15 of the Most Popular Commercial Actors & Characters Past & Present
Advertising is as American as apple pie. Commercials and magazine ads are undeniably a large part of our popular culture and many of them have managed to stay in our minds and effect our culture on a level equal to, and sometimes greater than, mainstream Hollywood movies. There's a method to that madness, as if promotional ads didn't stick in our minds, they'd be rather pointless. Just ask any company that's ever paid for some Super Bowl screen time. Still, some of them manage to connect with us and effect us on a level that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Whether they tug at the heartstrings, make us laugh, teach us, or just plain annoy us, there are many actors and characters within commercials both past and present that time will never allow us to forget. With that being said, we'll now take you on a tour of things below the surface and share with you some fun facts and personal backstories of these promotional powerhouses.
1. Hallie Eisenberg (aka "Pepsi Girl") - Pepsi
Once Pepsi had taken its Pepsi Challenge and Generation Next campaigns as far as they were ever going to go, they knew they needed something new that would be memorable and get people talking. While their Cindy Crawford commercial was a mainstay of early 90s advertising home runs, it was still just a one-off appearance. Pepsi wanted something more consistent and found it in the form of Hallie Eisenberg, who starred in a series of commercials for Pepsi in the late '90s and early '00s.
We're sure you remember the ads with the little girl with the dimples who would intimidate restaurateurs before singing about "The Joy of Cola." These all starred Hallie Eisenberg, who began starring as Pepsi's mascot at the young age of 6. Born in East Brunswick, New Jersey, on August 2, 1992, Hallie had quite the successful family pedigree with which to launch into life. Her older brother Jesse has appeared in many tv shows and movies, most notably in The Social Network. Her parents are highly esteemed professors, so success is something that seems to run in the Eisenberg blood.
Around the time when her Pepsi commercials started, Hallie was wrapping up work on a film by the name of Paulie, which was her first, but not last, major film role. Since those days, she's gone on to appear in How to Eat Fried Worms as the character Thora Birch, as well as having roles in Broadway Musicals. She's been away from the acting scene since 2010, wanting to focus on pursuing her education & future career plans. Above is a video of a tv spot from 1999 in which she gets into NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon's head.
2. Mr. Whipple - Charmin
From 1964 through 1985, Charmin-obsessed supermarket owner George Whipple was quirky friend upon whom Americans could rely on a daily basis. Played by Dick Wilson, Mr. Whipple was the owner of Whipple's Market. Mr. Whipple would frequently stalk around his grocery store, growing more and more irritated as he spied customers squeezing items such as fruit and bread to test for freshness. However, squeezing the Charmin was the one way to always make him see red and draw a reaction. Typically, this would come in the form of a very annoyed, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin!" In his later years, he seemed to except this as an inevitable part of life and actually began encouraging his customers to squeeze it.
So who was the main behind the toilet paper? Based on his lack of an accent, many people would be surprised to know that Dick Wilson was actually born in England. However, his family moved to Canada while he was still an infant. After serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Wilson moved to the United States, where he pursued his interest in acting. He soon became a character actor who was frequently spotted in sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s. Bewitched, Hogan's Heroes, and McHale's Navy are just a few of the shows he graced with his presence. Still, it was his recurring role as Mr. Whipple which earned him the most fame. In 1979, he was voted as being the most recognized face in America, even beating out then-president Jimmy Carter.
Charmin provided quite a cushion for Wilson, as he earned $300,000 per year making these commercials, only having to put in 2-3 weeks' worth of work per year. He came back to the small screen in 1999 to once again extol the virtues of Charmin. He was eventually replaced by the much effectual Charmin bears, though upon his death in 2007, Charmin aired a television commercial tribute to him.
3. Flo - Progressive Insurance
Flo is one of those characters who you either love or can't stand. Played by actress and comedienne Stephanie Courtney, Flo is the ever-enthusiastic purveyor of Progressive Insurance products and information. As we've said, she's a rather polarizing figure. Flo has an enormous social media following and also has managed to become a popular option for Halloween costumes in recent years. Her Progressive commercials, which began in 2008, were designed to be the company's next theme in advertising after abandoning the "so easy, a caveman could do it" campaign. Ironically enough, Courtney had a small recurring role in the short-lived yet embarrassingly horrible sitcom Cavemen.
