Real or Fictional: Food and Fashion
August 04, 2009
Podcast transcript | Listen
Today we're going to open the pages of pop culture to the chapter on
American products named after people. People whose names you've grown
to love and trust. But which of those are names of real people who
actually existed, and which are the inventions of marketing
professionals? You will probably know some of these, but you won't know
all of them. See how many you can get right.
Let's begin in the packaged food aisles of the supermarket. There
are a lot of names in here. Some of them are just characters invented
by the product marketers to present a wholesome, homey image; but how
can you tell those apart from the real names of food company founders
from a century or more ago? Here's an easy one to get us started:
Pancake matron Mrs. Butterworth:
Fictional. You probably guessed that her name was just a little too
improbable. Mrs. Butterworth is represented in commercials by a talking
syrup bottle in the shape of a motherly friend here to warm your heart
with hot maple syrup. The company, Pinnacle Foods, makes no claim of
any historical basis for the character.
What about Mrs. Butterworth's elder competitor Aunt Jemima:
Fictional. The Aunt Jemima character as a racial stereotype has existed
for over 125 years, independent of the food brand, and first made
popular in an 1875 minstrel song. Representatives of the Pearl Milling
Company, who made the first ready-mix pancake batter, saw an actor
playing Aunt Jemima in 1889 (a white male in blackface) and recruited
him to represent the product. Only in 1989 was Aunt Jemima's
offensively cliché kerchief removed.
Ice cream hippies Ben & Jerry: Real. Although you might have confused them with their knockoffs from the 1991 movie City Slickers
Barry & Ira, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield really did start their
own ice cream company and still run it according to their original
ideals. They have three separate missions: a Product Mission, an
Economic Mission, and a Social Mission. It's worked well enough that
they are now in 30 countries.
America's baker Betty Crocker:
Fictional. Marjorie Husted created and named the character Betty
Crocker as an icon for the Washburn Crosby company as it merged with
five other milling companies and became General Mills. The name Crocker
was an homage to William Crocker, one of the directors of Washburn
Crosby. For almost 30 years, Husted went on to provide the voice for
the Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air radio program, making the name not just a brand, but a real American icon.
Betty Crocker's challenger Sara Lee:
Real. In 1951, baker Charles Lubin realized he needed an icon too, and
he didn't have one. So, he borrowed the name Sara Lee from his young
daughter, who never had anything to do with the company. The Kitchens
of Sara Lee grew to $9 million in annual sales before it was acquired
by the Consolidated Foods Corporation. The brand grew so successful
that the company changed its entire name to that of the brand in 1985,
forming the Sara Lee Corporation.
Canned pasta king Chef Boyardee:
Real. Although he did change the spelling of his name to make his brand
more approachable for American consumers, Italian immigrant Ettore
Boiardi was indeed a real chef and is indeed the man pictured on the
cans. He was the head chef for New York's Plaza Hotel when he left to
launch his first restaurant in Cleveland in 1926. Within three years he
opened a factory to prepare and ship his spaghetti products nationally.
After selling his company to American Home Foods, Chef Boiardi was
awarded a gold star from the United States War Department for his
efforts producing rations for American soldiers in the Korean War.
Soft drink alchemist Dr. Pepper:
Fictional. Pharmacist Charles Alderton developed Dr. Pepper's unique
taste in 1885, and it was named by his first customer, Morrison's Old
Corner Drug Store. A number of stories claim to link Morrison to
various doctors named Pepper, but no reliable evidence has ever shown
that any of them were the inspiration for the name. In 2009 an antiquer
discovered a book containing the formula for a digestive aid called "D
Peppers Pepsin Bitters" from Morrison's, so it appears that Dr. Pepper
was simply a brand name that the drug store attempted to build.
Dr. Pepper's upstart rival Mr. Pibb:
Fictional. In 1972 the Coca-Cola Company introduced Mr. Pibb as a
knockoff of Dr. Pepper. Coca-Cola has never made any suggestion that
there was an actual person named Mr. Pibb. The drink has since been
renamed Pibb Extra, and we don't know anyone of that name either.
Cookie cutter Famous Amos:
Real. Wally Amos was a Hollywood talent agent who sent his own
home-made cookies to prospective clients. Although he represented stars
such as Diana Ross & the Supremes and Simon & Garfunkle, his
cookies were better than his agenting, so in 1975 he opened a cookie
store called Famous Amos. Within a few years he was filling orders from
supermarkets nationally. But his cookie recipe was better than his
cookie marketing, and he had to sell the company only a few years later.
Famous Amos' competitor Mrs. Fields:
Real. Debbi Fields was only 21 when she opened her first bakery to sell
cookies in Palo Alto, CA. The store was so successful that she began
franchising, and Mrs. Fields Bakeries has since become one of the
amazing American success stories. The company now has more than 650
Greasy breakfast and barbecue man Jimmy Dean: Real. The Jimmy Dean of Jimmy Dean Foods is indeed the same man who sang Big Bad John and who portrayed Willard Whyte in Diamonds are Forever.
