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When I think to my childhood impressions of Mr. Whipple, they are not very positive. Mr. Whipple is the television icon who made Charmin toilet paper famous, and Dick Wilson, the actor who played the character for five decades, died this week. Whipple was the unchallenged king of the real-life ad icons, lording over weaker figures like the Maytag Repair Man and the Ty-D-Bol Man. We fondly remember his contribution to advertising folklore, but my own memories are characterized more by fear than fondness.

The fact is that Mr. Whipple was kind of a jerk. He was the cranky, old manager of a grocery store where innocent shoppers were repeatedly badgered to keep their hands off the toilet paper.  As a child watching these commercials I always felt badly for the witless toilet paper squeezers when they got caught and scolded by the fearsome authority figure. (Never mind the strangeness of the image of throngs of adults, clustered around a stack of toilet paper, lost in the act of affectionately squeezing the rolls.)

Over the years, Whipple’s longevity made him a familiar face and his smoldering hostility was part of his appeal, which brings me to a clever observation made by Lenore Skenazy, a reporter for The New York Sun and Advertising Age. Lenore called me yesterday to talk about an article she was writing about Mr. Whipple and his brand-icon friends. She observed that old-time icons were generally older, more out of shape, and had more complex personalities than today’s characters.

I had to agree with her, having also noticed this disturbing trend. Mr. Peanut is soft and round, The Green Giant has given way to Lil’ Sprout and Colonel Sanders has been denigrated into a cartoon character worthy of a Care Bears film. Compare the new Maytag Repair Man to the old one and you’ll find that he’s gone from a chubby, old humbug of a slacker to a tall, bland male of average age and physique.

What does this mean for our culture? Perhaps a worrisome trend away from real personalities, like cranky Clara, the Wendy’s lady, stoic Colonel Sanders, macho Brawny Man, and, well crazy, Crazy Eddy. Look at a progression of Betty Crocker icons and you’ll see that she’s evolved from a grey-haired grandma, to middle-aged mom, to somebody’s sister.

When even our ad icons have to become young, fit, attractive softies it may be a symptom of a culture that’s read one too many self-help books. As for me, I think the fact that Mr. Whipple has character made him a character who will be missed. Let’s hope his passing doesn’t prove to be a harbinger of a society gone squeezably soft.

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