Ms. Courntey was bit by the acting bug while appearing in musical productions during her college days at SUNY Binghamton. She was 100% sure that it was the career she wanted to pursue, and moved to the Los Angeles area as soon as she graduated. There, she began an improvisational comedy group with her sister, which remains in action to this day. Her group was discovered by talent agencies and she went on to act in the hit TV series Mad Men, which is where she met her husband, who was employed as a lighting manager. Much like Dick Wilson became known as Mr. Whipple, Stephanie Courtney seems like she's destined to be forever known as Flo. Progressive was so thrilled by her performance and the awareness she's built for their company that they've created a second version of Flo named "Kitty", who is a TV commercial fixture in Australia.
4. The GEICO Gecko
As long as we're on the top of famous insurance commercial characters, we can't forget to include the GEICO Gecko. He's been with us for 19 years now and probably won't be disappearing any time soon. He was first introduced in 1999, but through some pretty strange circumstances. At the time, there was a Screen Actors' Guild strike taking place, which prevented Geico from being able to display any of the human characters they had planned for their upcoming commercials. These commercials were to be based around teaching the public the correct pronunciation of GEICO. The solution to this was to create an anthropomorphic character who lacked the ability to go on strike. While the strike restricted members of the SAG from appearing on camera, it did not prevent them from doing voiceover work. This loophole is what allowed Kesley Grammer, best known for his role as Frasier Crane, to provide the voice in the very first Gecko ad. While the video quality isn't great, we wanted you to be able to see the very first ad, which is remarkably different from the ones that run today.
Once the strike was over and Grammer returned to his full-time work, a new voice actor was brought on board. He developed the slightly offbeat English accent in which the Gecko speaks today. Once GEICO became famous enough that pronunciation was no longer an issue, the Gecko began to be portrayed as a dedicated GEICO employee, always trying to lend a friendly hand to customers in need. As of the time of this writing, he's appeared in over 150 commercials.
Briefly straying from the Gecko in what was intended to be a one-time only appearance was a commercial which introduced the now famous Maxwell the pig. This commercial with its incessant "weeee"ing is widely recognized as one of the most annoying ads of all time. However, enough people liked Maxwell that GEICO decided to use him again. Thankfully, Maxwell has dropped the irritating antics and now is portrayed as more of a tech support kind of figure.
5. Ronald McDonald - McDonald's
Even though it's hard to imagine McDonald's without Ronald, he didn't come into being until nearly a decade after founder Ray Kroc began franchising the chain around the country. Ronald was born in 1963, a time during which clowns, namely Bozo, were the most popular entertainers among children. Wanting to capitalize on the family-friendly image they were cultivating, McDonald's decided it needed a clown of its own. Introduced in Washington DC-area television station commercial breaks in 1963, the first Ronald McDonald was played by Willard Scott. In the beginning, his name was actually supposed to be "Donald" McDonald. Due to somebody's poor handwriting, the D was read as an R, and the name just kind of stuck.
The original Ronald McDonald looked more like terrifying nightmare material than he did a friendly corporate shill. He wore a brightly vertically striped jumpsuit, had a cup for a nose, had a tray containing a hamburger, fries, and soda growing from his head, and another protruding from his stomach area. His face makeup was more exaggerated, giving him an almost evil, maniacal appearance.
By the late '60s, Ronald McDonald underwent a serious makeover to become the lovable, non-terrifying clown that he is today. His early commercials depicted him as living in McDonaldland, a psychedelic and disorienting sort of world. They had a look and feel similar to Krofft brothers productions such as Lidsville and H.R. Puffnstuff. The likeness was so easy to spot that the Kroffts sued McDonald's and won, putting an end to McDonaldland for good. Ronald & company continued to appear in commercials taking place in more real-world type of settings, and made some powerful friends along the way. Did you know that Grimace at one time was rubbing elbows with a future president? Don't believe us? Check out the following video!
On a more serious note, Ronald McDonald is also the mascot for the Ronald McDonald House Charity (opens in a new window), an organization provides housing for families of hospitalized children who have to be treated in locations far away from home.
6. Fred the Baker - Dunkin' Donuts
From 1981-1997, Michael Vale portrayed Dunkin' Donuts spokesman Fred, who was eternally aware that it was, "Time to make the doughnuts." His classic mustache and Dunkin' Donuts uniform combined to create an appearance that is now burned into the retinas of American pop culture. While Fred pitched doughnuts, he at other times declared it was time to make the coffee, muffins, and briefly, a Dunkin' Donuts based cereal. He was so popular with the audience that when Dunkin' Donuts decided to end his run of commercials, fans rallied for him to be given a proper sendoff. Fred not only received commercial spot in which he officially retired, but he also had a parade held in his honor in Boston on September 22, 1997. All customers were also entitled to a free doughnut that day, with over 6 million being handed out. Considering how well Vale did with his Fred character, he was never intended to portray him at all.
