Spuds MacKenzie: An Underdog's Triumph : 'The Original Party Animal' Has Become the Nation's Most Unlikely Sex Symbol

Times Staff Writer

Move over, Max Headroom. Make way for Spuds MacKenzie.

A canine cross between Bruce Willis and John Belushi, the nation's latest unlikely sex symbol is a sorry-looking creature with a football-shaped head, triangular eyes and a huge black splotch on his face. Lassie he's not.

The dog, dubbed "The Original Party Animal" by his employer, Bud Light beer, was introduced to national television audiences during the fourth quarter of this year's Super Bowl--wearing a white tuxedo and strutting across the dance floor.

Since that commercial, his popularity has soared nationally and spawned a growth industry of T-shirts and other Spuds paraphernalia. Posters of the "Ayatollah Partyollah," in which he often appears surrounded by beautiful young women, are now the best-selling pin-ups in the country. He beats Max Headroom five to one in the estimate of Leo Smith of Class Publications in Hartford, Conn., and easily outdistances TV's "Alf," No. 2 in the poster market.

In New York, 22 Spuds MacKenzie boutiques have been opened in Macy's department stores, featuring some of the more than 200 items--from satin jackets to coffee mugs--licensed to bear the Spuds name and image. And at the Museum of Contemporary Art gift shop in Los Angeles, inflatable plastic Spuds toys, complete with "Beware of Party Dog" warnings, are for sale among other examples of modern folk art.

Elsewhere, Spuds lookalike contests are popular, with both both dogs and humans as contestants. A number of professional Spuds imposters ("Spudstitutes" as the Budweiser team prefers to call them) have secured modeling gigs; one recently appeared on the cover of Detroit Monthly magazine's "Dog Days of Summer" issue.

Spuds himself (despite the distinctly masculine persona, he's a female) has already broken into films, playing a character in Vista's upcoming "Rented Lips," with Martin Mull. He's been a guest on "Late Night with David Letterman." The Spudettes, a trio of spandex-clad, Los Angeles-area actresses who appear in the MacKenzie commercials and posters, typically travel with him. And he even has an official stand-in.

Like any truly big star--we're talking Joan Collins potential here--Spuds has even generated controversy. First there was a minor flap over his gender, quickly followed by false rumors that he was pregnant. Then came the gossip about his pedigree--a charge sternly disputed by Louis Wellons, president of the Bull Terrier Club of America. Spuds, Wellons insisted, is "absolutely not a pit bull."

Lately, claimed PR agent Bill Stolberg (who is in charge of massaging Spuds' image), there's been nasty speculation that Spuds has died in an airline crash in Texas, in a limo incident in New York or in a hot tub mishap in Southern California.

Good Looks

Stolberg, who attributes "Mr. MacKenzie's" popularity to "those good looks, that square jaw," refused to reveal who owns Spuds. But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 1985 that Spuds was owned by Stan and Jackie Oles of North Riverside, Ill.,; that his real name is Evie, and that he is registered in American Kennel Club records as Honey Tree Evil Eye.

Spuds began his commercial career in 1983 on Bud Light posters designed by the DDB Needham ad agency in Chicago and aimed at beer drinkers ages 21 to 34. He quickly became a cult figure on college campuses and, this year, was made a key element of Anheuser-Busch's national advertising.

The fact that many Americans are aware that Spuds is female attests to an astonishing level of interest in the dog, said John Doig, a reluctant admirer and a creative director in the New York office of Ogilvy & Mather ad agency.

"Spuds seems to have gone to the heart of America. It shows you how desperate people are for advertising that has some whimsy about it . . . Most of the dogs and cats in commercials come from the same breeding factories, the same test tubes. They're all perfect Irish setters or golden retrievers," Doig said.

He's a Scrubber

Spuds' appeal, he theorized, is that he looks like a real dog. "He looks like a dog who's known lady dogs. He's a scrubber. You know he spent his childhood in pool halls."

