We all know the annoying jingles and obnoxious mascots trying to pimp a corporation’s wares. For the most part we assume that the names and faces associated with corporate mascots are made up in a boardroom by people tossing around the latest trendy buzzwords with the hopes of turning a higher profit, and that’s often exactly what happens.
But sometimes the mascots you see are based on real people. Well, except for Ronald McDonald and the Burger King, who are only real in your nightmares. Apart from those two, however, here are some of the real stories behind famous brand mascots.
10. Oscar Mayer
One of the most famous jingles in the history of advertising is the Oscar Mayer song, which has kids wishing to be hot dogs because famous doesn’t equate with sensible. Apparently market research showed that kids are so desperate to be loved they’re willing to be turned into food and consumed, which has all sorts of uncomfortable implications we don’t want to get into. At any rate, Oscar Mayer is also famous for an ad in which a kid proudly proclaims that his bologna has a name, and that it is, in fact, Oscar Mayer.
Oscar Mayer was a real person, so the kid is basically singing about eating the body of a German immigrant. We’re starting to sense a cannibalistic pattern with the Oscar Mayer executives. Mayer worked in the meat industry in Detroit and Chicago in the 19th century, and in 1883 he and his brother, Gottfried, opened up their own meat shop. Within 10 years they were one of the food sponsors for the Chicago World’s Fair. The Mayer brothers were one of the first meat companies to start branding their product, and it’s probably a good thing they went with Oscar’s name because Gottfried Mayer just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
9. Famous Amos
Famous Amos cookies are mostly famous for being those small, incredibly dry cookies that come in a pouch and crumble into dust as soon as you take them out of the bag. But when the guy who came up with those cookies decided to call himself “Famous” Amos, he wasn’t lying. Wally Amos was a small time celebrity, having been a television personality as well as the first black talent agent for William Morris. The guy who founded Famous Amos represented Diana Ross and Simon and Garfunkel.
So where did those cookies come in? Well, he used to bake chocolate chip cookies to woo clients, and apparently it worked so well that he was convinced to start his own cookie company with the help of a $25,000 loan from Marvin Gaye. Famous Amos is still alive and makes occasional television appearances, including a cameo on a 2012 episode of The Office.
8. Little Debbie
Have you ever thought that at some point, some executives were so stumped and drained of ideas that they just threw their hands in the air, said “screw it,” and based their next big decision on whatever happened to be nearby? Well, that’s how snack cake giant Little Debbie got its name. The story of how Little Debbie became a world famous corporate mascot is based more on convenience and laziness than anything else.
In1960, when founder O.D. McKee was struggling to come up with a name, it was suggested that he just name the cakes after a member of his family. So he saw a picture of his four year old granddaughter, Debbie, wearing a straw hat and decided that would be good enough. Hilariously, McKee never bothered to tell the little girl’s parents that her name and likeness were about to become a massive brand icon until after the boxes hit store shelves.
7. Chef Boyardee
Have you seen Ratatouille, where the rat starts working in a fancy restaurant making delicious food? While that’s going on, a famous chef named Gusteau is about to give his name and likeness to a frozen food franchise. That’s not too far from the story behind Chef Boyardee, only his story doesn’t involve rats and he was the one who slapped his own name and face on his frozen foods rather than a scheming villain doing it for him.
Ettore Boiardi worked as the renowned head chef at the Plaza in New York City as well as the Greenbrier in West Virginia (which is now more famously known as the location of a massive underground government fallout facility, possibly stocked with centuries worth of beefaroni). He cooked for presidents, and was later awarded a Gold Star of Excellence from the War Department for providing food to troops during World War II. Somewhere along the way he started franchising his sauces with the more phonetic spelling of his name, “Boyardee,” slapped onto the packaging, and an entire brand and iconic mascot — which was just a picture of the chef himself — were born.
6. Colonel Sanders
Colonel Sanders seems like as much of a fake mascot as Ronald McDonald or Cap’n Crunch. After all, he’s a cartoonish southerner with that awesome/ridiculous facial hair and the fact that he called himself “The Colonel,” which is a decidedly southern thing to do. But yes, there was most definitely a real “Colonel” Harland Sanders, and he was the founding figure behind Kentucky Fried Chicken. He grew up in Indiana, but “Indiana Fried Chicken” doesn’t sound quite right, does it?
Colonel Sanders bounced around odd jobs as a young man, from blacksmithing to working for the railroad, until he earned his law degree via a correspondence course and practiced law for a few years. Oh, and he also founded a ferryboat company. Seriously, he was all over the place. So where does his chicken come in? In 1930, Shell Oil decided to give him a service station in exchange for a percentage of the station’s sales, which wound up being increased exponentially when Sanders started making chicken and selling it to his customers. So if you’re ever wondering why KFC is so greasy and oily, now you know that’s because it was literally born out of a gas station.
