In Sydney’s North Shore suburbs, 1987, an alien spaceship crashed in a supermarket car park.
From the mangled wreck there emerged a small, furry biped with a ginger mohawk. Some say he looked like a cross between an Ewok and Yahoo Serious as he blitzed through the ‘staff only’ doors of Chatswood Coles and waddled down the night-time aisles. In the half-light, something tantalising caught his eye: He levitated up to the highest shelf and grabbed a royal blue bag of the good shit.
Comforted by the food of his people, the little guy said just one word. Chippies!
And thus Australia met the Gobbledok: a ravenous extra-terrestrial who, to some witnesses, is still synonymous with Smith’s potato chips, and an icon of millennial Australiana. From 1987 to 1994, his rubber face and pot belly featured in a healthy handful of prime-time TV commercials that were charming, bizarre or downright terrifying, depending on who you ask. But to ad man John Finkelsen, this snack-happy critter was simply ‘the perfect consumer’.
In the decades before the term ‘TV’ meant ‘prestige drama’ – before seamless Netflix binges were the typical way to watch a new series – television shows on commercial stations were considered little more than filler between ad breaks. As such, distinctive campaigns had an unparalleled ability to muscle into viewers’ hearts and minds. Catchphrases like ‘G-O-G-G-O’, ‘Not happy, Jan!’ and, of course, ‘Chippies!’ were mimicked around dinner tables and water coolers. Even today, these slogans remain in the communal lexicon, meaning that many of the most broadly unifying aspects of Australian pop culture are the ones designed to sell us stuff.
Many of the most broadly unifying aspects of Australian pop culture are the ones designed to sell us stuff.
Fascinating, then, that the Gobbledok was a kleptomaniac with telekinetic powers and a limited vocabulary.
‘If you tried to tell that story about a person, it’d be awful,’ says Finkelsen, whose creation was given an estimated lifespan of six weeks. ‘But if it’s an excusable little character from another planet, you could get away with all sorts of things’ he says. ‘And that’s what we did.’
Finkelsen was the creative director at Sydney’s George Patterson advertising agency (the brains-trust behind VB’s ‘You can get it ridin’, you can get it slidin’’ ads, among many others) when Smith’s Snackfood Company asked him to write a low-budget, temporary campaign promoting their new foil packets and special Seal of Freshness. Nobody gives a shit about new packs, thought Finkelsen, who instead dreamt up an ‘innocent but obsessive’ character to whom the product meant the world, literally. The Gobbledok descended from the ‘potato planet’ Dok – depicted on screen by a floating spud – and soon began his nocturnal quest for Australia’s finest carbohydrates.
Despite his initial odds, the Gobbledok spent seven Earth years playfully terrorising old ladies, young couples, truck drivers and weird scientists. ‘People [were] quite charmed by him,’ remembers Finkelsen. ‘He had a little bit of [supernatural] power, but not much. The production in the early ads was pretty average because we were given bugger-all budget. It had cut-through because there weren’t ads like that around.’ They were unsettling, yes, but well-meaning, even endearing in their lo-fi hijinks.
In the lineage of Smith’s brand endorsers, the Gobbledok appeared between jazz ballet dancers and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Compared to the old-fashioned likes of Betty Crocker and the Quaker Oats bloke, this uncanny cryptid was not your nanna’s brand mascot (Finkelsen prefers the term ‘character’). While the Gobbledok was partially inspired by the multi-coloured hairstyles of Finkelsen’s secretary Sue Wilson, he really hitched his wagon to the animatronic and puppet stars of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983) and Gremlins (1984) – not to mention TV’s other insatiable space boy, ALF (1986–1990).
Trawling back further through the annals of potato crisp campaigns, the Gobbledok shares DNA with Arnold the Munchos monster (who, in turn, was the softer incarnation of the vaguely sadistic Wheel-Stealer). In the 1960s, disyllabic Arnold spruiked Frito-Lay’s potat’es – with a little help from his friends Jim Henson and Frank Oz – before his weakness for chips gave way to his sweet tooth.
This is not to say that the Gobbledok was a copycat. Rather, the prevalence of non-human beings in advertising suggests that anthropomorphic brand mascots are perhaps the logical evolution of animal totems poached by capitalism. As anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noted, ‘Animals are good to think with.’ As Bundy R. Bear and his Coca-Cola cousins denote, they are also good to drink with.
Anthropomorphic brand mascots are perhaps the logical evolution of animal totems poached by capitalism.
From Tony the Tiger to the Lion-man sculpture, animals have an ancient yet enduring role as social ciphers. Around the world and throughout history, some were – and are – considered sacred. In folklore and mythology, zoomorphic beasts tell cautionary tales about risky human business – the behaviours we ought to avoid. Today, brand mascots perform similar cultural functions, advising consumers to buy X product over Y, as we worship the animal totems synonymous with Jaguar, Hello Kitty, Firefox, our favourite sports teams, and more.
