Who would have thought that Betty Crocker was not a real human being? I certainly didn’t. That is until I picked up Time magazine’s The 100 Most Influential People Who Never Lived which hit bookstores recently.
In this slim volume – which, as its name suggest, includes 100 influential fictitious individuals – ranging from Mary Poppins to Scarlett O’Hara and from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde – one can find several icons from the advertising world – although one could also argue that all 100 of these fictional characters are brands in their own right, given their influence – be it James Bond (“who has survived six changes of actor”), Uncle Sam (“the symbol of a nation”), Harry Potter (think the movie franchise and theme parks across the globe), Santa Claus (at a certain point in time it was believed that he was a creation of Coca-Cola as he was used in their advertisements in the 30s).
But coming back to Crocker, it turns out that adman Samuel Gale created her with “a gleam in his eye… the name Betty was chosen for its all-American cheeriness” and she began life in 1921 as a Dear Abby of sorts who dispensed household tips to housewives before her cake mixes were introduced in 1947. So no wonder she has been thought of as a real person by many people – after all since the 30s she has emerged in several incarnations and continues to line our shelves, much to the purist baker’s disdain.
In contrast to Betty’s wholesomeness is the Marlboro Man’s lonesomeness. Created in 1955 for Philip Morris by Leo Burnett, the Marlboro Man was “one of advertising’s most evocative, successful and, in many quarters, reviled creations.” What is perhaps less known about him is that he was created to lend the Marlboro brand masculinity given that prior to his conception, the cigarettes targeted women with the slogan “mild as May”. Such was this solitary man’s influence that within two years of his creation, sales of Marlboros increased by a whopping 3,000%. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, as antismoking sentiments increased, “the Marlboro Man made his last ride into the sunset in 1999, cradling a smoke – and his life – in his hands.”
Perhaps an offshoot of the Marlboro Man is Don Draper – who must be lauded for making it to this book given that he was created only six years ago. “Pure talent… and the charisma of a lantern jawed Ayn Rand hero… propelled him to the top of his profession.” And while his existential crisis continues to plague him, there is no doubt that Don Draper – and Mad Men – has influenced many people. However, despite the success he has achieved – not to mention the women he has been involved with – “Don Draper is discovering that you can’t outrun the past forever.”
Away from the darkness that Don Draper exudes there is ‘sunshine’ Barbie – who it has to be admitted – is over 50 years old, although you will never be able to tell from her 39-18-33 figure. Despite stirring innumerable controversies (women the world over have objected to her ‘perfect’ figure because she “promotes eating disorders”), Barbie has evolved with time. Her career choices over the years range from rock star to race car driver and from astronaut to aerobics instructor – and she is still going strong. And let’s remember, as the PR department of Mattel (the company that created Barbie) once stated: “She’s just a doll, people…”
While there aren’t any South Asian – let alone Pakistani – fictional characters in the book, it is reassuring to know that Burka Avenger was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 11 most influential fictional characters of 2013. Who knows, in time, she – or perhaps another Pakistani icon – may just make it to such a list.
Mamun M. Adil is Manager, Business Development and Research, DAWN. firstname.lastname@example.org