Many companies think nothing of spending millions of dollars for celebrity endorsements. But a great advertising campaign can turn an ordinary citizen into a celebrity. In a few rare cases, these commercial stars go on to become cultural icons, with TV and movie appearances, book deals and other endorsements. Here’s a look back at some classic commercials that earned their stars a measure of fame.
5. Iron Eyes Cody: The “Crying Indian” in Pollution Commercials
This series of “Keep America Beautiful” commercials that ran from 1971 into the 1980s featured Iron Eyes Cody, a veteran actor who appeared in more than 200 films in a 60-year career, mostly in roles as a Native American. Cody married a Native American woman, and was honored for his tireless work promoting Native American causes. But in the mid-1990s, a newspaper published the truth about Cody — he had been born Espera Oscar DeCorti, and was of Italian, not Native American, descent. Still, Cody, who died in 1999 at age 91, remains best known as the “The Crying Indian.”
4. John Moschitta: The Fast Talker in FedEx Commercials
Unlike many of the other characters on this list who were mostly ordinary individuals, John Moschitta Jr. had a singularly unique talent — he could talk incredibly fast. At one time, The New York City native held the Guinness World Record as the fastest talker in the world, clearly enunciating almost 600 words per minute. An advertising agency noticed Moschitta’s talents and cast him in a 1981 ad for Federal Express. That ad has been consistently rated as one of the greatest in TV history. As for Moschitta, he parlayed his fast-talking skills into a lucrative career, making hundreds of TV and radio ads for other products, and appearing in numerous TV shows and movies.
3. Clara Peller: Where’s the Beef! Wendy’s Commercials
Clara Peller spent the first 81 years of her life in anonymity, working as a manicurist. Through an odd turn of events — she was hired to portray a manicurist for a TV commercial — Peller ended up cast in a starring role in commercials for the Wendy’s fast food chain. Her raspy-voiced cry of “Where’s The Beef!” in several Wendy’s commercials made her an overnight celebrity in 1984. She would go on to appear on talk shows, in a movie, and on Saturday Night Live. Wendy’s executives credited Peller’s commercials with dramatically boosting the company’s sales, but the relationship did not end on a happy note; after Peller made a commercial for a spaghetti sauce company, Wendy’s dropped her. Peller died in 1987.
2. John Gilchrist: Little Mikey from Life Cereal Commercials
This iconic commercial debuted in 1972 and ran until the mid-1980s, an eternity in the advertising world. And the commercial’s legacy carried on beyond that; Life ran a new series of commercials starring a college-age Gilchrist in the mid-1980s, then created a similar ad campaign in the late 1990s starring a new cast of children. Gilchrist went on to a career as an advertising executive.
1. Anya Major: The Woman in Apple’s Famous Super Bowl Commercial
Viewers of Super Bowl XVIII in 1984 didn’t get much in the way of a football game, as the Los Angeles Raiders hammered the Washington Redskins, 38-9. But they were witness to history, when the Apple Computer Co. ran a bizarre commercial to launch its new Apple Macintosh. The commercial, directed by Ridley Scott of Alien and Blade Runner fame, featured Orwellian images of a “Big Brother” dystopian world. Anya Major, the commercial’s star, had no acting or modeling background, but she had something much more valuable — experience as an amateur discus thrower, a talent critical for the commercial. Many of the women brought in to audition for the role struggled to lift the hammer, let alone throw it; one errant hammer toss during the casting call nearly killed a bystander. One strange fact about that famous commercial: Apple paid to air it only twice on TV. A few weeks before its famous Super Bowl appearance, the commercial ran late at night on a TV station in Twin Falls, Idaho, which allowed it to qualify for advertising awards for 1983. It did more than win a few industry awards — the commercial is often cited as the greatest TV commercial in history. Major, a mother of three children, reportedly still receives fan mail for her hammer-wielding moment in the spotlight.