WEB WATCH: BRAND FANS

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When it comes to sheer enthusiasm for a product, advertising creatives are seldom a match for die-hard fans. What possesses someone to spend countless hours building a Web site devoted to Q-Tips -- someone who doesn't get paid for it, that is? Who would compile, gratis, an exhaustive collection of Mentos lore, including summaries of every Mentos TV spot known to Man? Why have hundreds of people been inspired to write haiku about Spam? Why do some products generate such interest (or morbid fascination) that veritable product fan clubs have sprung up all over the Web? The answers are as varied as the people who started the sites (Q-Tips: "I found a subject that nobody else on the Web had written about!" Mentos: "For me, it's the sheer mystery of it all . . . what do those commercials mean, anyway?"). The Web offers everyone his 15 megabytes of fame, and some of the best fan sites are enough to give 'real' Web designers and agencies a run for their money.

PEZ

What are Kosher PEZ? What is the best way to clean your priceless PEZ dispensers? Find out at www.pez.org. Here the mystique is not the commercials, but the plastic dispensers. The site comes with a free history lesson (the name PEZ comes from the first, middle and last letters of the German word for peppermint, pfefferminz), a list of PEZ FAQs, and links to various people's PEZ dispenser collections, including photos. (4)

PezLand (www.dhc.ne/mjackson/pez/) also offers a history of PEZ, resources for collectors, and links to dozens of other PEZ pages, including the Burlingame Museum of PEZ Memorabilia (www.spectrumnet.com/spectrum/pez/index.html).

PezLand: (4) Museum: (4.5)

But all is not perfect in the world of PEZ. At http://redwood.northcoast.com/shojo/PEZ/pez.html, the page's author focuses on the "Dark Side of PEZ." Here you'll see disconcerting dispensers such as the eerie Skull Head and the grimacing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. The site gives equal time to PEZ defenders, however, who contend that all is evil-free in the world of PEZ, and advise the Dark Side's author to get a life. We will not comment here on the authority of collectors of small plastic candy dispensers vis-a-vis telling others to get a life. (3)

Sea Monkeys

Remember your excitement when as a kid you ordered a package of Sea Monkey eggs and read the soul-stirring copy in the Official Sea Monkey Handbook? "With the act of giving your Sea Monkeys life, you join in the immensely rewarding experience of fellow hobbyists throughout the world." Wow! Remember your bitter disappointment when you discovered that the little monkeys were actually brine shrimp, and that they did just about what you'd expect from brine shrimp: swimming around for awhile and then dying? Well, nowadays you can relive that excitement and/or bitter disappointment at Susan Barclay's Sea Monkey Worship Page (http://users.uniserve.com/ sbarclay/seamonk.htm).

This page is an eclectic blend of scientific information (Sea Monkeys, aka Artemis nyos, can reproduce sexually or asexually) and Sea Monkey boosterism, including stories and poems (death is a popular theme). If, after perusing this site, you feel the urge to step across the threshold of one of the strange worlds of tomorrow's science, you can click on a link to a Sea Monkey retailer near you. (4)

Spam

PEZ and Mentos (see next) have quite a cult following on the Web. But when it comes to online presence, mere candy can't hold a candle to Hormel's canned meat product, Spam. How do I know? I typed the word "Mentos" into the Alta Vista search engine, and was rewarded with a mere 3,863 matches. "PEZ" produced 4,428. "Spam," however, netted me 42,955! Ever scientific, I typed in "Spam" and "Hormel" to try and filter out references to the Internet term spam. Even then I got 36,595 matches. Lacking the appetite and stamina to go through 30,000 or so Web sites, I homed in on the quintessential Spam site, the Spam de la Spam: Bob Gorman's Page O' Spam (http://www.rsi.com/ spam/).

