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Food Advertising Icons and Trade Characters

In 2004, an online survey via Yahoo! and USA Today involving nearly 700,000 participants chose the nation’s most popular advertising icons. Four of the five top finishers—the M&M characters, Mr. Peanut, The Pillsbury Doughboy, and Tony the Tiger—represented food companies.

Mr. Peanut

Mr. Peanut has changed his look, but never his definitive style, over the decades.

Poppin' Fresh the Pillsbury Doughboy

Poppin’ Fresh the Pillsbury Doughboy, one of the most beloved American food product icons.

Aunt Jemima

An old-time Aunt Jemima advertisement. Aunt Jemima has since taken on a more modern look.

Sue Bee Honey

Native American groups object to stereotypes of American Indians such as this Sue Bee Honey logo.

Charlie Tuna

Always scheming to get into the tuna can, always having to say he’s sorry, that’s Charlie Tuna.

Jolly Green Giant

Mr. Peanut, the dapper representative of Planter’s Nuts, has been showing off his top hat and cane on the American advertising scene since 1916. America’s oldest food advertising icon, the Quaker Oats Man, came onto the scene in 1877. Tony the Tiger began his career promoting Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes in 1952. Ronald McDonald began his hamburger empire in 1963 (his rival, the magical Burger King, did not appear until the late 1970s). The Jolly Green Giant has been pushing his vegetables since 1928 (though his partner the Little Green Sprout did not appear until 1973.) The singing California raisins hit the stage in 1986.

Campbells Kids

“Poppin’ Fresh,” the Pillsbury Doughboy, first saw the light of television in a commercial for the company’s crescent rolls in 1965. Poppin’ Fresh collectables are highly coveted: dozens of Christmas ornaments, coin banks, mixing bowls and baking dishes, salt and pepper shakers, cookie jars, figurines, greeting cards, jewelry, key chains, magnets, coffee mugs, tea kettles, kitchen utensils, watches, and of course stuffed toy images of the lovable doughboy make the rounds of online auctions and collector’s clubs. But the doughboy isn’t the only food icon with a fan club. The cherubic “Campbell Kids” have been gracing the soup company’s advertising in various manifestations since 1904 and have been collected for nearly that long.

Uncle Rastus on Cream of Wheat box

A number of food advertising icons have African-American roots. Aunt Jemima (pancake mixes), Uncle Ben (rice) and Uncle Rastus (popularly called the “Cream of Wheat Chef”) all have roots in racial stereotypes. Aunt Jemima’s character was based on a real woman, Nancy Green; beginning in 1893, Green began a career of playing Aunt Jemima for promotional events; her image became the icon it still is. Rastus, the Cream of Wheat chef, began as an invented woodcut image that was replaced in the 1920s by the photograph of a black Chicago waiter, name unknown, that is still on supermarket shelves today. Uncle Ben’s history dates back to the 1940s, when the image of Chicago Maitre D’ Frank Brown, a good friend of the product’s developers, was used for the popular rice. Generations ago the terms “Aunt” and “Uncle” were used by whites to address older African-Americans in a way thought for years to be demeaning and patronizing. The subject of protests in the 1950s, Aunt Jemima’s image was modernized; she lost the distinctive “mammy” kerchief that had been viewed as a mark of servility.

Frito Bandito

One of the great food icons of the past was the “Frito Bandito,” a shoot-‘em-up cartoon image of a Mexican bandit, complete with sombrero, cartridge belt, and exaggerated Mexican accent; the bandito arrived in 1967 as a spokesman for Fritos corn chips but soon inspired such protest from Mexican-American groups that he was retired in 1971. The Native-American community has not been as effective in removing stereotypical images on products, particularly foods: Big Chief Sugar, Crazy Horse Malt Liquor, Sue Bee Honey, the Land O’ Lakes Maiden (in continuous use on butter packages since the 1920s), and Calumet Baking Powder being only a few of hundreds of examples.

Cap'n Crunch

Breakfast cereals have been particularly fertile proving grounds for advertising icons, many of which have appeared in animated form in television commercials. Snap, Crackle and Pop began advertising Kellogg’s Rice Krispies in a 1933 radio advertisement (the idea is that the cereal itself makes a noise like “snap, crackle and pop” when milk is added). Quaker Oats’ Cap’n Horatio Crunch has been piloting the good ship Guppy since the mid 1960s. General Mills’ Lucky Charms marshmallow cereal has been featuring Lucky the Leprechaun since 1964. Cornelius the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes rooster has been a fixture since 1954; the Trix rabbit has been on its box since 1959; Toucan Sam began advertising Kellogg’s Fruit Loops in 1963, had his beak shortened in the 1970s, and introduced his three nephews to the scene in 1994; Raisin Bran’s animated sun Sunny came into prominence in 1966.

Elsie the Cow

But cereal has no monopoly on food animation. Charlie Tuna, spokes-fish for StarKist brand, acts as a real “wise guy,” though his hip attitude invariably leads to the much-imitated catch phrase “Sorry Charlie,” you may be hip, but your tuna meat isn’t quite up to our standards. The Kool Aid Man, fabricated from a glass pitcher presumably filled with the sugary refresher, came into being when foods giant Kraft purchased the company in 1970. Created by General Mills in 1921, fictitious baking expert “Betty Crocker” has enjoyed eight different images since that time. Elsie the Cow, originally a cartoon celebrity in her own right, was adopted as spokeswoman by the Borden dairy company in the 1960s.