Why pay millions of dollars for George Clooney, when a talking frog puppet that croaks one word will work for free?
Technically, the makers of Budweiser have used both to sell their beer. But come Super Bowl time — usually the most-watched television program of the year — there’s little question as to who is the company’s biggest star. You may see a Jonas brother or two during this Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIV festivities, but they will be vastly outnumbered by dancing reptiles, rampaging pigeons and, of course, team after team of Clydesdales.
Below are the 10 most memorable animal pitchmen from the last 43 years of Super Bowls, followed by their historical impact, a list of themed merchandise currently selling on eBay and the number of years they were able to milk their success.
(And no, the Taco Bell Chihuahua was not introduced in a Super Bowl commercial.)
10. Nissan pigeons
First Super Bowl appearance: 1997
Life expectancy: One year
Historic significance: A squadron of “Top Gun”-influenced pigeons attempt to poop on a Nissan Maxima automobile, which is fast and nimble enough to avoid the barrage (although a wedding is ruined). John Ratzenberger provided the voice of the squadron leader. The pigeons never returned to the Super Bowl, but they were widely lauded as one of the best commercials of 1997.
9. Tabasco mosquito
First appearance: 1998
Life expectancy: Twenty-three seconds
Historic significance: The Tabasco mosquito didn’t have long to enjoy his (or her, it’s not really clear) fame, exploding into a ball of flame just moments after sucking the blood of a Tabasco-loving guy eating a slice of pizza. But like the James Dean of animal pitchmen, the mosquito made an impact disproportionate to its number of imdb.com credits. The Tabasco “Mosquito” commercial was one of the best of all time .
8. The Pets.com sock puppet dog
First appearance: 2000
Life expectancy: Nine months.
Merchandising: Stuffed animals, key chains and talking puppets.
Historic significance: Now one of the biggest symbols of the excess of the dot.com era, the Pets.com sock puppet dog deserved a better fate — his “Because pets can’t drive!” commercial was amusing and memorable. Pets.com went under in November 2000, less than a year after blowing $1.2 million on a Super Bowl ad. Like a former country star playing a bowling alley, the sock puppet briefly took a cheap gig the following year for an auto loan firm.
7. Budweiser lizards
First appearance: 1998
Life expectancy: Four years
Merchandising: Beer lights, T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, light switch covers, beer steins, key chains and a rock album.
Historic significance: The Budweiser lizards, Louie and Frankie, initially piggybacked the fame of the Budweiser frogs, but at their peak were much more popular. The lizards were one of the only Super Bowl animal pitchmen to end up on a NASCAR vehicle. (Louie graced Ricky Craven’s #50 car in the late 1990s.) Louie and Frankie ultimately overstayed their welcome, with side plots that included the hiring of a ferret hit man.
6. The Mountain Dew cheetah
First appearance: 1999
Life expectancy: One year
Historic significance: The Mountain Dew cheetah only appeared in one commercial, but we’re not going to punish the company for quitting while it was way ahead. A mountain biker chases down the sprinting cheetah, wrestles an empty can from the animal and scolds the cat as a “bad cheetah.” This was one of the best examples of memorable branding in a Super Bowl ad. Most animal pitchmen can’t do this well with 10 commercials.
It should be no surprise that four of the top five animal pitchmen come from Budweiser. Anheuser-Busch produces cute talking animals that sell beer like former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan produced 1,000-yard running backs.
(Just missing the top 10 is the mutt who is trained to bite a guy’s crotch and steal his Bud Light in the 2004 “Good Dog” ad.)
While he didn’t make the top of the list, it should be noted that party animal Spuds MacKenzie had the most impressive amount of crap associated with his name for sale on eBay.
5. Budweiser Dalmatians
First Super Bowl appearance: 1999
Life expectancy: 10 years and counting
Merchandising: Beer steins, figurines, TV trays, commemorative plates and coin banks.
Historic significance: The Dalmatians tagged along with the Clydesdales for years before their first Super Bowl starring role, a sentimental and funny 1999 spot featuring two Dalmatian puppies separated at birth. That was a viewer favorite, and the Dalmatians have appeared several times since, most recently playing fetch with a Clydesdale in 2009.
4. The E*Trade monkey
First appearance: 2000
Life expectancy: Two years
Historic significance: The E*Trade monkey was the centerpiece of arguably the greatest punch line in Super Bowl advertisement history. A monkey and two dumb-looking guys clap along to a boom box in a garage. “Well we just wasted 2 million bucks. What are you doing with your money?” The monkey returned the following year, riding on a horse and passing by failed dot.com companies, before a single tear wells up in his eye.
3. The Budweiser frogs
First appearance: 1995
Life expectancy: Seven years
Merchandising: Beer steins, beer lights, belt buckles, neckties, suspenders, talking mugs, T-shirts, light switch covers, cigarette lighters, key chains and T-shirts.
Historic significance: There were many sequels and spinoffs, but the original Budweiser frogs advertisement with the frogs croaking “Bud” “Weis” and “Er” is arguably the best Super Bowl animal ad in history. The frogs played a background role in the sequels — sort of the Roadrunner to the lizards’ Coyote, but were no less important. This series of commercials reigned during a huge era of growth for Anheuser-Busch.
2. Spuds MacKenzie
First Super Bowl appearance: 1987
Life expectancy: About three years
Merchandising: Posters, jackets, beer mugs, sweatshirts, stuffed animals, wristwatches, handkerchiefs, Christmas tree ornaments, lamps, playing cards, golf umbrellas and cookie jars.
Historic significance: Spuds MacKenzie, Bud Light’s official party dog, was a bull terrier who often wore a Hawaiian shirt. He is one of the most heavily merchandised animals in television history (with a disturbing amount of items seemingly aimed at small children). Usually flanked by beautiful women, Spuds was for years more recognizable than any member of congress, Supreme Court justice and arguably the vice-president.
1. The Budweiser Clydesdales
First Super Bowl appearance: 1986
Life expectancy: 23 years and counting
Merchandising: Coffee mugs, beer steins, pool table lights, refrigerator magnets, cigarette lighters, beer trays, calendars, Christmas tree ornaments, wall clocks, drink coasters, light switch covers, playing cards and poker chip sets.
Historic significance: The Clydesdales (used as Budweiser marketing for almost 80 years) have appeared in more than a dozen Super Bowl ads. The 2003 “Clydesdale replay” commercial, featuring the horses playing football in the snow — and a zebra looking at a close call — was especially great. But the all-time classic was the risky and rewarding 2002 “Respect” ad, which showed the horses kneeling in front of the Twin Towers a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Peter Hartlaub writes about pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle.