By Jordi Duró
Espineta, the mascot of brand Espinaler, has been recently redesigned. In the last years, it had already lost its cigar and stick. Now, besides, has been spruced up around fifty years at least. He has gone from being an old man with no teeth, bearing a resemblance to Josep Pla, to a juvenile and dynamic fish bone. A conceptual contradiction following the example of Disneyfication suffered in its day by Bibendum, Michelin’s mascot. The creator of the original Espineta, Josep María Cardona, has worked on the new design. Cardona is a renowned illustrator who has often worked for Disney, in fact. The most surprising thing in all of this was, without a doubt, its original version: the joyful spine of an old fish. Bibendum had also quit tobacco before, but in his last revision on behalf of agency Carré Noir he has also lost considerable weight, a real pity for a mascot made up of tyres.
Obviously, these re-drawings respond to current and, above all, global communication needs. Characteristics such as smoking, obesity or old age might be considered far from funny in new markets, and that’s why the characters have been adapted to their new context by eliminating their most exaggerated features and making them fit the harmless canon of the generic mascot better. As doctor Pau Medrano from the University of Barcelona points out, in a surprising and exhaustive PhD thesis on the forgotten adventure of Bibendum in the USA, we shouldn’t forget that many brand mascots were created by satirical illustrators. Back at the time, people weren’t as specialised as today and an illustrator moved from undertaking a commercial job to publishing satire without making any distinctions or changing their register or audience. O’Galop, the author of the character representing Michelin, is an ideal example, since he made hundreds of adverts that were cartoons telling Bibendum’s adventures and Michelin’s virtues. Seen today, most would be considered politically incorrect.
Ridiculous excess served the purpose of having the character instantly recognised by the reader, mainly in a time with a high degree of illiteracy. The most grotesque characters, the freaks, guaranteed a place in collective memory. There is an effect in visual perception called Von Restorff that explains why in a list or group, the discording element will be the one with the highest probability of being remembered. Mascots highlight their brands over the rest of them and their publicity messages: our mind isolates them from the rest. But seen together, Spanish mascots are a collection of monsters that could very well have arised from a Goya nightmare: from the monkey on the label of Anís del Mono to Netol’s man-toad, from dictatorial Cerebrino Mandri to an absolutely drunk Pedrito Fundador.
Personification plays an important role too in the survival of these brands throughout the years. As expert Pau Medrano highlights, there’s a big difference between being seduced by a commercial message from a brand composed only of letters than by a character whose name we know and which has eyes looking at us. Centenary mascot Mr. Peanut has his own Facebook profile. He has hundreds of thousands of followers he addresses in the first person. It’s the character what makes a common product singular, much more accessible and closer more than the Planters brand by itself.
In the year 2000, Michelin was voted the 20th century’s best logo by an expert committee recruited by the Financial Times, thanks to the sympathy provoked by the surrealist monster representing it and that we have adopted as one more member of our family. This is the reason why we feel betrayed when his aspect is altered: it has become part of our references and even if his aspect remained unaltered for decades, once it changes is always at the expense of his own exaggeration. We don’t want just any spine; we want our good old fish bone.