DIRECTV's latest advertising campaign was designed to promote the broadcast satellite provider by spreading the message that unseemly wires were no longer required as part of the service (even though that is technically impossible). Instead, the commercials — which revolve around a seemingly normal human adult male, his insecure marionette puppet wife, and mopey, insecure marionette puppet son — have been widely mocked and criticized as creepy or sexist.
The risk of creeping people out is always involved when puppetry is used to sell products, but sometimes they're welcomed as a nice change of pace. Here are nine puppets that companies have used to shill products.
In 2010, a rodent puppet named Rico became the spokespuppet for Air New Zealand and peppered the airwaves with his painfully obvious sexual innuendos. Rico teamed up to collaborate with Snoop Dogg, David Hasselhoff, and Lindsay Lohan, and was ultimately "murdered" by Richard Simmons.
2. GODADDY AND PUPPETSBYGWEN
During this year's Super Bowl, GoDaddy ran an ad starring a real-life machine engineer who made puppets during her free time. After being selected out of one hundred people who wanted to commit to their own business full-time, Gwen Dean announced to the country that she was quitting her job to focus exclusively on puppetsbygwen.com, now boosted by an ad with an audience of 111.5 million people. She officially sent a letter of resignation right after the commercial aired, and her boss was cool about it, calling the commercial "great."
3. ABLA FAHITA
Earlier this year, the continuing tension in Egypt produced an odd news story when a popular puppet was accused of sending terrorist messages in a Vodafone ad. Abla Fahita is a "gossipy widow" puppet character who claimed in a 2013 commercial to have lost her late husband's SIM card in a shopping mall.
Conspiracy theorists came to the conclusion that the Fahita puppet was a British agent who was expressing veiled bomb threats and coded messages through the ads. Even though there was an official investigation — albeit one that was "widely mocked" by Egyptian citizens — Fahita "herself" appeared via Skype on an Egyptian CBC station to deny the allegations.
4. BAR NONE: THE PETS.COM DOG'S SECOND ACT
Pets.com was the quintessential bubble company. The website that sold pet supplies directly to customers had a high-profile marketing campaign during its twenty-seven-month existence starring a popular dog sock puppet. The spots were created by the advertising firm responsible for the classic Apple "1984" commercial and the Taco Bell chihuahua.
Pets.com ended up losing money and self-liquidated in November of 2000, but that did not spell the end for its most famous employee. For the price of $125,000, Bar None acquired the puppet's rights, and the car loan company also adopted a new slogan: "Everybody deserves a second chance." Advertisements featuring the dog continue to run today, to only the possible exasperation of the previous star of the Bar None commercials, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton.
5. THE SNUGGLE BEAR
The adorable Snuggle Bear, a.k.a. Snuggle the Fabric Softener Bear, first appeared in 1983 and was voiced for many years by veteran voice actor Corinne Orr (who also voiced all of the female characters in both the original anime Speed Racer and the 2008 movie).
Plenty of people found Snuggle Bear to be creepy, especially when it came to his watchful eye over an infant in this ad. This led to The State and MadTV producing parodies where the housewife in the iconic ads gets frightened and beats up Snuggles.
If that weren't enough, 150,000 Snuggle "Teeny Bean Bears" that came with the fabric softener were recalled in 2001 for possessing a choking hazard. One year later, 4 million plush Snuggle bears were voluntarily recalled because the eyes and nose were detachable and delicious-looking enough for some kids to put in their mouths. Fortunately, no casualties were reported in either case.
6. LIL' PENNY
Launched on November 4, 1995, Nike's "Lil' Penny" campaign was great advertising for Orlando Magic guard Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and comedian Chris Rock, possibly more so than the sneakers themselves. The commercials gave the 24-year-old Hardaway a cool persona to accompany his continuing ascent into NBA stardom. Rock, on the other hand, was at a crossroads, two years removed from his unhappy stint on Saturday Night Live, and at a time when he considered himself a "has-been." But the ads and the 1996 premiere of Rock's stand-up special Bring the Pain made the comic one of the biggest stars in the country. But before Rock was famous enough himself to make his first official debut on Oprah, Lil' Penny scored a sit down with Winfrey.
The legacy of the commercials continues. The 6-foot 7-inch version of Penny would never win a championship and injuries plagued him for the remainder of his 14-year career, but Hardaway became the first NBA player not named Michael Jordan to have his Nike sneaker line continue after his retirement. In 2009, Nike successfully went back to the well with ads featuring Kobe Bryant and LeBron James puppets.
7. THE LITTLE CAESARS
The Little Caesars were a four-piece band that performed and sang in the name of Little Caesars and of the joys of pizza in general. Above is a 1992 music video for a song that changes the lyrics of "Wooly Bully" to "Pizza! Pizza!" In a second commercial, the group performs their own unique version of Shirley Ellis' "The Name Game," which promoted both pizza and spaghetti (added to the Little Caesars menu in the summer of 1993), which by August was available in various bucket sizes including "Big!Big!"
8. FARFEL THE DOG
Named after the pellet shaped noodle, Farfel the Dog got his start on television in the 1950s, regularly joining dummy Danny O'Day and his creator, ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson, on The Toast of the Town (later known as The Ed Sullivan Show) and on the Milton Berle-hosted Texaco Star Theater. Farfel and O'Day began to sell Nestle's Quik in 1955, initially as live ads on The Jackie Gleason Show. Farfel would always bring the ads home, answering his companion's "N-E-S-T-L-E-S/Nestlé's makes the very best" with a drawn out "Chawwwc'-lit."
Farfel became a breakout puppet celebrity, and in 1959, he came close to music stardom when Everly Brothers producer Archie Bleyer wanted Farfel to say the spoken word lines on "Bird Dog." Bleyer, though, was overruled.
The Nestle ads concluded in 1965, but Farfel was not forgotten. In the 1991 Seinfeld episode "The Dog," Jerry was forced to take care of an unruly canine named Farfel. Just in case some viewers didn't get the joke, Elaine made herself a glass of chocolate milk during a scene where Jerry is struggling with the barking mutt.
One year later, Farfel made a comeback promoting Nestle candy for the holiday season. In the commercial he sings the classic Nestle theme, joined by five dog puppets that one can only presume to be members of his then never-before-seen family, who all shop at the same store for their seasonal sweaters.
9. THE MUPPETS
Companies and ad agencies have learned that you can rarely go wrong with a muppet. The first commercials with muppets ran in 1957 and were 10 seconds long, promoting Wilkins Coffee during station identification breaks. A muppet named Wilkins (who sounded a lot like Kermit) would ask a muppet named Wontkins if he wanted a Wilkins coffee. Wontkins always lived up to his name and would not, and, as punishment for his wrong decision was punched in the face, shot in the face, electrocuted, stomped on, and more. Wontkins continued to work with Wilkins in commercials for other regional companies, including the then-Michigan-exclusive Faygo soft drinks in 1958 and 1959. No matter the product, they would tend to end with Wontkins down for the count.
A fair share of companies through 1970 asked for Jim Henson-created characters to grace their ads, including IBM, Hawaiian Punch, and RCA. Once the premiere of Sesame Street and later The Muppet Show gave The Muppets regular exposure, the ads tapered off. Within the last ten years, though, we have seen the likes of Miss Piggy appearing in a Dove ad and shilling for Pizza Hut with Jessica Simpson, and Kermit promoting the Ford Hybrid during the 2006 Super Bowl.
In 2014, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem drove Terry Crews crazy in a Toyota, Miss Piggy ate a bunch of pistachios, The Swedish Chef got a job as a sandwich artist at Subway, and the gang enjoyed Go-Gurts with their faces on them.