Before we tell you that story, we'd like to give you a bit of a background on Michael Vale, the actor who played Fred. Vale grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he was known among his classmates and neighbors as a funny kid who could do a dead-on impression of just about anyone, be it a local resident or Hollywood star. He served in the U.S. Army in World War II and upon his return, decided to get into the acting game. He soon landed a role in a series of Breakstone sour cream commercials, and even made it onto the big screen, playing a cab driver in the movie A Hatful of Rain.
In 1981, he was looking for work and came to an open casting call for the role of Fred. He arrived a bit late and was informed that an actor for Fred had already been chosen, but that they still might want to cast him as a background extra. Creative director Ron Berger was immediately taken by Fred, due his qualities of "genuinely talking, looking, and breathing like a guy who had to get up at 4am".1> Vale managed to milk these qualities as Fred, starting many commercials by drowsily awaking before sunrise, and then appearing fresh and enthusiastic when he arrived at his beloved job. Sadly, Mr. Vale died in 2005, but his catchphrase still appears on Dunkin Donuts' boxes.
7. Dave Thomas - Wendy's
Rex "David" Thomas was born in 1932 in New Jersey and was adopted soon after. Tragically, his adoptive mother died when he was only five years old. This left him with only his adoptive father, who had to work long hours and consequently didn't get to spend much time with young Dave. His father moved around the country frequently due to work, at one point settling in Michigan. This is where Thomas met and spent many happy hours with his adoptive grandmother, the woman he credits for teaching him the values of honesty, hard work, and concern for others. Many of his happiest childhood memories of are going to department stores, specifically Woolworth's, and dining at their in-store lunch counters with his grandmother. Dinner was also the one time of the day where he had some time to bond with his father, making food and the restaurant experience something very dear to his heart.
While he was a very intelligent man, Dave Thomas wasn't all that crazy about school. He already knew he wanted to run a restaurant, and wanted to get out and work in the real world as soon as possible. This saw him getting a job in a Tennessee restaurant at the age of 12, and when he became old enough to do so, dropping out of school. This is something he later regretted, and eventually put in the work to obtain his GED in 1993. His culinary career took a turn when he was drafted into the United States army, where he served as a cook during the Korean War. When the war came to an end and he was back on American soil, Dave was more determined than ever to make it into the restaurant world, and make it he did.
Before long, he owned and operated 4 Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises and became a close associate of Colonel Sanders. It was actually Thomas who came up with the idea of the Colonel appearing in commercials and becoming the official mascot of the chain. While he was very successful in the chicken business, the hamburgers and extra-thick milkshakes of his childhood were still closest to his heart. Deciding to take a gamble on this passion, he opened his first Wendy's restaurant in Ohio in 1969. His daughter, Melinda Lou, had a younger sister who mispronounced her name as "Wenda", and this was the inspiration for the restaurant's name. Pictured below is the original Wendy's restaurant in Dublin, Ohio.
Things got off to a great start, but sales started to dip in the 1980s. At this time Thomas took a more hands-on role in managing his restaurants, appearing at as many as he could to personally evaluate and instruct every employee. It wasn't long after that he first began to appear in commercials and quickly became a household name. His friendly, down-home, and true-to-life style made him something of a modern folk hero. This was compounded by the charities he founded, including the Dave Thomas Adoption Foundation (opens in a new window) and the Dave Thomas Education Center (opens in a new window), the latter of which revolves around helping adults obtain their GEDs. He was so respected that in 2003, a year after his death, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As a side note, as long as we're on the topic of adoption, here's an interesting post from another blog which explains some of the best DNA tests for adoptees (opens in a new window). We feel it could be a useful resource for helping people who are adopted to find their biological family members.
8. Colonel Sanders - Kentucky Fried Chicken
Harlan "Colonel" Sanders was much more than just the goofy fictional character who appears in KFC ads today. He was a real person, who lived from 1890 - 1980 and was the founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain. To this day, he still appears on KFC merchandise and most locations still feature a picture of him in their lobby areas. The Colonel part of his name stems from his friend & former Kentucky governor Lawrence Wetherby conferring the title upon him. Being dubbed a Colonel is the greatest honor the state of Kentucky provides, and once he had the title, the Colonel refused to publicly appear in anything other than his white suit and bolo tie.
