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Catching Up With 9 Advertising Icons

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There's a lot of buzz around this year's slate of Super Bowl ads. But will you even remember these commercials next year? Let's catch up with nine advertising icons who've managed to stick around for at least a generation—in our memories, at least.

1. Crazy Eddie

Crazy Eddie dominated the New York airwaves from the mid-seventies until bankruptcy in 1989. Not until Eddie Antar fled to Israel to escape fraud charges did I realize the TV spokesnut and CEO were not the same person. (I was 10, and in my defense probably hadn't given this much thought.)

Crazy Eddie (the actor) was played by Jerry Carroll, a DJ for WPIX-FM in New York. Since 1989, Carroll has appeared in commercials for 6th Avenue Electronics and Neil's Auto Group, a Long Island car dealership. He started an advertising agency with his wife called East Coast Media. And he reprised his role during the unsuccessful Crazy Eddie relaunch.

After his extradition in 1992, Crazy Eddie (the CEO) was sentenced to 12.5 years in jail. One of the U.S. Attorneys prosecuting him was former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. The verdict was thrown out, and Eddie later accepted a plea agreement that put him behind bars for nearly seven years. An attempt to revive Crazy Eddie (the store) as an online retailer was not successful.

2. The Gerber Baby

babyjpg1.jpgMystery author Ann Turner Cook found fame early in life, as the model for the Gerber logo. As a four-month-old, she was the subject of a simple charcoal sketch by her Westport, CT, neighbor, Dorothy Hope Smith "“ an artist who specialized in drawing children.

After a lifetime of teaching literature, Cook wrote three novels: Trace Their Shadows, Shadow Over Cedar Key, and Homosassa Shadows.

While we're on the subject, Snopes has debunked the sub-Saharan legend that Africans believed jars of Gerber actually contained liquefied Caucasian baby.

3. Wendy

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Founded in 1969, Wendy's was named for Dave Thomas' daughter, Melinda Lou (nicknamed Wendy by her siblings). She went on to attend the University of Florida. And now Wendy takes her kids to the restaurant that bears her name every day. Just like her father.

As of 2007, in addition to her frequent dining, she was operating 32 Wendy's restaurants with her siblings.

4. Little Miss Coppertone

coppertone.jpg Joyce Ballantyne Brand used her 3-year-old daughter, Cheri, as the model for Little Miss Coppertone in 1959. Today Cheri works as a personal trainer at a YMCA in Florida. According to the St. Petersburg Times, her mother has lived a fascinating life. "She spent two years at the University of Nebraska and two years at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. She met and married her first husband, artist Eddie Augustiny. She said she drew pictures for dictionaries, did maps for Rand McNally, painted murals for movie theaters and learned to fly a plane. She was barely 25."

Ms. Ballantyne Brand went on to create memorable work for Pampers, Ovaltine and Schlitz. In the mid-1970s, she and her husband moved from Chicago to Ocala, Florida. She passed away in 2006.

5. Dutch Boy

dutchboy.jpgThe Dutch Boy was, in fact, an Irish kid from Montclair, New Jersey. The Dutch boy idea came from a series of sketches by Rudolph Yook, which were to be refined by portrait artist Lawrence Earle in 1907. He spotted Michael Brady and offered him a $2/day cash windfall for posing duties.

Dave Yates has written about Dutch Boy, explaining what Brady did with his paycheck: "Arrangements were made: wooden shoes, blue coveralls and the cap were purchased, and Michael was asked to wear them for a few days so they'd look natural on him. His playmates had great fun at his expense until they discovered he was being paid the princely sum of $2 per day, which in 1907 bought great gobs of candy and soda pop for him and his friends. He consumed so much himself that, by the third day, he became ill and the family doctor was summoned to diagnose a mysterious stomach ailment!"

Brady grew up to become a political cartoonist, whose work was published by the Brooklyn Eagle.

6. Sailor Jack

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Boxes of Cracker Jack featured Sailor Jack and his faithful dog, Bingo. Jack was inspired by Robert Rueckheim, the grandson of the company's founder. Robert tragically died of pneumonia when he was only eight. The image of Sailor Jack is etched into his tombstone at St. Henry's Cemetery in Chicago.

7. The FedEx Fast Talker/The MicroMachines Guy

fedex.gifJohn Moschitta, Jr., has talked his way into commercials for both Federal Express and Micro Machines. He's done a stint on Sesame Street, served as the announcer on the new Hollywood Squares, and lent his voice to Transformers: The Movie. Moschitta has also rapidly summarized our greatest literature in Ten Classics in Ten Minutes.

He was #6 on a recent list of the Ten Creepiest Advertising Icons (Crazy Eddie also made the list, at #10). More recently, he parodied his fast-talking self on Robot Chicken.

8. Little Debbie

LittleDebbie.jpg"Little Debbie" is Debbie McKee, granddaughter of founder O.D. McKee. She's parlayed her child modeling into a career with McKee Foods, where she's currently on the Board of Directors.

Little Debbie now sponsors NASCAR, but on her terms. According to a 2007 press release: "The McKee family wanted an association with a NASCAR team, but on terms that upheld its convictions. Typical sponsors want maximum exposure. That's what they pay for. Little Debbie may seem to be everywhere, but come Saturday, you won't find her at a NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series track. The McKee family observes its Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. They are Seventh day Adventists and while their products may be sold on their Sabbath, the business of promoting sales stops for one day each week."

9. Mikey

mikey.jpgContrary to popular belief, Mikey did not die in a tragic Pop Rocks/soda accident. I enjoyed how Wikipedia put it: "The myth — long since disproved as both nonfactual (as John Gilchrist is still alive) and scientifically improbable (as the chemicals in both Pop Rocks and soda are not capable of exploding a human stomach) — still resurfaces every few years, usually surrounding an identifiable child actor."

Gilchrist went on to appear in over 250 commercials in his teenage years. As of 2000, John Gilchrist had found a home on the other side of the camera. Or more accurately, in a different room entirely, with cameras not involved at all. He found work as an advertising salesman for WKTU, a New York radio station.

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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
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If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
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If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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