He and his brother Don founded the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in 1969,
and with its popular frontman as a good-humored spokesman, the company
did well enough that it was acquired by Consolidated Foods in 1984. By
2004 he was completely retired from the business, and rumored to be
hiding out somewhere protected by his security guards Bambi and Thumper.
Pie chef Marie Callender:
Real. Like some other namesakes, Marie Callender was a real person but
had no actual involvement with the company. Her son Don Callender is
the one who, in 1948 at the age of 20, opened a wholesale bakery to
make pies for the restaurant business, and he named it after her
because nobody would want "Don's Pies". The company now operates 139
restaurants throughout the United States, and the frozen food business
is owned by ConAgra.
Meat packer Oscar Mayer:
Real. German immigrant brothers and sausage makers Oscar, Gottfried,
and Max Mayer ran a popular meat market in Chicago in 1900. They were
among the first meat companies to carry USDA inspection grades
beginning in 1906, and were among the first companies to brand meat,
first selling it as Oscar Mayer Wieners in 1929. Oscar Mayer was not
just a real person; he was one of three real Oscar Mayers to run the
company in succession. The first Wienermobile appeared in 1936. The
company is now owned by Kraft Foods.
Rice king Uncle Ben:
Fictional. Like Aunt Jemima and the Rastus character used on Cream of
Wheat boxes, Uncle Ben is another in a long line of patronizing and
demeaning racial stereotypes associated with foods. Converted Rice Inc.
sold rice to the US military during WWII, and owner George Harwell
chose the name Uncle Ben in order to appeal to the general public with
a fatherly character. Mars, Inc. acquired the company and now claims,
almost certainly falsely, that Uncle Ben was simply the name of a
successful rice farmer in Texas who was paid $50 to pose for the box
photo. They now depict Uncle Ben as the chairman of the board.
So much for food products. Let's go up one level where product names
are just a little more important: the worlds of cosmetics and high
fashion. It's more important to associate your product with an
impressive and fancy sounding name than it is a real name. So let's see
if the names they've chosen were chosen because they sound high class,
or is it merely that their association with high class products has
made the names fancy?
Perfumist Prince Matchabelli: Real.
I was sure this one was fake, having grown up with the TV commercials
of some guy jet setting around Monte Carlo, skydiving, racing
speedboats; and yet there never seemed to be any European monarchies
missing a prince. Prince Giorgi Machabeli was an amateur chemist and
member of the royal family of Georgia. When his Georgian Liberation
Committee failed to win independence from the Russian Empire and the
Bolshevik Revolution went down, he fled with his wife to the United
States in 1921 and launched the Prince Matchabelli Perfume Company.
Cosmetics king Max Factor:
Real. Watch out for the re-spelled European names. Maximilian
Faktorowicz was a young Polish cosmetics expert who worked for the
royal family. He emigrated to the United States in 1904 and set up shop
in Los Angeles, providing wigs and revolutionary new cosmetics to the
growing movie industry. He actually invented the term make-up, and has
a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Outdoor clothier Eddie Bauer:
Real. Eddie Bauer was a Pacific Northwest outdoorsman who patented the
first quilted down jacket in 1940. He made his fortune as a supplier to
the US military, and was the first company allowed to use its logo on
military issued clothing when he created the B-9 Flight Parka for the
US Army Air Corps.
Cosmetics queen Mary Kay:
Real. Mary Kay Ash worked in sales for over a decade before concluding
that women need to run their own businesses instead of being passed
over by men. This remains the central marketing theme of Mary Kay
Cosmetics, wooing women to join their multilevel marketing scheme
hoping to one day earn the iconic pink cadillac. If Mary Kay's profits
from the product you sell covers the cost of the car lease, you owe
nothing; if you don't sell enough, you have to pay the lease yourself
to keep the car for its two-year term.
Leisure clothier Tommy Bahama: Fictional. Come on, have you ever known anyone named Bahama? It's a brand name of Georgia-based Oxford Industries, Inc.
Fashion czar Tommy Hilfiger:
Real. Tommy Hilfiger is a real fashion designer who took a risk and
launched his own brand in 1984, which later went public and gave him a
20-year ride before he sold out to The Man. As a brand, Tommy Hilfiger
now sits in the same corner with Tommy Bahama over at Oxford
Industries. As a person, Hilfiger jet-sets around, juggling supermodels
and reality TV shows and picking fights with Axl Rose in nightclubs.
So if you want to be immortal, name a product after yourself. Just
don't do what Thomas Crapper did and become synonymous with bowel
movements. Maybe you'll be fortunate enough to have someone do it for
you: Oil tycoon Armand Hammer had nothing to do with the baking soda
that bears his name. In any case, never underestimate the power of
names, and never just assume that a brand or some other icon is real.
When it comes to marketing, you should always be skeptical.