Art Kover, a senior vice president at the N. W. Ayer agency in Manhattan and an adjunct professor of marketing at New York University, similarly suspects that Spuds' unconventional looks may account for much of his success.

"You've got this animal that's sort of ugly and sort of cute. Yet he's surrounded by these sexy women. It's like every postpubescent male's dream," he said. "It's packed in enough fantasy that it allows people's lives to be uplifted."

Not all marketing experts claim to understand why Spuds is such a hit. "These are fads that come along and go away," observed Harold Kassarjian, a professor of marketing at UCLA and the editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. "From our end we really don't know anything about why these things are popular. They last about three months. People will buy a T-shirt and after two launderings, they'll start to wonder why the hell they spent $9 on that thing."

But some Spuds fans argue that Spuds is worth the bucks because just looking at him makes them laugh. Ken Frykberg, a 23-year-old construction worker from Manhattan Beach who collects Spuds paraphernalia and owns a bull terrier named Floyd, is one: "Spuds is so ugly I feel sorry for him." Added Frykberg's girlfriend, Shelley Watson, "Spuds and Floyd are cool dogs. People think Floyd's a pig or an aardvark."

Burn Out

Might the Spuds phenomenon burn itself out by Labor Day and eventually be remembered as the Hula Hoop of 1987?

Such a possibility is "definitely a consideration" in the advertising strategy for Bud Light, said Anheuser-Busch's Joe Corcoran, senior brand manager for Bud Light. But Corcoran doesn't think Spuds has peaked yet, and the terrier is scheduled to appear in Santa suits and skiing togs for Christmas.

"You can push him (Spuds) too hard and too fast," Corcoran cautioned, noting that the "problem" of potential overkill is "a nice problem to have."

John Greening, a DDB Needham vice president, pointed out that Spuds spots are aired selectively--his commercials generally do not appear in prime time--and that some TV viewers complain of never having seen one. "We obviously don't want to expose him to the wrong audience, the under 21-year-old audience," Greening said, "so Spuds is aired mainly on late-night television."

Anheuser-Busch was late entering the light beer market and now ranks third in national sales of light beer, behind leader Miller and Coors. Because Spuds is not featured in the bulk of Bud Light advertising, it's not clear how much the dog has affected sales, Corcoran said, but Bud Light sales increased 20% in both 1986 and 1987.

Some Problems

Not everything connected with Spuds has benefitted from his charisma, however.

"We've received an awful lot of calls from people wanting dogs that look like Spuds and it's causing some problems," claimed Wellons of the bull terrier group. "The deluge of popularity never helps a breed. People are beginning to do backyard breeding, producing puppies just for the market. Pet shops are trying to buy bull terriers because the market has become very lucrative."

Before the Spuds phenomenon, Wellons recalled, a well-bred bull terrier pup was selling for $450 to $650. "Pet shops are now asking between $1,000 and $1,200 for puppies that look like Spuds. Most bull terrier breeders will not sell to pet shops or charge that much. We are far more concerned with with where the puppy is placed than we are with the dollar."

But Spuds merchandisers are undeterred.

"We have been shipping T-shirts since December and every single month we've produced more and more volume. It's in the millions now," said Jeremy Green, a sales executive with The Village Mews, Spuds' official T-shirt licensee.

Business Is Good

"Just a couple of weeks ago, we shipped 35,000 dozen shirts in one week. That's almost half a million shirts. We keep changing the prints, but even the very first print we did on Spuds--the one on "The Original Party Animal"--is still the best-selling T-shirt in the country," he claimed. The shirts retail for $12 to $20 each.

The bootleg Spuds market is also big. At Venice Beach, illicit "Spuds MacKenzie Beach Club"and "Camp Spuds" attire is doing brisk business. And Green said his company has worked to get two shirts off the market in Texas: one with the title "Get Naked With Spuds" and another of Spuds sporting a sombrero. In San Antonio, where Pope John Paul II will visit in September, one shop has been selling "The Original Vatican Party Animal" T-shirts, with Spuds wearing a papal miter.

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