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.
See this update to address popular (but incorrect) claims that the character was based on Nancy Green, a spokesmodel hired to portray her. —BD
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 stores.
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.