Earlier this year, Adolph Levis died. Levis’ contribution to American gastronomy was the development, with a partner, of a dried beef stick. According to his obituary in the New York Times, the mascot for this food item was a top-hat-and-cane toff named Slim Jim whose function it was “to create an elegant image” for the product.
That was a long time ago.
The ads: I suppose the crucial text here would be the spot titled “
His only modes of communication are the taunt and the scream. In other spots, he causes trouble in the stomachs of those who have ingested him—from veggie-eating yuppies to junk-addicted kids. In “Seventh Heevin' " he arrives in the titanium gut of a young man who has just eaten seven Slim Jims in a row; he gets into a fistfight with these other jerkies and finally battles off a hapless antacid tablet. These spots all end with Jim screaming, “Eat me!”
Questions of taste: Now, I’m not the intended audience for these spots, and you couldn’t pay me to eat beef jerky. When I stumble on these ads from time to time, I invariably wonder why it is you’d want to eat something that, the spots suggest, is apparently designed to wreak havoc in your digestive system. That said, I can see why someone—teen or otherwise—might be amused at the over-the-top goofiness of Jim, or might find something admirable in a food product thumbing its nose at healthy eating.
But there are millions of attitude-heavy ads out there these days. I would never have been interested in this batch if I hadn’t learned from Adolph Levis’ obituary of the product’s “elegant” ancestry. Often brands are discussed as immutable things whose DNA is hammered out by experts and pushed on the masses. But I have a feeling that with certain brands it works the other way around—somewhere along the line somebody figured out that tuxedoed swells weren’t buying much jerky, so changes occurred. Sure, I’m talking about a shift over a period of decades in this case, but it’s still fascinating to contemplate how completely a brand can be re-imaged over time. I would guess that