Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

The Chicago World’s Fair was opened to the first of 27 million visitors when U.S. president Grover Cleveland pushed a button and the newfangled electric lighting dazzled goggle-eyed fairgoers who only knew lanterns and candles. PBS tells us “Visitors gawked at electric incubators for chicken eggs, electric chairs for executions, an electric sidewalk, an early fax machine that sent pictures over telegraph wires and Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, the first moving picture machine.

Performers at the fair included escape artist Harry Houdini, Buffalo Bill Cody with his Wild West Show and scandalous belly dancing sensation Little Egypt. 

There were donkey races, international tug-of-war contests, a two-headed pig and Hindu jugglers. The biggest attraction was the world’s first Ferris wheel, taller than the Statue of Liberty. More than a million riders paid fifty cents each to see the exposition grounds from on high. Civil rights leader Frederick Douglass organized a Colored People’s Day at the fair, saying “We Negroes love our country. We fought for it. We ask only that we be treated as well as those who fought against it.”

There are many recognizable characters from advertising’s earlier days

Some are misunderstood, a few have undergone reconstructive surgery and others have been banished forever for not being able to see into the future and predict how people are going to judge them using 2022 sensibilities.

Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are two characters who personified their brands

They were the brand ambassadors of their day, but angry people like to say Aunt Jemima was a slave mammy and Uncle Ben was an Uncle Tom. As is so often the case, there is more to the story than can be told in 280 characters.That’s about half the words to Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Nancy Green was a former slave who was hired by the R.T. Davis Milling Company to promote their brand of flour

After appearing at the 1893 World’s Fair where she made pancakes next to the World’s Largest Flour Barrel, Green spent the next 20 years portraying Aunt Jemima in personal appearances and demonstrations. Green was buried in a pauper’s grave for nearly 100 years until an activist asked Quaker Oats if they would sponsor a monument for her grave. As the story goes, the official response was no, because “real Nancy Green and fictitious Aunt Jemima aren’t the same person.”

Many other women played Aunt Jemima, including Lillian Richard and Anna Short Harris

Because the character was a racist stereotype, nearly any dark-skinned woman could play Aunt Jemima by wearing a simple country dress, an apron and a do-rag. My searches for photos of these unknown women found sloppily mismatched names and faces everywhere, a characteristic shared by many of online photos, old and new.

Converted Rice was once named Plantation Rice

Uncle Ben may not have existed at all, and then again, maybe he was two real people. Mars, the candy conglomerate, says in their corporate lore that the inspiration for Ben was a sharecropping rice farmer in Beaumont, Texas. Others say Ben was a Chicago maître d’hotel named Frank Brown, who was paid either $50 or $500 for sitting for the painted portrait that was used on the box, depending on who’s telling the story. Mars proudly goes on to tell us how Ben was promoted to Chairman of the Board in 2007 but leaves out the part about how they once called their product Uncle Ben’s Plantation Rice. 

in 1921, the Washburn-Crosby Company ran an ad in the Saturday Evening Post 

Readers who sent in their assembled jigsaw puzzle were sent a pincushion made of a tiny flour sack by return mail. Thirty thousand people sent in their puzzles, most of them women who also asked cooking and baking questions.

Executives pounced on the idea of creating a fictitious character to personalize the answers they sent back

At the time, customer mail was answered by the all-male members of the advertising department. Manager Samuel Gale believed that most female customers who wrote in would rather get a reply letter from a woman. Feel free to consider this to be either the action of a sexist pig, or what history would show to be a brilliant idea. The company made up the name Betty Crocker and invented a warm and friendly character to symbolize the ideal female cook who personally answered everyone’s letters.

The signature that went on all the letters was chosen in a company contest won by Florence Lindeberg. The rest of the letter answerers had to learn to copy it.

Marjorie Husted joined Washburn-Crosby as a home economist and used her test kitchen to create simple recipes

In 1928, her employer joined with 26 other flour mills to form General Mills. Husted wrote all the scripts for their radio cooking show and recorded her own voice as Betty’s.

In 1945, Betty Crocker was the second most popular woman in America, just behind Eleanor Roosevelt

Homemakers knew that when problems arose, Betty Crocker would come to their rescue. In a later interview, Husted said “Women needed a champion. Here were millions of them staying home alone, doing a job with children, cooking and cleaning on minimal budgets – the whole depressing mess of it. They needed someone to remind them they had value.” 

In 1950, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book offered simple recipes, the first-ever step-by-step photographs and practical advice on managing households

For many years and for millions of women, Betty was a comfortable and knowledgable person to seek out for kitchen advice. Tori Avey called her a kitchen confidante, the Dear Abby of cooking.

There are no photographs of Betty, just paintings that evolved over the years

General Mills says the Betty Crocker portraits are made by blending the images of dozens of real-life women.

As far back as 1977, advertising executives agreed that irritation had become an acceptable part of advertising 

One of the most irritating of all was a supermarket manager. He was whiny and annoying when scolding customers and a hypocrite, too, squeezing the Charmin himself in 500 television ads aired tens of thousands of times over his 20-year run as the face of Charmin toilet paper.

George Whipple was the supermarket manager played by Dick Wilson, whose television acting career was mostly limited to playing drunks in bars

Shown above with Darrin #1 on an episode of Bewitched, Wilson said acting in commercials was particularly demanding. “You’ve got 24 seconds to introduce yourself, introduce the product, say something nice about it and get off gracefully.” Advertising Age called the Mr. Whipple “Please, don’t squeeze the Charmin” campaign among the Top 100 of the 20th Century.

The embodiment of the Charmin brand is now a cartoon bear family

Their ads say nothing about squeezing, but plenty about how Charmin cleans better “so you can say goodbye to all of that itching and squirming and say hello to clean bottoms.” Mr. Whipple may have been annoying, but he never would have said anything about what bears do in the woods.

The envelope, please

I say let’s get these four famous brand ambassadors out of the graveyards, dustbins and board rooms and acknowledge the effect they had on marketing to consumers, so:

Lets Take A Closer Look proudly announces the unveiling of a new Mount Rushmore:

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Hattie McDaniel was criticized by blacks and whites for playing cook and maid roles in dozens of films. Her response? “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars playing a maid than seven dollars being one.”



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