Such profound affection for and interest in outlandish animal characters may account, at least in part, for the Gobbledok’s unlikely traction. ‘He was endearing, warm, innocent,’ says Finkelsen. ‘[He] resonated with kids, mums, dads. For a brand like Smith’s – a snack food that the family eats – those values are very desirable.’ He pauses, then laughs. ‘We’re talking about potato chips! But still. They’re an emotional decision.’
By the Gobbledok’s first birthday, Smith’s crisps sales had grown by 50 per cent.
So Finkelsen kept writing chippie bits. Once audiences had accepted the Gobbledok’s backstory – and with it, his ‘credibility and expertise’ – the adverts became episodic. Three instalments in the early nineties depicted his stay with elderly potato farmers. He was next seen in 93 on the lam from cops. In 94, he returned in perhaps the strangest, certainly the most ambitious of all his ads: inciting lookalikes from the casts of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) to ‘liten up’ [sic] and join him in a street dance.
‘From a creative point of view, you just keep writing stories,’ says Finkelsen. ‘I could have written twenty more. As a matter of fact, I did. I actually wrote a storyline for a movie about the Gobbledok. He wasn’t chasing potato chips around the country. He was being hidden by people.’ Chips were incidental, he says.
‘It could have been one of the most extraordinary things in the history of advertising. Smith’s were interested in financing it, but we had to be really careful. You get that one wrong and you wreck the whole thing.’ (For an example of what getting it wrong looks like, see Mac and Me.)
Meanwhile, to spice up the Gobbledok’s small screen jaunts, Finkelsen created some distinctive antagonists called ‘Knuckleheads’ (‘who had heads like knuckles’) and ‘Tommy Two-Face’ (‘whose head would spin around’). They were about to give the Gobbledok a run for his money when Smith’s was bought out by the British multinational United Biscuits. ‘They decided that the Gobbledok was too powerful, more powerful than the brand,’ says Finkelsen. Despite reliable sales and positive market research, the chips were down for the Gobbledok. His colourful, energetic, wilfully silly bits were replaced by a minimalist stick-figure family, The Smiths, whose suburban soap opera was dull as dishwater (and racist, to boot).
‘It could have been one of the most extraordinary things in the history of advertising.’
In the 21st century, brand mascots like the Gobbledok have become something of an endangered species. In a recent US study, just half of the folks surveyed recognised the Toys ‘R’ Us mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe, who’s been paying his dues since the 1950s. Only a third of respondents could identify Columbia Pictures’ iconic (if nameless) ‘Lady with a Torch’, despite her 95 years in the business. And a scant 5.9 per cent of participants were familiar with Coco the Coco Pops Monkey, who first swung onto cereal boxes in 63.
Thanks to social media and their obsession with manufacturing intimacy, brands themselves now act as their own totem poles. Behind official – yet faceless – Facebook accounts, digital marketing managers masquerade as makeshift mascots, performing authentically disingenuous cheerleading routines for Netflix or Wendy’s (when they’re not leveraging millennial angst to flog frozen sliced beef).
In May 2019, to celebrate the opening of the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme park, Coca-Cola designed a bespoke line of beverage bottles, available only at Disneyland. When the news was announced on Twitter, boy, did the brands come out in force:
All four of these drinks are owned by the same parent company. Imagine a single person, sitting under fluoro lights, simultaneously managing every account, embodying all four roles in this gauche and performative teleplay, tweeting barely relevant Star Wars quotes to other quadrants as their own sense of self implodes like a Mentos in the high-fructose ether of the internet. This deal is getting worse all the time.
‘It’s funny,’ says Finkelsen. ‘A character from a potato planet who looks like a dwarf? The whole thing is fake. But if you start to become dishonest – and the warmth, empathy and innocence goes – then he’s gone.’
With his shonky animatronics and almost arbitrary origin story, could the Gobbledok survive our superficial and cynical mediascape in 2019? ‘Theoretically,’ says Finkelsen. ‘Smith’s advertising occasionally sticks a Gobbledok face looking around a tree. He could still be going now if you kept developing the story.’
Imagine a single person, sitting under fluoro lights, tweeting barely relevant Star Wars quotes as their own sense of self implodes.
Finkelsen recalls how much fan mail the Gobbledok used to get. ‘[He] would appear at events and people would queue up to meet him. They didn’t treat him like he was a guy in a suit. They’d talk to him like he was real. They bought into the whole fantasy,’ he says.
‘That was a real achievement. I think something like that would work again,’ says Finkelsen, before second-guessing himself. ‘It’s a tough, shitty world.’ He’s not wrong.
In this late capitalist era, everyone’s salty about something – and understandably so. Digital advertising is a saturated fat clogging up our online lives. Facebook, Google, Amazon et al track our virtual breadcrumbs in such an insidious manner that the comparatively passive world of TV advertising looks like small potatoes.
At least brand mascots wear their logo on their sleeve, so consumers more or less know what they’re buying into. Perhaps it’s time to send the Gobbledok down into the content mines, if only to dig up fuel for the nostalgia industrial complex, where his hard-earned thirst will meet our big, cold fear – the fear of lean years to come.
As a matter of fact, I’ve got it now.