Israel, a nation whose richest natural resource is irony, is adept like no other at producing news stories that capture all of its intricacies, follies, and charms in one fell swoop. Behold the Bamba Baby: the single-toothed animated toddler, ordinarily the spokeschild of Israel’s most popular snack, is en route to London as the official mascot of the Jewish state’s Olympic team. To understand just how preposterous this is, imagine appointing Trix Rabbit as the face of Team USA.
How Bamba got the job, though, is the real story.
It begins last year, with the Olympic Committee of Israel’s decision to design a mascot for the team. No other developed country, as far as I can tell, felt a similar urge, but in Israel, land of milk, honey, and hasbara, branding is everything. A call was issued, and a mascot materialized. His name was Shpitzik, and he was an anthropomorphic cactus. You know, the whole desert thing. But no sooner was Shpitzik introduced then the Olympic Committee was sued by the creators of a popular 1970s Israeli children’s TV show, Ma Pitom, which starred a talking cactus named Kishkashta.
You can see where this is going. Earlier this year, an Israeli court heard Kishkashta v. Shpitzik. “In both cases,” the judge wrote, comparing cacti, “the head is disproportionate to the rest of the body, as are the hands. The ears and the thorns are similarly arranged in a reminiscent fashion.” Shpitzik, then, was deemed a copyright infringement.
The committee, its marketing dreams imperiled, needed a quick and bold solution. In a stunning feat of creativity, they turned to the most ubiquitous commercial character in at least a decade and appointed him the country’s athletic ambassador.
But the Olympic Committee’s troubles were far from over. Bamba, a crazy delicious and uber-popular peanut-butter flavored snack that sells 12 million units a month—that’s roughly two bags per Israeli—is manufactured by Osem (whose majority owner is Nestlé; Israel is subsidizing the Swiss). The Olympic Committee’s main sponsor, however, is Telma, a rival company. But the Talmudists at the Committee proved worthy of the challenge: Telma, they announced in their response, sponsored the Olympic Committee’s official breakfast cereal but not its official snack (and if you’re eating Bamba for breakfast, stop!); and, besides, the agreement with Osem called not for sponsorship but for cooperation.
Here is the only fitting coda for this story. The number of medals Israel has managed to win in the Olympics, from 1952 until 2008, is seven. That’s, for those of you keeping score, two less than New Zealand (population 4.17 million) and two more than Armenia (population 2.97 million).
BREAKING NEWS: Following an intense public outcry, the baby’s been fired. Osem and the Olympic committee just announced that their deal, penned 24 hours ago, has been revoked. “We didn’t think it’ll make such noise,” said Ephraim Singer, the committee’s chairman. Good luck in London, guys.