- Mike Nudelman/Business Insider
You probably recognize a lot of brands by their mascots.
McDonald’s has its clown Ronald, Wendy’s has its pigtailed Wendy. The entire cereal industry has longstanding visibility in the American public largely because of mascots.
But while they may seem larger than life, some brand mascots are based on real people.
- Kiichiro Sato/AP
The redheaded, pigtailed girl in the Wendy’s logo is indeed a real person, and she’s still alive today.
The mascot for the restaurant chain is based on Melinda Thomas, the daughter of Wendy’s founder R. David Thomas. People reported in 1990 that Melinda beat out her other siblings in being the namesake of their father’s restaurant chain.
The eight-year-old’s portrait, taken in 1969, became the iconic mascot for the brand.
The Sun-Maid Woman
The woman on the front of Sun-Maid rising boxes is a real person.
According to Sun-Maid, the mascot was based off the image of a woman named Lorraine Collett Petersen, a 17-year-old girl from Missouri who was working as a seeder, packer, and promoter for a subsidiary of the Sun-Maid company in Fresno. In 1910, she was stopped in the middle of drying her hair and was asked to hold a basket tray of grapes for a watercolor portrait.
Her face would first appear on Sun-Maid boxes in 1916, and would remain with slight changes over the years up until today.
The Uncle Ben you see on the boxes of rice isn’t the real Uncle Ben. But he did exist.
According to the Museum of Public Relations, Uncle Ben was a black Texan rice farmer whose crop continuously won awards for its outstanding quality.
In 1932, German and British chemists Erich Huzenlaub and Francis Heron Rogers refined a process to make more nutritious parboiled rice and started the Converted Rice Company. The company itself didn’t have any ties to Uncle Ben – he was dead by the time they started the company.
But Huzenlaub and Rogers took Ben’s name, leveraged his reputation, and named their product after him. The two based the mascot’s likeness on a Chicago maitre d’ named Frank Brown.
Hector Boiardi was an Italian chef born in 1897 in Piacenza, Italy. Like many Italian-American immigrants at that time, he arrived on Ellis Island in New York City and started working locally. He ascended the restaurant ranks and in time he became the head chef of the Plaza Hotel.
According to History.com, Boiardi’s customers loved his meals so much they wanted to make them at home. So Boiardi would package his dried pasta, sauces and ingredients in takeout containers with instructions.
It was only when a few customers who owned a local grocery store chain contacted him saying they knew how to can his prepared pastas that his products really took off.
Boiardi had to change the name on his products because Americans struggled to pronounce it.
“Everyone is proud of his own family name but sacrifices were necessary for progress,” Boiardi said.
Much like Wendy’s, the little girl featured on the popular brand of chocolate snacks was based on a real girl named Debbie, daughter of O.D. McKee. McKee Foods still owns Little Debbie today.
According to the company, McKee was trying to come up with a catchy brand name for his new snack cake company when someone suggested he name it after a family member.
McKee then took a photo of his four-year-old daughter in a straw hat and playclothes, and, to the surprise of the family members he didn’t tell beforehand, the girl became the namesake for the brand.
- Steve Baker/Flickr
McDonald’s mascot didn’t come out of thin air: He’s based on a clown character played by the still-living Willard Scott.
In 1959 to 1962, television presenter and broadcaster Scott played a character called Bozo the Clown on Washington, D.C.’s WRC-AM channel. A year after the show was cancelled, ad executive Barry Klein and Ringling Bros. Clown Michael “Coco” Polakovs reached out to Scott for a McDonald’s advertising initiative.
The two wanted to reach kids, so they ran a few commercials where a Bozo-inspired clown character, Ronald McDonald, was obsessed with hamburgers.
McDonald’s took up the character and made him a national mascot in 1966, according to the Wall Street Journal. But Scott’s tenure would not last: The company dumped him because it was hard to find clown actors with Scott’s large build in every market.