5. Uncle Ben
So far we’ve been dealing with brand mascots that are pretty cut and dry in terms of who they really were. In the case of rice maker Uncle Ben, things are a little more murky. No one seems to know for sure exactly who Uncle Ben was, or if he ever existed to begin with.
The actual product was created by a German chemist named Erich Huzenlaub, which isn’t a name that’s going to sell a lot of rice in America. Huzenlaub teamed up with a man named Forrest Mars to start packaging and selling the rice, and they slapped a picture of an old black guy in a bow tie on the packages and called it “Uncle Ben.” According to Mars, it’s based on an actual rice grower he knew, while others have said that the image is actually that of Frank Brown, a maitre de in Chicago. About the only thing that anyone can agree on is the fact that the name “Uncle Ben” was chosen because “Uncle” was a nickname often given to old black slaves and servants in the south, and who doesn’t want to use racism to sell food?
4. Betty Crocker
While the identity of Uncle Ben has remained a mystery over the decades, there’s no getting around the truth behind everyone’s favorite cake mix manufacturer, Betty Crocker. It turns out that Betty was aptly named, because her reported existence is a total crock. See what we did there? Yeah, you saw it. High fives all around!
The Betty Crocker brand was created by a woman named Marjorie Husted, and the fictional baking queen was portrayed on radio cooking shows by a woman named Agnes White for several years, leading people to believe that Betty was an actual person. The character became more ingrained in American culture when “Betty” started releasing cookbooks, and starting in 1949 she was given a face when an actress named Adelaide Hawley Cumming was cast to portray her on television. Betty Crocker was actually first “seen” in a portrait in 1936, but General Mills kept altering her look to fit in with the public perception of what a homemaker should look like.
3. Aunt Jemima
What Betty Crocker was to cake and cookie mixes, Aunt Jemima was to pancakes, only with a little bit of Uncle Ben’s overt racism tossed in for good measure. There was no Aunt Jemima, but oh man, was racism ever a driving force behind her creation. She was inspired in large part by a minstrel show and an old vaudeville song from 1875 called “Old Aunt Jemima.”
The actual company came about when two guys named Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood bought a flour mill, and when they realized they were facing a ton of competition in the flour market they started selling their product in small packages as pancake mix. As the rumor goes, the inspiration for Aunt Jemima came when Rutt attended a traveling minstrel show and saw a white man in blackface performing as “Aunt Jemima,” though that was never confirmed.
So who stood in as the first Aunt Jemima in their marketing materials? That was a former slave named Nancy Green, who played the role until her death. If you were wondering whether anyone thought the whole thing seemed a little uncomfortable, the answer is yes. Large groups of black women viewed the character as a major setback to their efforts. And with a catchphrase like, “I’s in town, honey!” who could ever guess why?
2. Bob’s Big Boy
These days, people probably know Bob’s Big Boy best from the Austin Powers movies and forget that it’s an actual restaurant chain. Bob’s Big Boy was founded in California in 1936, and was originally called Bob’s Pantry. So why did they change the name, and who the heck is the creepy mascot based on? Well, it basically came from the founder, Bob Wian, seeing a fat kid chowing down on a burger in one of his restaurants.
It’s not often that an old dude commenting on a six year old’s portliness results in an internationally known brand name and mascot, but that’s exactly what happened here. There was a kid named Richard Woodruff eating at Bob’s Pantry, and when Wian saw him he blurted out, “Hello, Big Boy.” That’s equal parts a mean thing to say to a little kid and a creepy thing to say to anyone. But undeterred, Wian got an animator from Warner Bros. to sketch a caricature of Woodruff, and the tubby six year old suddenly became one of the most recognizable fast food characters in history.
1. Captain Morgan
You know Captain Morgan, the spiced rum that tends to be a favorite of college coeds and has those commercials about having a little Captain in you, which sounds sexually awkward when taken out of context. At this point, Captain Morgan is about on par with Captain Hook and Jack Sparrow in terms of how he’s viewed in the public eye, in that he’s more of a cartoon character than anything else. But he’s based on a very real Welsh privateer named Sir Henry Morgan.
The real Captain Morgan gained some infamy in the 17th century for raiding Spanish settlements and being particularly brutal and violent in the process. Basically, he was a massive jerk who got his rocks off pillaging around the Caribbean. So when Seagram bought a Jamaican distillery in 1944 they decided, hey, why not name it after a guy who tormented and quite possibly murdered the ancestors of the people they’d turn around and sell the rum to? Although the name does seem kind of fitting, since the guys in those commercials frequently come off as douches, just like the rum’s namesake.