Sanders had a very modest beginning, as he spent much of his young life taking work wherever he could get it once the Great Depression began to set in. At one point, he operated a combination auto service station and restaurant. It was while cooking for hungry motorists that the Colonel developed his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices, as well as the idea of making fried chicken in a pressure cooker. He was soon surrounded by many interested investors, and the first KFC franchise opened, oddly enough, in Utah. Before long, KFC had a nationwide presence, as well as the Sanders-coined catchphrase "Finger Lickin' Good." The Colonel was known as a kind yet stoic man who didn't stand for much nonsense. This was especially when it came to franchisees not making chicken and gravy his way, which led to him sometimes speaking more like a sailor than a colonel.
9. Energizer Bunny - Energizer
The Energizer Bunny first appeared on TV screens in 1989. However, Energizer's rival Duracell was actually the first company to feature a drumming rabbit in its commercials. They ran a series of commercials showing various battery powered toys in motion, with the ones powered by their competitors' batteries slowly grinding to a halt. This had Energizer a bit annoyed, as the batteries Duracell was showing to be inferior were carbon-zinc batteries and not the alkaline batteries that Energizer actually produced. Their response was to create a rabbit of their own, complete with sunglasses, a bass drum, and the ability to keep on "going and going and going..." Many of the early commercials the Bunny was in had a plot of him walking on to the set of other imaginary commercials and disturbing the action, as can be seen below.
Around this time, Energizer came out with the tagline, "Nothing outlasts the Energizer." These ads were eventually done away with due to a lawsuit filed by, you guessed it, Duracell. That didn't stop the Bunny from his work, with new ads still being created as of the time of this writing. However, he's gone a bit of a change in a appearance over recent years, with his body growing slimmer and his face altered to show a wider range of emotions.
10. Speedy - Alka-Seltzer
Now it's time to talk a bit about the oldest mascot on this list. Speedy Alka-Seltzer came into being as a result of a wartime friendship between Charles Tenant and Robert Watkins, who served together during WW II. After the war, they both got into the advertising business, with Tenant becoming a commercial artists and Watkins a creative director with DDB of Chicago. DDB managed to win an account with Miles Laboratories, the company that produces, among several other famous products, Alka-Seltzer. Watkins was struggling to come up with ideas, so he reached out to Tenant to draw up a catchy character for a set of upcoming magazine advertisements.
The result was Speedy, a boy with an Alka-Seltzer tablet body and hat bearing his name. He proved to be a hit in print and in 1953, he made the jump into television commercials. From 1953 through 1964, Alka-Seltzer ran commercials with Speedy animated by way of stop motion photography. His infections, "Pop pop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is," became one of the most memorable lines in advertising history. Sales for Alka-Seltzer skyrocketed and they eventually introduced the same character to Spanish speaking countries, under the name Prontito.
11. Bob Kaufman - Bob's Discount Furniture
Bob's Discount Furniture, originally known as Bob's Discount Furniture and Wholesale Waterbeds, has risen up to become the 14th largest furniture retailer in America. Appearing in nearly all of the company's advertisements is the kind and lovable Bob Kaufman, the chain's founder. What many people don't know is that Kaufman was an avid motorcyclist in his youth, but ended up being badly injured in an accident. Acting on a physician's advice, he started using a waterbed, which proved instrumental in his recovery. This inspired him to go into the waterbed business, and before long, he was renting space to sell his wares in several stores around the state of Connecticut. During a period of economic recession, many large box stores were closing down. When one such store shut down in Manchester, Bob and the owner of the stores where he was renting space purchased the building, becoming the first Bob's location.
The store was a massive success, and soon Bob's stores began to spring up throughout Connecticut, with Bob encouraging everyone to "Come on down!" His quirky yet friendly demeanor made him a popular spokesman and his business model took off to heights greater than anyone would have expected. In just 27 years, Bob's has grown expanded into 13 states, including Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Delaware, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, and California. Bob Kaufman is also widely respected and admired for his dedication toward charitable causes. His stores match customer donations 100%, with the Special Olympics (opens in a new window), Autism Speaks (opens in a new window), Save the Children (opens in a new window), and the Pajama Program (opens in a new window) being among the biggest recipients.
12. Morris the Cat - 9 Lives
One of the greatest feline celebrities of all time, Morris the Cat has been the spokesman, or maybe spokescat, for 9 Lives since 1968. Morris is an orange tabby who, despite not being very thin, bills himself as "the world's most finicky cat." He speaks in a sardonic deadpan style, especially when scoffing at being offered non-9 Lives cat food. Every cat who has played Morris throughout the years has been rescued from a shelter, with the current Morris residing in Los Angeles. He's voiced by John Erwin, who took over voice duties when Johnny Morris, the coincidentally named original voice, passed away. Many incorrectly believe that Morris was named after his voice actor, but 9 Lives insists that this is not the case.
