Whenever I pass the toilet paper section at my local Ralphs, I hear a bespectacled elderly man named Mr. Whipple warning me, “Don’t squeeze the Charmin.” For the benefit of millennials, Mr. Whipple was an imaginary supermarket manager who castigated customers for squeezing Charmin packages because they were so soft. These days I could squeeze Charmin packages to my heart’s content because the manager of my Ralphs is nowhere to be found, if he, she, or they, even exist.
What’s remarkable about my fond memories of Mr. Whipple is that he was taken off the air nearly 40 years ago, and yet I still instinctively recall him and his warning. There are a host of other commercial television characters I distinctly remember from decades ago, including Madge, the manicurist who promoted Palmolive, the lonely Maytag repairman, Little Mikey who liked Life cereal, Josephine the Plumber who touted Comet cleanser, and Fred the Baker of Dunkin’ Donuts fame.
I haven’t watched commercial television in years, but watching the NFL playoffs in recent weeks I was aghast at how appallingly awful U.S. advertising has become. The vacuous commercials all melded together in a seemingly endless loop, featuring generic and forgettable characters and virtually all ending in a cacophony of chimes, none of which were as distinct or memorable as NBC’s, which the network first introduced nearly 100 years ago.
After a weekend of watching four NFL games, I tried recalling the commercials I could clearly remember. There was only one: a Popeyes commercial where a stylishly but overweight Black woman enters a home unannounced touting the virtues of the company’s fried chicken. I remembered the commercial because it struck me as stereotyping Blacks as fried chicken lovers and featuring an overweight woman promoting fried chicken made clear the health perils of eating Popeyes’ artery clogging fare.
Americans once had a deserved love affair with corporate brands because companies years ago employed brilliant marketing folks who knew how to foster consumer attachments to their products. Those overseeing marketing at major corporations today have lofty Chief Marketing Officer titles and are recruited from leading business schools like Harvard, which spawned Alissa Gordon Heinerscheid, the genius who tapped TikTok transgender sensation Dylan Mulvaney to represent Bud Light beer to steer the brand away from what she said was its “out of touch” frat party marketing.
Here’s my tribute to some of America’s once great brands that lost their way and coast on the brilliant marketing talents of people that are long gone from these companies.
Hertz was once a marketing juggernaut, with a market share position so commanding that No. 2 ranked Avis readily acknowledged and countered with its “We Try Harder” claim. Hertz’s commercials were legendary, beginning with its “Let Hertz Put You in the Driver’s Seat” campaign that was incorporated into the 60s movie Good Neighbor Sam staring Jack Lemmon. Another legendary Hertz campaign, “The Superstar rent-a-car” commercials, featured football great O.J. Simpson running through airports. Simpson was legendary for his speed.
Hertz, which at the turn of the century was owned by Ford, was unbeatable because the company offered low mileage cars that were diligently cleaned and maintained, the best prices, and unrivaled customer service. Hertz’s downward trajectory began when Ford sold Hertz to a consortium of three private equity firms in 2005, and the company ended up in bankruptcy multiple times.
Best to avoid Hertz. It is most definitely a Starkman Disapproved company.
American Express once rivaled Hertz for great marketing and customer service. I remember with considerable fondness calling the company and getting a well-trained customer service rep in the U.S. on the first ring. The reps were once quite understanding if a customer went a month or two without paying off their balance.
American Express’ commercials were also legendary, notably the “Don’t Leave Home Without Them” travelers checks campaign featuring actor Karl Malden and “Membership Has Its Privileges” for the company’s credit cards.
American Express was once a premium brand, but it went downscale with its dubious gift cards and other questionable products. Frankly, when I see someone with an AMEX Platinum Card, I perceive them as a loser for paying a $695 annual fee to talk to someone in India.
The Fidelity 2% cash back Visa card is a much better deal and customer support is located in the good ol’ USA.
Some people will argue that Bud Light is the most badly faded beer brand, but I contend the bigger tragedy was Bud Light overtaking Miller Lite as America’s top selling light beer.
Miller Lite pioneered the light beer category, and it’s founding slogan, “Everything You Always Wanted in a Beer. And Less” will forever rank as one of the most brilliant marketing tag lines of all time. The original Miller Lite commercials featured sports and other celebrities talking up the beer and they were a delight to watch.
Not sure how Miller Lite lost its way, but the accompanying commercial, the most obnoxious ad I’ve ever viewed, explains why. When Bud Light stumbled Miller Lite should have pounced, but the brand’s marketing people weren’t up to the task.
Whole Foods was once the go-to place for quality organic foods, fresh produce, and bohemian workers who took great pride working at the once upscale food emporium. Sadly, since being acquired by Amazon in 2017, Whole Foods has morphed into a run-of-the-mill supermarket that in Los Angeles at least, isn’t competitive with many local and regional chains.
