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The ghost of Spuds MacKenzie is a haunting reminder why some mascots have to die

Do ghosts exist? Can departed souls appear before our human eyes in the guise of their fleshly forms, or do they return to haunt us as mere glowing orbs? These questions, which have plagued paranormal researchers and makers of Creepypasta alike for centuries, were raised anew during Super Bowl LI, where an ad presented us with a manifestation of a long-dead spirit. After years of being consigned to the netherworld, we once again gazed upon Spuds MacKenzie, the memorable, controversial, and ubiquitous subject of Bud Light’s advertising in the mid-to-late ’80s. Now, what was once voiceless speaks. The limbs have elongated to become uncannily human. And with this vision, we confront a specter from our past that is both warmly familiar and jarringly out of place—yet still ready to party.

In the commercial, the spirit of the party-loving dog returns to help a sober schlub reunite with his friends by plying them with a case of frosty Buds. This Spuds is no longer the laconic party animal we once knew, however. This ephemeral, CGI-enhanced Spuds not only looks unnatural and speaks with the voice of actor Carl Weathers; he also promotes the power of friendship, something that was never an earthly concern of the original Spuds. The Spuds we once knew just cared about hot babes and cold brews—the bros never mattered. Furthermore, this Spuds betrays the character’s general aura by serving as the driving force of the action. Spuds’ appeal was never about the animal itself, but in the mythos foisted upon him. The new Spuds is not the same, but this isn’t a knock on the ad. Rather, the spot serves as an enlightening look at how Spuds might have evolved had he been allowed to mature into Bud Light’s mascot, rather than relegated to ’80s kitsch.

Anyone under 30 would be forgiven for not knowing the “Ayatollah Of Partyollah,” but for those who were around to witness it, Spuds was unavoidable in his time. Spuds, a chubby bull terrier with a distinctive brown patch over one eye, first appeared in a Super Bowl XXI ad in 1987, where he lounged on a beach while women and men alike went bonkers over their proximity to this true “party animal,” all as a trio of bikinied babes belted out a Beach Boys-inspired ode.

Similar ads followed. Sometimes Spuds got off his rump to play the drums, strum a guitar, or pole vault, though just as often he simply showed up, his mere presence enough to turn any dud night out into a rager. As Spuds’ popularity increased so did Bud Light’s sales, going up 20 percent between 1987 and 1988. Spuds was so successful that he spawned an industry’s worth of posters, apparel, and stuffed animals.

These latter aspects, naturally, proved controversial. Near the end of 1987, South Carolina Republican Senator Strom Thurmond famously waved a stuffed Spuds doll inside the Senate chamber, where he condemned Anheuser-Busch for promoting underaged drinking by using a character that appealed to kids. Soon, the Center For Science In The Public Interest and Mothers Against Drunk Driving joined the cause. A sign of those simpler times, Spuds even faced scrutiny for being portrayed by a female dog. Owned by suburban couple Jackie and Stanley Oles, Spuds was actually named Honey Tree Evil Eye (“Evie” for short). Bud Light was so scared of audiences finding out the dog’s gender, it’s said his handlers hid Spuds behind sheets when it did its business. Factor in the death rumors (yep, there were reports that Spuds died in a limo crash or got electrocuted in a hot tub—all of which was hilariously on brand), and this was a case of party-animal simplicity made unsustainably complex. And soon enough, Spuds was finished.

“We felt, creatively, we needed to move on,” marketing director Bob Lachky said in 1989, stating emphatically that the decision was not due to those protests. Rather, Bud Light felt like Spuds was eclipsing its product—which is odd. Since when is having a ubiquitous mascot bad for business? Despite what Lachky claims, it’s probably when that mascot courts controversy. Budweiser would encounter a similar problem a decade later with its “Bud-weis-er” frogs, which they also phased out after concerned parents raised a comparable ruckus.