In addition to being the voice of 9 Lives, Morris also stumps heavily for charitable causes. He's also appeared in several books, with themes based around rescuing pets from shelters and streets, the importance of pet nutrition, and the principles of responsible pet ownership. He was shown to become a father in 2006, adopting "Lil' Mo" as part of a promotion for the Moriss's One Million Cat Rescue (opens in a new window) initiative.
13. Poppin' Fresh - Pillsbury
Often referred to as the Pillsbury Doughboy, the actual name of this mascot is Poppin' Fresh. He was introduced in 1965 when Pillsbury was trying to come up with a character to market their various dough products which came (and still come) in cardboard cylinders that "pop" to open. The concept they came up with was that of a living boy who lived inside of the tubes and jumped out when they were opened. Curiously, his original name was Joseph Pillsbury, though this was quickly changed to Poppin' Fresh. In the commercials prior to 1992, he was a claymation figure whose stop motion animation was detectable through his jerky movements.
In his earliest appearances, the Doughboy had a slightly deeper voice and his lynchpin post-stomach-poke laugh was more of a chuckle than the "hoo-hoo!" we're used to hearing. In 1992, he underwent a redesign and became a fully CGI animated character, making for smoother movements and a sharper look. His popularity with the public is significant enough to have spawned a set of dolls including the Doughboy and 8 family members, all of whom had names relating to various Pillsbury Products.
14. Mikey - Quaker Oats/Life Cereal
One of the most famous commercials of all time is Life cereal's commercial featuring a young boy by the name of Mikey. Life cereal is a product of Quaker Oats, the same company that brought the Meme-tastic Wilford Brimley into the lives of anyone not old enough to remember Cocoon. Mikey, portrayed by John Gilchrist, is called into the room by his two older brothers. Neither brother wants to try the new cereal, so they conscript Mikey, who never likes anything, into being the guinea pig. Surprisingly, Mikey ends up loving the cereal, leading his brothers to shout, "He likes it! Hey Mikey!" This commercial became so popular that it ran for 14 years. What few people know is the fact that the boys appearing along Mikey are his real-life brothers, with one of them coincidentally being named Michael. Mikey/John Gilchrist also had three younger siblings at the time, none of whom appeared in the commercials.
Mikey came back to star as a young adult version of himself in subsequent commercials in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These commercials also starred Gilchrist, keeping things nice and consistent. This is a commercial that is such a legend that nearly all Americans know about it, even those who were born decades after it aired. For many years, there's been an urban legend stating that Gilchrist died by drinking a mixture of pop rocks candy and soda, but fortunately, they're entirely false. Perhaps these rumors them from a rather morbid Michael Jackson parody (opens in a new window) of the original commercial.
15. Lily - AT&T
Anyone who has watched any amount of television in the past 5 years has by no doubt seen the AT&T commercials featuring Lily. She plays a sales clerk at an AT&T mobile store who drips personality. Her commercials see her effortlessly transitioning from sweet to snide, from knowledgeable to oblivious, and enthusiastic to disillusioned. The depth of Lily's character, as can be seen in the video below, can be credited to the actress who portrays her. This actress is Milana Vayntrub, an actress and comedienne who was born on March 8, 1987, in Uzbekistan. At the time, Uzbekistan was still part of the USSR and when Milana was three years old, her family fled to the United States as refugees.
Her family settled just outside of Hollywood, which ended up being massively influential on the young girl's life. She was already appearing in toy commercials by the age of 5. This was just the beginning, as she's starred in several television shows and webseries since then. In fact, she's going to be one of the most featured characters, playing Doreen Green (Squirrel Girl) in the upcoming television series New Warriors. Outside of acting, Vayntrub is passionately dedicated to the cause of aiding refugees from war torn and otherwise turbulent parts of the world.
Hopefully this article brought back some fun memories and also helped you to learn some new facts about the characters you've known for so long. Now you can use your new knowledge to impress your friends and co-workers and to seal a runaway victory in your next bar trivia contest. Did we leave out any of your favorite commercial characters? Are there any facts on the actors, actresses, and mascots we've written about that were missed? If so, leave us a comment and let us know!
P.S. - If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading our pieces on famous actors & actress who started out in commercials and the all-time most famous advertising mascots.
Works Cited 1. Schulder, Michael "Michael Vale: The Inside Story of Fred the Baker" CNN.com Retrieved 17 Jan 2018