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

July 16, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER | 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."

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