As Dick Wilson, the man who played Mr. Whipple, left us last week for clouds even softer than Charmin, it’s hard not to mourn the era he took with him: the era when we loved the ad icons that we later grew to hate that we later ended up loving again, albeit somewhat ironically, as representatives of a sweeter, more gullible, less perfectionist time.
The years that Mr. Whipple ruled the airwaves – the 1960s and the ’70s (though the campaign limped along till 1985) – were the golden age of advertising spokesfolks. Even as Mr. Whipple was obsessivecompulsively squeezing toilet paper, Rosie the Waitress was overusing Bounty towels, Josephine the Plumber was scrubbing stoically with Comet, the Marlboro Man was ignoring that persistent cough, Madge was dumping unsuspecting hands in Palmolive, Mrs. Olson was barging in on housewives distraught by the bitterness of their coffee (and marriages) and the Ty-D-Bol Man was sailing gamely through life in a toilet.
None of these characters was particularly young or attractive or fit – except, oddly enough, the Marlboro Man. But it was the ad world’s readiness to use middle-class, middle-aged people as pitchmen that looks so wonderful in the rearview mirror. Back then, normal schlubs were role models.
Today, yes, the Maytag Repairman still is hanging around – in a younger version – and Doris Roberts of “Everybody Loves Raymond” is a part-time pitchlady for Palmolive. But think about most of the spokespeople you see: goodlooking celebrities, Little Sprout edging out his aging mentor, the Jolly Green Giant and the Brawny Man going metrosexual. No one with any real character is left.
“The Brawny Man used to be a macho guy, but they turned him into a wuss,” the head of Virginia Commonwealth University’s advertising program, Kelly O’Keefe, said. “And they’ve softened up Mr. Clean, too.” Early on, the earring wearing clean freak looked like a sailor who’d been around the block (perhaps with another sailor). Now he looks like a PBS cartoon.
Old icons aren’t even allowed to be out of shape anymore. “A couple of years ago, the Michelin Man was sort of bald and fat. And now he’s slimmed down and he’s got the classic triangle shape,” a director at Kansas City’s soon-toopen Advertising Icon Museum, Jeff Bremser, said. “That also happened to Tony the Tiger. He used to have no shoulders; now he’s macho and buff.”
In Mr. Whipple’s day, there was no shame in being paunchy or plain or punching in at the kind of job you get straight out of high school. Now even the Dunkin’ Donuts guy is gone, and who’s there instead? Younger, cuter, phenomenally richer Rachael Ray.
If you can’t have a dumpy guy selling doughnuts anymore, what can a dumpy guy sell?
Clearly not toilet paper. That job has been usurped by bears so sickeningly sweet they make Pooh look like Pinochet. The ad industry seems willing to give us only treacle like that or its exact opposite: spots so super-hip they’ll blind you if you forget to wink.
This is not to say Mr. Whipple represented the apotheosis of great advertising, only that he represented the apotheosis of the common man: a humble grocer forever struggling, forever stumbling.
And of course, forever squeezing.
Lenore Skenazy is a columnist at The New York Sun and Advertising Age.
©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.