Barbara Lippert’s Critique

During the mid-’90s, there was perhaps no better argument both for and against global advertising (one brand, one voice worldwide) than the commercials for Mentos.

Bracing attempts at hyper-Americana, the spots were off just enough to make you believe in aliens. Essentially unprocessable, and therefore the object of cult worship among college kids and music-video makers, they seemed Japanese by way of Argentina, maybe. They were wordless, and relied en tirely on overemphatic gestures by oddly podlike actors involved in upbeat vignettes in which a Mentos roll (“The fresh maker!”) saves the day.

In one, a guy in a dark business suit sits on a freshly painted park bench, getting white stripes on his back. He consults his Mentos, and with his chew aide, no problemo—he rolls all over the bench to make the suit pinstriped! Then comes the rousing theme song: “It does not matter what comes/Fresh goes better in life …” Though the fresh-goes-better thinking seemed to come from Mars, the reality is that there were only two degrees of separation involved. The spots were German, from an agency in Hamburg, created for a Dutch company, Van Melle.

Some of the Mentos business later went to J. Walter Thompson in Amsterdam, where the parallel-universe effect (not to mention the German sense of humor) continued. “Strong mints” had begun to power the category, and Mentos came out with Cool Chews. The Cool Chews spot opens on a Euro-type visitor to India coming upon a crowd surrounding a fakir (a person who performs feats of magic or endurance). Bearded, crazy-faced and half-naked in orange pants, the fakir walks on hot coals. Meanwhile, our blond hero in kha kis, empowered by a Cool Chew, neatly hops across the coals, leaving the Mentos box in the fakir’s tip jar. The Indian man pops one in and turns so cold, he needs to stand on the coals to warm up. Ha ha!

The spot had a few mixed messages about cool and strong—and did you have to be a sadomasochist to try the mint? So sometime last summer, way before the atrocity of Sept. 11 and the new sensitivities it created, Men tos decided it needed a new spot to pitch its “strong but friendly” positioning for its strong mint.

The three new TV spots are also bizarre, but in a solid, of-this-earth way. There is a certain weird genius in the way they refer to their cheap, fake, over-yet-underproduced ante cedents. The actual humans in previous commercials were like stick figures. Here the action and the pod people are eliminated, and we get only a plastic toy, plunked down in an artificial environment, literally pulled by a string. I love the fact that you can actually see the string. If you’re going to do crude and fake, why not take it to its logical extreme?

The new agency, Barefoot Advertising of Cincinnati, had four days to make the commercials and get them on the air (the inventory was bought before Men tos decided to scrap the old spots), and it shows. The budget is so low that these spots make AOL commercials look like Francis Coppola made them.

The creatives took a Volkswagen van toy (the old love bus) and painted it with flowers. In the first spot, someone pulls it through a box of grass; in the second, it tools across a map of the U.S.; and in the third, it journeys through some sand, until it finally pulls into a carved-out peace symbol.

My fave by far is the one in the grass. The way the camera focuses so closely on the string and the toy reminds me of the old Gumby TV shows. It’s like the Karen Carpenter saga done entirely with Barbies—the blank plastic becomes profound. All three spots are backed by ’60s music and use a voiceover of, “Enjoy your mint, love your breath…”

The ’60s retro print work offers headlines like, “Peace, love and happy mints” and “Reject the established mints.” I’m not as crazy about the print—the old lava-lamp, flower-power revival thing has really been played out.

But there’s something about that toy bus that’s so guileless. It’s like the Birkenstock of vehicles. And it gives these Cool Chews some (un scorched) fresh new footing.