Times have changed. It's as obvious a statement to make as it is iron-clad. The world only spins forward, you can't go home again, there's no use trying to un-ring a bell, and that toothpaste isn't getting back in the tube. I was thinking of this recently when I noticed that KFC is still going for their ultra-postmodern ad campaign featuring a slew of winking, intentionally ill-fitting Colonel Sanderses. At this point, "Colonel Sanders" as a concept is as much a cartoon mascot as Ronald McDonald and the Jolly Green Giant, and the culture has all but forgotten that Colonel Harland Sanders was a real person who really dressed like that, who hoarded his secret herbs and spices, and who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952.
For a LOT of reasons, business owners and entrepreneurs don't make for the best pitchmen these days. Political priorities have evolved, cultural mores have shifted; we're in the age of the influencer now, where teenagers with YouTube channels tell us what to buy. Which makes the classic era of the advertising campaign centered on the owner of the company that much more fascinating to look back on. Why did this particular angle of carefully manicured authenticity work so well? Who's to say, but what a peculiar little window into the national psyche it is. Behold some of our favorites:
Colonel Sanders was already in his 60s when he franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952. (Just to put that in context: the man was born in 1890, at a time when Kentucky had been a state for less than 100 years.) Anyway, by the time he became the face of TV advertisements for his brand of original-recipe chicken, flavored with a secret blend of eleven herbs and spices, he was in his 70s. Still, the authenticity of the old man calling himself The Colonel and dressed like a Southern gentleman straight out of a Tennessee Williams play helped to sell a lot of finger-lickin' chicken.
For whatever reason, American consumers were very much looking for authenticity in their chicken purchases in the mid-to-late 20th century. And Frank Perdue was offering stern, aggressive authenticity with every commercial for his Perdue brand chicken. Watch any old Perdue ad and you'll find bald-headed, hawk-nosed old Frank Perdue telling you about how other chickens at the supermarket could be frozen or skinny or otherwise subpar, and that even the government (cue sneer) and its grade-A designations were not to be trusted. Only Frank Perdue had chicken standards high enough to be worthy of your dinner table. The tag line was "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken," and Frank was the toughest old chicken farmer in the business.
If Frank Perdue was the stern uncle of the agri-business world, then Dave Thomas was the cuddly dad of fast food. Dave Thomas actually came up through the Kentucky Fried Chicken ranks, and it was reportedly he who encouraged Colonel Sanders to start appearing in his own TV advertisements. (Where is THAT movie?) Thomas made enough money as a franchise operator for KFC that he was able to cash in and venture out on his own with Wendy's in 1969. Though he didn't start out appearing in ads for the chain — named after his daughter Wendy — once he did, he would appear in upwards of 800 TV commercials, more than any other company founder in history. Dave's commercial persona was the affable, unassuming everyman who worked tirelessly to come up with new burger and sandwich ideas to please his customers, and of course Wendy herself.
Victor Kiam was the CEO of Remington, which made him a fortune selling electric shavers, including the Remington "Microscreen" and of course the Lady Remington. Kiam's shtick as a pitchman was to give a testimonial as to what a smooth, close shave his product offered, before saying that he liked the product so much, he bought the company.
Through the years, countless scientists, hucksters, and entrepreneurs have tried hard to battle against the scourge of male baldness. Nobody put themselves out on the front lines of this battle more visibly than Sy Sperling, who founded the Hair Club for Men in 1976. The Hair Club — which has since dropped the exclusive "for Men" and now caters to all people with hair-loss issues — offered a wide range of services for bald or balding people, including hairpieces, hair replacement procedures, tonics, potions, witchcraft, time travel, and a cutting-edge sounding elixir known as minoxidil. Sperling's hit catch phrase was "I'm not only the Hair Club president, I'm also a client," at which point he'd reveal a photo of his formerly bald self, a stunt worthy of the finest RuPaul's Drag Race queens.
In their 1995 obituary for Orville Redenbacher, the New York Times described him as "the agricultural visionary who all but single-handedly revolutionized the American popcorn industry." (Imagine being responsible for revolutionizing something so widely popular and ubiquitous as popcorn!) The Indiana-born Redenbacher was an agricultural scientist who experimented with different strains of popping corn until he arrived at his signature brand, which he sold under his own, incredibly memorable name. He began appearing in commercials for his popcorn, sporting his signature look of finger-waved gray hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and a bow tie. Redenbacher never really established a catch phrase, but it was his incredibly particular appearance — featured in ads, on talk shows, and even on the game show To Tell the Truth — that became the brand's signature.
Tom Carvel didn't always appear on screen in his ice cream company's TV commercials. Just as often he provided the voiceover, with his endearingly non-professional cadence, sounding like the quasi-befuddled melding of Jimmy Durante and Phillip Baker Hall. Carvel's authenticity and low-budget appeal really helped to sell the company's signature ice cream cakes like Fudgie the Whale, Cookie Puss, and the seasonal St Patricks-themed Cookie O'Puss, and grow the brand from a New York City-area curiosity into a national powerhouse.
Even in the subgenre of company owner-starring commercials — where the notions of "charisma" were stretched generously to accommodate a lot of affable dads and stern grandpas who didn't have much in the way of classic TV presence — George Zimmer's ads for Men's Wearhouse were pretty stiff. It's tough to blame Zimmer too much; his product was moderately discounted men's suits. No herbs and spices or secret formulas to goose the intrigue there. Just black, blue, and gray suits, hung on racks that stretched out seemingly to infinity. George Zimmer's vaunted "guarantee" that his suits were of the same quality as the finest stores but for at least 20% less could only go so far.
The only one of these company-owner pitch men to have lasted this far into the 21st century has been Bush's baked beans, who sent the company founder's son Jay out in front of the camera starting in 1993 to push the company's signature canned beans. But the evolution of Jay's bean commercials show how this entire ad concept has evolved. As the years went on, Jay Bush was joined by Duke, his adorable golden retriever (not Jay's actual dog, who was camera shy) who eventually got a gimmick that he could talk… and might spill the secret recipe of Bush's baked beans. By now, Duke's the star of the show, and a talking dog is a good deal removed from the authenticity-based commercials of these other company owners.
Wine cooler entrepreneurs Bartles & Jaymes get a heavy asterisk on this list because the two men who appeared in the ads as "Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes" were in fact fictional characters played by actors David Rufkahr and Dick Maugg. The folksy old pair — chatty Bartles and the mostly silent Jaymes — were meant to evoke the owners of the parent company, Ernest and Julio Gallo, but to anyone watching TV, they assumed that these two genial old men were doing their best to equip the underage drinkers of the 1980s with the wine coolers they so craved. Their tag line "Thank you for your support" was a winner as the ads aired for the bulk of the 1980s, and the ads themselves are a testament to the power and popularity of the founder-as-pitchman genre; that an advertising company would invent founder characters and have them played by actors in an incredibly sincere, unironic manner in order to sell the product.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.