In connection with its 100 Most Influential Women in Advertising editorial package and promotion, industry publication Advertising Age asked its readers to vote on the “Top 10 Female Ad Icons of All Time.”
Now the results are in.
Typical advertising exaggeration
But before we get to the rankings, though, it’s worth noting that, as you might expect from advertising, the claim’s exaggerated.
The oldest of these female ad icons goes back only to 1911 in her present form — and to normal people, at least, “all time” did not begin a mere 101 years ago. But then, we advertising folks have always tended to live in our own little, solipsistic world.
And now, the results:
Tie for last place: Mrs. Olson and Josephine the Plumber (1% each)
In 1963, Procter & Gamble acquired the Folger Coffee Company, and the commercials which resulted showed it. They featured one Mrs. Olson, a Swedish neighborhood busybody who intruded into housewives’ homes, advising them that a good cup of Folger’s coffee was the solution to all problems. This is because, she said, Folger’s Coffee is mountain grown — a somewhat ludicrous claim when you consider that virtually all the world’s coffee beans flourish only at higher elevations.
Former child movie star Jane Withers infested network air time throughout the 1960s and early ’70s as Josie the Plumber. We knew she was a plumber because the lettering on her clean, white overalls said so, but she never did any plumbing. She was always telling viewers to use Comet cleanser instead.
9th Place: Rosie the Waitress (3%)
Played by Nancy Walker, who’d just finished a star run as Ida, Rhoda Morgenstern’s mother, on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff “Rhoda,” the Rosie character was an awful waste of a great comedic talent.
Rosie never did any order-taking, serving or other forms of waiting on tables, because apparently all the patrons of the restaurant where she worked were such slobs that they kept spilling things, giving her a chance to show and tell how Bounty paper towels were “the quicker picker-upper.” Maybe that’s why she never got any tips.
8th Place: Madge the Manicurist (4%)
From 1966 through 1992, actress Jan Miner, AKA Madge the Manicurist, soaked her patrons’ cuticles in Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid, because it was supposed to soften hands while you used it to wash dishes with. Of course, soaking in it straight out of the bottle isn’t quite the same as using it with lots and lots of hot water. Madge never got around to manicuring any nails, but she did tell her customers, “You’re soaking in it.” The campaign was created by agency Ted Bates and was one of a very few that didn’t repeat the main selling point three times in 30 seconds.
7th Place: Flo (5%)
Known for her pushy presentation, heavy makeup and retro hairdo, Flo (played by actress Stephanie Courtney) has been pitching Progressive Insurance since 2008. No end is in sight.
Tie for 6th Place: Betty Crocker and Clara Peller (7% each)
Home economist Marjorie Husted created Betty Crocker in 1921 for the Washburn Crosby Company, a predecessor of General Mills. Her first name was Betty, because that sounded cheerful, friendly and all-American, and her last name was Crocker, after a member of Washburn Crosby’s board. Originally, her name was just for use as a signature on letters answering consumers’ questions, but she became the brand’s icon and later brand name. Over time, she’s been updated to keep up with current fashions.
Clara Peller, by contrast, was a real person, and her name was never mentioned in commercials. During the 1980s, advertising commercial director Joe Sedelmaier was known for his quirky commercials featuring, shall we say, unusual-looking real people. He cast Clara Peller, 81 years old at the time, in a commercial for a Wisconsin sandwich chain called Suburpia. In it, she looked down at a big hamburger bun with a tiny hamburger and shouted, “Where’s the meat?” When DFS copywriter Cliff Freeman saw the Suburpia spots on Sedelmaier’s reel, he changed “meat” to “beef,” “Suburpia” to “Wendy’s,” sold the campaign to the client, hired Sedelmaier to (re)shoot it — and won everlasting fame for “his” work of creative advertising genius.
4th Place: Other (8%)
I don’t know if either of these two women actually showed up in this category, but they deserved to — one because she’s the oldest female ad icon and the only one who’s not lily-white, and the other because she appeared in what was one of my favorite campaigns of the 1970s (1971-79, to be specific).
Aunt Jemima, I’m sorry to say, had racist origins, making her first appearance in an 1875 minstrel show. As a Butterfly McQueen-type Southern plantation mammy stereotype, she became a trademark in 1893, then the face of a whole line of pancake mixes and syrups. For decades, she’s been redrawn as a successful-looking modern African-American woman who’s anything but the female version of an Uncle Tom.
One of my favorite television campaigns of the 1970s was for Chiffon margarine (though I have to confess I never bought the product). In it, actress Dena Dietrich, dressed in white with a garland of daisies on her head, portrayed Mother Nature tasting Chiffon margarine and pronouncing it so sweet and creamy, it had to be her natural butter. When informed it’s not butter but margarine, she lets loose with thunder and lighting, proclaiming, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
3rd Place: Chiquita Banana (9%)
Chiquita Banana was originally an illustrated icon for United Fruit. Dik Browne, who later went on to create “Hagar the Horrible,” drew her in 1944 and modeled her after Brazilian singer and movie actress Carmen Miranda. Chiquita has since gone from toon to human and become the eponym for the brand.
Runner-up: Rosie the Riveter (23%)
Inspired by a 1942 hit song of the same name, Rosie herself first appeared rolling up her sleeve and flexing her biceps in a Westinghouse poster drawn by Pitsburgh illustrator J. Howard Miller. She became a popular symbol of all the women doing what was thought of as “man’s work,” turning out Liberty ships, munitions, tanks, airplanes and other war materiel on assembly lines while the men who used to work there were off fighting World War II.
Winner: Morton Salt Umbrella Girl (31%)
It’s amazing that she’s over 101 years old but hasn’t grown an inch. She made her first appearance in 1911, in one of 15 ad layouts prepared by agency N. W. Ayer for a new brand of salt that didn’t clog up from humidity and came in a cylindrical package with a patented free-flow spout. Sterling Morton, the owner’s son, picked her out of the lineup, saying, “Here was the whole story in a picture – the message that the salt would run in damp weather was made beautifully evident.” He also insisted that the copy be shortened to,”When it rains, it pours.” The rest was history. The umbrella girl debuted on packaging in 1914 and has been updated in 1921, 1933, 1941, 1956, and 1968.