There's a catalog from which you can order Spam neckties, earrings, boxer shorts, and other merchandise, to Spam recipes (not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach), to a collection of more than 6,000 Spam haiku. There's even a link to the Hormel Institute's home page; this august science institution was established by Jay C. Hormel himself. What are they doing at the Hormel Institute? Glad you asked. "Current research programs deal with the molecular structure, physical properties, metabolism and regulatory functions of membrane lipids and their metabolites, and relate to medical problems including heart disease and cancer." Any company that's involved in such diverse ventures as selling Spam boxer shorts and researching cancer is clearly a forward-thinking enterprise that deserves to be venerated on the Web. (4.5)

Mentos

If you're a fan of Van Melle's Mentos mints -- or of their fantastically perky Mentos TV commercials -- you'll find kindred spirits perusing the Mentos FAQ (www3.gse.ucla.edu/cjones/mentos/mentos-faq.html). Here you can read synopses of the commercials, which are all variations on the following theme: our hero finds himself or herself in a seemingly insurmountable predicament, then whips out a roll of Mentos (slogan: "Fresh and Full of Life"), pops one, and comes up with a fresh and creative solution that leaves everybody -- even the villains -- smiling in happy camaraderie. Most notable, if hardly laudable, is "Through the Car," in which a teen, crossing the street, is separated from his friends (and nearly from his legs) by an overanxious motorist. Opening the rear door, he climbs through the auto, while the driver looks over his shoulder in astonishment. Upon exiting, the youth shrugs at the motorist, Mentos in hand. Although a bit shaken, the passenger acknowledges the carefree youths with an approving glance as he speeds away, clearly thinking, "Wait till the wife hears of my brush with freshness!"

At this site, there's even a Mentos Journal, with erudite essays such as Brian Sack's interpretation of the "Car Movers" commercial as a metaphor for the struggle between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie.

Among the frequently asked questions is, "Where were the commercials filmed?" (The consensus is that they were filmed in the U.S., despite their European je ne sais quoi.) "Can you explain the appeal of the Mentos commercials, and of Mentos themselves?" I asked one of the Web site's founders. Jeff Nucera replied: No, I can't figure out why people want to know about Mentos . . . but [our site has] had almost 140,000 hits so far. Beats me!" (4)

Band-Aids and Sausages

If you bought an old house and found a garage filled with antique Band-Aid tins that had been used by the home's previous owner to store nails, washers, and the like, what would you do? Why, you'd make a Web page with scanned images of the Band-Aid boxes, of course. That's just what Kevin Savetz has done, with his 75 Years of Band-Aid page (www.savetz.com/ bandaid/). In point of fact, Savetz had only about 50 years' worth of Band-Aid boxes; additional photos of ancient tins were donated by other adhesive-strip aficionados who saw the page.

Savetz thoughtfully provides a link to the Johnson & Johnson home page, which includes the company's own Band-Aid information, including a Band-Aid Timeline and a Band-Aid Quiz ("Which of the following stars has appeared in a commercial for Band-Aid Brand: John Travolta, Brooke Shields or Lassie?") (3.5)

In a similar vein, there's Jim Tipton's Vienna Sausage Labels page (www.findagrave.com/vienna.html), which shows labels from Libby's, Hormel and Armour Vienna Sausage cans, as well as bonus photos of Armour and Hormel Potted Meat Food Product labels. Why does this site exist? Let's just say it's Vienna sausage labels for Vienna sausage labels' sake.

Dissatisfied Customers

Not all product-related Web sites sing the praises of the brands they discuss. Donnie Deutsch take note: Danger! Danger! Ziniti's 'Down with Snapple!' page (www.fas.harvard.edu/ziniti/snapple.html) is the home of the Anti Snapple Association. "The ASA is based upon the ideal that the people at Snapple are corrupting the minds of our youth. The basis of this complaint stems from the commercials in which Snapple proclaims that it is all right to be 'number three' as opposed to striving to instill in our children the importance of trying to be the best." An Anti-Snapple Manifesto ensues. (1.5)

At the Citizens Rebellion Against Pringles page (www.stevenpockett.com/crap/index.html), C.R.A.P. founder Justin Uforuanme contends that the crispy snacks are highly addictive and should therefore be banned. All of these sites are thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, but who knows what sort of citizens' rebellion they might foment? After all, the masses revolted when the new Coca-Cola flavor was introduced in the '80s -- and that was before information could spread like wildfire over the Web! (1)

Whether you love or hate a particular product, chances are you'll find an impassioned discussion of it on the Web. If not, well, you can always create your own site.

Erfert Fenton is the co-author, with David Pogue, of the Weird Wide Web (IDG

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