The produce at my local Whole Foods is inferior to my local Ralphs, and much to my chagrin, is imported from Mexico. Admittedly Whole Foods’ prices have come down markedly under Amazon’s ownership, but overall Ralphs’ prices are better, particularly on wine and spirits. And unlike Whole Foods, Ralphs sells Charmin toilet paper!
I still trust the safety of Whole Foods’ sushi, which is the only product I wouldn’t buy at Ralphs.
In Los Angeles, the locally owned and obscenely overpriced Erewhon chain, which makes Whole Foods look like a 7-11, is the trendy gourmet shopping place. Erewhon’s prepared foods run circles around Whole Foods’ fare, which all tastes the same to me. Understandably, I don’t have good feelings about Erewhon, having been falsely accused of attempted theft, so shopping there is a guilty pleasure underscoring that I’ve become a true Angeleno.
New York-based Citibank was long one of America’s premier financial institutions. Walter Wriston, who was CEO from 1967 to 1984, was a true statesman who exuded the polish and smarts that were once required to helm a major U.S. corporation.
Citibank was at the forefront of technological innovation, among the first banks to embrace ATMs and to experiment with home banking when the technology didn’t quite yet exist to support it. Citibank’s credit card division was once the envy of the industry and the bank’s co-branded card with American Airlines ranks among the biggest marketing innovations of all time.
Citi’s tagline was once, “Citi Never Sleeps” but that bank has been in a deep slumber for quite some time. It was once too big to fail, but it could close tomorrow, and I’d bet legions of people wouldn’t even notice.
Sweet dreams, Citi!
When Starbucks began its national expansion some four decades ago, it was an upscale brand known for premium coffee. The company has since morphed into a fast-food chain frequently serving improperly brewed coffee made with faulty burners, tasteless baked goods, and baristas with bad attitudes.
It’s a wonder to me how Starbucks remains in business, and in Los Angeles at least, it can’t. Three Starbucks locations in my neighborhood have closed in the past year, and the ones that have remained open don’t strike me as thriving, like the Peet’s Coffee I frequent.
My commentary on the tragedy of Starbucks can be found here.
For decades, to refer to something as being “the Cadillac” of its category was the highest compliment. The brand lost its way when some moron slapped the Cadillac nameplate on a gussied-up Chevy Cavalier and called it a “Cadillac Cimarron.” A pink version of the despicable car will forever remain in my memory.
Cadillacs are no longer perceived as premium vehicles and they don’t typically fare well in Consumer Reports’ reliability rankings. GM hopes to restore a halo to the faded brand with the launch of the Cadillac Celestiq, a custom hand-crafted vehicle with a base price of $340,000 built on GM’s problem plagued Ultium platform.
GM has yet to perfect its EV software, and I’m doubtful the vehicle will be outfitted with the reliable technology one would expect in such a pricey vehicle. Rather than create a halo effect, I predict the Celestiq will prove another colossal EV embarrassment under the watch of GM CEO Mary Barra.
As if former Harvard president Claudine Gay’s Congressional testimony and subsequent allegations of more than 40 instances of plagiarism weren’t enough, more allegations of scholarship wrongdoing have emerged involving four of six senior cancer researchers and administrators at a Harvard Medical School affiliate and the university’s chief diversity officer.
I was once impressed if someone told me they attended Harvard, but today if someone told me they are a Harvard student I’d just assume they are from a wealthy family with great connections or fit a desired demographic.
Harvard is the Cadillac of higher ed.
Boeing was once the company Americans were understandably most proud, as it represented the country’s technological and entrepreneurial might. In 1997, Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas and fell into the clutches of empty suits.
Boeing’s problems are deep and extensive, and taking the requisite measures to restore the company’s once vaunted quality and performance standards would likely require the government forcing the company into bankruptcy, wiping out all its shareholders, and indefinitely grounding all its 737 MAX planes.
Disney was once a beloved “family entertainment” company so protective of its wholesome image that in 2011 it canceled its popular Hannah Montana teen sitcom after star Miley Cyrus was filmed twerking with teddy bears and riding a wrecking ball. By today’s Disney standards, twerking with teddy bears and riding a wrecking ball would be controversial for its timidity.
When it’s not picking public fights with governors, Disney prefers to air films featuring lesbian action heroes and gay teenage angst. While perhaps popular with the LGBTIQA+ communities, the films have racked up some $1 billion in losses in the past 12 months or so.
John Nolte, a former screenwriter who covers Hollywood for Breitbart, routinely refers to Disney as a “grooming syndicate.” While that might be unfairly harsh, a big part of America has come to distrust Disney and the values it seeks to promote.
Disney CEO Bob Iger was recently ranked in a Fortune survey as one of America’s most overrated CEOs and his return to power as chronicled by the Wall Street Journal was the most distasteful corporate backstabbing story I’ve ever read.
Iger is an empty sweater.