Had he not been such a lightning rod, Spuds might have changed with the seasons, becoming a fixture in the manner of Chester Cheetah (Cheetos’ mascot since 1986) or Cap’n Crunch (the cereal’s mascot since 1963). Again, the question is one of sustainability. For a mascot to enjoy longevity, it needs a distinctive identity—a presence or occupation currently untapped in the market—that’s nevertheless malleable in terms of appearance and personality, keeping apace with shifting times, tastes, and trends.

Chester Cheetah and Cap’n Crunch have been particularly nimble along their journeys. Chester evolved from a smooth talker in the ’80s to a slick badass in the ’90s to something of an ominous figment in the 2000s; in his current iteration, he is a slightly sardonic friend of the working man. Through it all, he’s manifested as a cartoon, a puppet, and a CGI creation, with the biggest changes happening in his voice and motivations. Fearing stagnation, Chester never sticks with a personality too long. Cheetos has also embraced social media as a means of fleshing out the character. Last year, Chester’s dedicated Twitter went viral when the cat embraced the legion of horny furries that began filling up its mentions. This came after whoever was running Frosted Flakes’ Tony The Tiger Twitter account began blocking them. Cheetos came out looking better.

Cap’n Crunch, on the other hand, has maintained relevance and interest by building up an entire mythology for the Cap’n, riling up discussion as to his true rank, and other things that are made for the age of internet time-wasting. He’s been equally savvy about expanding his digital presence: Late last year, the cereal teamed up with popular comedians Ben Schwartz and Lauren Lapkus by sponsoring a new webseries for Funny Or Die, while the Cap’n’s Twitter account currently sports nearly 42,000 followers, among them supermodel Chrissy Teigen, comedian Julie Klausner, and, if you’re into it, CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Photo: Getty Images

Spuds’ schtick definitely fit in with the self-aware advertising of the mid-to-late ’80s, but—as with Chester Cheetah and Cap’n Crunch—it would arguably work just as well in this era of casual irony and “post-truth.” Despite being “an expressionless lump of a dog who drove women wild,” as he’s described in this Mental Floss overview, much of Spuds’ success came from the fact that Bud Light adamantly refused to acknowledge he was a dog. Brand manager Bill Stolberg would routinely insist that Spuds was both “a human man” and a “senior party consultant” for Bud Light. It’s worth noting that Spuds was constantly flanked by a gaggle of women called the Spudettes, who presumably found him attractive. He also didn’t speak, not because he was a dog, but because he “was so cool he didn’t have to speak verbally.”

“He is the guru of good times. The granddaddy of get-down. The grand pooh-bah of party-ometry,” Stolberg would say of the dog, knowing full well the meaninglessness of his words. Because Spuds was a blank slate, defined entirely by external forces, from his Hawaiian shirts and tuxedos to the limo rides and arm candy. Given the chance to evolve, it’s easy to see Spuds shifting gears by donning flannel during the grunge era, then frosting the tips of his fur once boy bands hit the mainstream at the turn of the century.

But then, the true problem lies with his biggest selling point: Spuds was a living, breathing dog—and dogs die. You can replace them, sure, but people know. And Evie, the dog that played Spuds? By all accounts, there was no more laid-back bull terrier on the planet. Rarely do dogs just sit there in the way Spuds could, let alone while wearing a tiny tuxedo. There’s a reason many of today’s most successful mascots—GEICO’s lizard, the Aflac duck—are digitized. Evie passed away at the age of 10 in 1993, just four years after the end of her ad campaign, and with her the only true iteration of Spuds MacKenzie we’ve ever known.

Bud Light seemed to acknowledge this inexorable link by reviving Spuds as a phantom during this year’s Super Bowl. What’s more, they gave us a Spuds that wasn’t frozen in time, but an older and wiser dog, one who’s learned that the true meaning of life isn’t endless partying, but the memories you make with friends. Against the odds, like all mascots, Spud has evolved. Sure, the juxtaposition of 1987 Spuds with our current culture would be much, much funnier, but this version is sweeter, an epilogue for an ad campaign that ended too soon. Like spotting a ghost, it’s unsettling, sure, but also a welcome glimpse of someone you were longing to see again.