teaching about the value of fresh vegetables? Will the Trix bunny ever get his hands on the fruity cereal that he so adores? Will those damned kids ever stop scaring Count Chocula? Like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill or Prometheus constantly getting his liver eaten, mascots constantly repeat the same actions, endlessly reminding us about the moral lessons and vital slogans that we need to absorb if we hope to be productive members of our society.

Of course, sometimes the mascots get too old, too tired, or just find something else to do. As a kid, I used to love Margaret Hamilton's Maxwell House spots. It was incredibly cool to see the Wicked Witch of the West hawking coffee to proto-yuppies! And what about Mr. Whipple and his psychotic Charmin-squeezing obsession? Or Dunkin' Donuts' "time to make the donuts" guy?

In honor the forgotten mascots of the past, James Lileks has composed an "Orphanage of Cast-Off Mascots." Featuring creepy pitchmen such as Kraut King, Bondex Betty, and "Cudahy Curly, the Quisling Pig," the orphanage doesn't just honor the mascots of yesteryear, but also offers an interesting glimpse into the strangeness of mascots in general. Tell me again why I don't get freaked out when the all-pig Vallydale band tries to convince me to buy bacon? And why, exactly, do I trust a freaky, overly-enthusiastic tiger when he tells me that a pre-sweetened cereal is "GRREAT!"?

If you're completely irony resistant, or even if you just want to see how well you've absorbed the catechism of corporate America, you might want to check out this Company Mascot Quiz. Shamefully, I have to admit that I got a 19 out of 20. I don't know what bugs me more: that I got 19 right or that I got one wrong!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He lied; the Valleydale pigs really do freak him out. Are they aware that they're selling the hacked-up remains of family members?
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