Frankfurters as an American Icon: Oscar Mayer and the Promotion of the Hot Dog

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM
Erie Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Uwe Spiekermann, German Historical Institute
“I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Wiener, that is what I truly wish to be, cause if I were a Oscar Mayer Wiener, everyone would be in love with me” – this catchy jingle from 1963 nicely illustrates mainstream America’s affectionate relationship with commodities. Brands have the power to create new identities and build communities. An American icon, the hot dog is part of a broader story of immigration and cultural adaptation, of business competition and success in mass marketing.

This paper will analyze the history of the Chicago-based family business Oscar Mayer to answer the question as to how and why the hot dog – a sausage of German origin – became a distinctly “American” invention. In 1883, the German immigrant Oscar F. Mayer and his brothers started a butcher shop specializing in German meat products.  After the turn of the century, competition from large meat packers forced them to invest in brands and promotion coaches to invest in marketing. Mayer expanded the business significantly during World War I and took the brand national in the 1920s, promoting a homogenous good – meat – in form of distinguished brands. Oscar Mayer’s products differed from those offered by other major packing firms less in variety than in packaging, especially after the company began selling its sausages bound by a distinctive yellow ribbon in 1929. Mayer promoted his hot dogs for consumption both at home and in public venues, and he pitched advertising at adults and young consumers alike. With more than 10,000 employees in the post-war era, he invested in the idea of a product that brings together middle-class consumers from different backgrounds with similar leisure activities and ways of living.

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