One of Budweiser’s entries into the Commercial Bowl this year involved a ghostly English bull terrier — voiced by Carl Weathers — lecturing a man on the importance of friendship, at least as it pertains to Bud Light.
For a certain generation, this was akin to seeing the return of the “Can you hear me now?” guy. For another, it was a weird ad about a ghost dog. Making sense of this requires a trip back to the late 1980s.
Spuds MacKenzie’s return to the Super Bowl in 2017 was appropriate, and likely not an accident of scheduling. 2017 marked the 30th anniversary of the dog’s first appearance as a Bud Light pitch-animal, and its debut — and the intense merchandising campaign that followed — was responsible for a 20 percent boost in Bud Light sales between 1987 and 1988, according to the New York Times.
Billed as the “original party animal,” Spuds was an English bull terrier whose presence in the original ads was marked by beautiful women and constant revelry. The dog’s wardrobe ranged from fraternity sweatshirts to tuxedos, and it was pictured everywhere from surfboards to keggers. Spuds’ success was such that the Times cited it as a precedent for the increased presence of animals as pitchmen in commercials, for everything from bank certificates to laundry detergent.
Spuds was the creation of Needham, Harper & Steers, a Chicago ad agency. But if there was a power behind the throne of Spuds, it was likely Bill Stolberg, who worked for Fleishman Hillard, the PR firm Anheuser-Busch retained for the campaign. Stolberg traveled with Spuds for appearances and guided the character’s “development,” a key part of which was the unstinting idea that Spuds was not actually a dog, but a man.
“The first question we’d always get would be, ‘What kind of dog is Spuds?'” Stolberg told Mental Floss in 2014. “To which I replied, ‘He’s not a dog, he’s an executive.'” Fielding interview requests from journalists on behalf of his client, Stolberg refused to break character, describing Spuds as Bud Light’s “senior party consultant,” who was so cool he didn’t have to speak. “It would drive them crazy,” he recalled.
Spuds, however, was a very real dog with the bizarre name of “Honey Tree Evil Eye,” or “Evie” for short. Bred for life as a show dog, Evie worked Chicago’s show circuit — her owners, Jackie and Stanley Oles, were members of the Fort Dearborn Bull Terrier Club — but never managed to distinguish herself as a show dog. Despite that, she was spotted by Needham at a show, and her distinctive eye-patch coloration stuck out to them. Fortuitously, Evie was also relatively low-key for a terrier; she liked to sit around and eat (Wheat &) Raisin Chex rather than roughhouse.
Spuds’ intrinsic charm was bolstered by A) his entourage of scantily-clad women, the Spudettes, and B) the lengths Stolberg and Fleishman Hillard would go to maintain his image. “We’d put him in limos and rent him his own hotel rooms,” Stolberg explained. “He would be dressed in a tuxedo and walk through the airport with the Spudettes. People would see him, and that’s how it would grow.”
As with all ad campaigns, pride goeth before the fall. The Spuds backlash began less than a year after the animal’s debut. For one, PEOPLE debunked urban legends of Spuds’ death by revealing that A) Evie was a female and B) publishing the Oles’ home address, which in retrospect was not the most ethical move. Shortly after this journalistic bombshell was dropped, Senator Strom Thurmond came after Anheuser-Busch for the campaign, which he accused of unfairly targeting children.
Just two months after this, Spuds ran into trouble in Ohio, where a law prohibiting the use of Santa in alcohol marketing (really) mandated the recall of Bud Light packaging featuring Spuds dressed as Mr. Claus. By 1988, the Times was reporting that at least one school was banning Spuds t-shirts for students. Mothers Against Drunk Driving also launched a campaign against him.
The pop culture worm turned against Spuds as well: Neil Young released a music video for “This Note’s for You” that was an extended critique of Spuds and Budweiser, while Sir Mix-A-Lot directly name-checked the Spudettes and their stick-thin figures as his (negative) inspiration for “Baby Got Back.” The popular comic strip Bloom County had an arc where Spuds checked into the Betty Ford Center.
Anheuser-Busch pivoted, first changing the tone of Spuds’ campaign — a 1989 Super Bowl ad featured Spuds playing, bizarrely, slide guitar, with no alcohol in sight; the tagline was “Know when to say when” — then limiting the animal’s appearances altogether. “A really good campaign doesn’t last much longer than 18 months,” Stolberg said. “The joke gets old.”
Spuds’ reign as senior party consultant officially ended in 1989. The character’s half-life in pop culture was much longer than that, however, thanks in large part to the glut of merchandise — posters, dolls and all kinds of apparel — that continued to clog bars, thrift stores and frat houses through the early ’90s.
Evie went home to Illinois, where she lived until 1993, dying of kidney failure at 10, the average age for a healthy dog of her breed. She rarely resumed the character, except for the odd Halloween. “Spuds was kind to everyone,” a neighbor, Priscilla Jasso, told PEOPLE in 1993. “He never barked at us.”