In 1974, 4-year-old child actor Andy Lambros got his big break when Oscar Meyer and its agency J. Walter Thompson cast him in a TV spot. The curly haired lad sat on a pier with a fishing pole, singing that his bologna had a first name—“It’s O-S-C-A-R…” This spot was actually the second meat-related hit song for the brand. An earlier 1963 commercial featured school kids singing how they wished they were all Oscar Meyer wieners. (Surely you know the rest.)
These treacly tunes might have been forgotten by the American populace were it not for an unimpeachable fact about the culture at large: The 1960s and ‘70s were the golden age
of cold cuts.
Inexpensive, convenient, and plentiful (albeit emulsified, extruded meat scraps stretched with fat, salt, and corn-starch filler), cold cuts were the (un)natural choice for a postwar population of men who’d survived on canned wonder-meats like Spam during WWII. As the field packs of the battlefield gave way to patio spreads of suburbia, factory-processed achievements like head cheese, olive loaf— and, of course, bologna—took their rightful place in the protocol of middle-class entertaining, as so colorfully demonstrated by the 1964 ad for Morrell Meats at right. Whether arranged on an ordinary platter or assuming seasonally thematic shapes like the Christmas tree below, lunch meats were the accoutrements of a uniquely American social rite: not just something to nosh on, but a sign of prosperity and plenty.
“The ad suggests a sense of fulfillment,” says Terry Frishman, a former advertising executive who now works as a culinary instructor and a consultant with New York-based Creative Marketing Workshops. “The copy reads, ‘Watch the family dig in!’ So there’s pride and accomplishment here.” (Emphasis on accomplishment: We counted no fewer than 81 slices of meat in that tree.)
How, then, to account for the apparent lunch meat extinction that must have occurred prior to the 2011 Oscar Meyer ad directly below it? Well, the bad news for bologna started in 1977 when the government report titled “Dietary Goals for the United States” became the first of what would become many reports that linked red meat consumption with a cornucopia of health problems, including heart disease and obesity.
It’s not that Americans abandoned lunch meats; we still spend $2 billion on them every year. But we’ve swapped out our cows for fowl, thanks largely to marketing messages that created mental linkages between healthy eating and “white” meat like turkey.
The funny thing is, though salami and olive loaf have been sent packing, both these ads share the same message of social aspiration. “The first is about being a good mother and a successful hostess,” Frishman says. “The latter is about serving something healthy.” Both, however, are about feeling good by laying out some kind of sliced meat—be it shaped like a Christmas tree or just a sandwich.