And the Meat Goes On: The History of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
by Rudy Sanchez on 08/22/2022 | 7 Minute Read
Brands have used vehicles to promote themselves for years. From carriages drawn by Budweiser Clydesdales, the Goodyear blimp flying over stadiums, Zippo-shaped cars, and the legume-shaped Planters Nutmobile, various modes of transportation have crisscrossed the nation, serving as brand ambassadors and crowd-drawing promotional devices.
In an era where we're drowning in content and entertainment choices, the thought of going to a shopping mall or grocery store to take a selfie with a branded roadster and grab some swag might seem antiquated.
But nothing could be further from the truth; brand mobiles still draw crowds, especially in the age of social media.
There is perhaps no brand that knows this better than Oscar Mayer. Year-round, Oscar Mayer sends a fleet of Wienermobiles across the country, stopping at supermarkets, amusement parks, conventions, and other events. Oscar Mayer’s brand ambassadors, called Hotdoggers, travel in pairs and give out signature wiener whistles, which the brand gives out at Wienermobile stops. Hotdoggers press a lot of flesh; according to Oscar Mayer, handing out a quarter-million wiener whistles yearly. The little trinket serves as a memento and elevates the street marketing stunt to a bonafide event.
In business since 1883, Oscar Mayer was an early adopter of product branding in the meat industry. Initially, Oscar Mayer sponsored local Chicago events like the 1893 World’s Fair. They would level up in the marketing game with their Wienermobile concept in 1936 when the founder’s nephew Carl Mayer came to Uncle Oscar with the idea.
“The Wienermobile hit the streets of Chicago as a sales tool to fairs, festivals, and parades, sparking smiles,” says Ed Roland, senior manager of brand communications for the Wienermobile. "The Wienermobile is in line with the essence of Oscar Mayer. When the Wienermobile program started, it was a tough time during the Great Depression. People needed something to bring a little joy to their lives. And that's sort of what Carl thought; this was something that could make people smile and brighten their day in some tough times. And we've been around ever since.”
Roland, a 25-year employee at Kraft Heinz, nineteen of which have been with the Wienermobile program, further explained that the promotion took a hiatus in the 70s when television advertising exploded. In 1973, for example, Oscar Mayer would debut its beloved “My Bologna Has a First Name” jingle, burrowing its way into consumers' subconscious and completely negating the need for wiener-shaped automobiles.
“For the 50th birthday of the Wienermobile, Oscar Mayer brought it back for an anniversary tour,” Roland says. “It was so popular that the brand brought back a fleet of Wienermobiles in 1988, and that's when the Hotdogger tradition started.”
Oscar Mayer’s Hotdogger program recruits recent college graduates to drive, in pairs, all over the United States and promote the brand. Hotdoggers sign up for a one-year gig, and the contract runs from June to June. In addition to handing out the signature wiener whistles, Hotdoggers promote their tours on social media or local radio and set up and run their stops. Ed describes the 6 Hotdogger teams as independent PR firms on wheels, and they have an encyclopedia knowledge of the brand and the Wienermobile.
The Hotdogger position is also fairly competitive. There are only 12 spots available, and according to Ed, the program receives between 1,500 to 2,000 applicants; Harvard accepts a higher percentage of applicants, about 5%, than Oscar Mayer for the Hotdogger program, which is less than one percent.
“Hotdoggers are recent college graduates. We don't mandate what their degree is in, but most often, it's something related to advertising, public relations, or marketing,” Roland says. “Hotdoggers need to be a people person. So we're looking for demonstrated success academically and in extracurricular activities. As you become the face of the brand, you become this mini-celebrity. You need to be outgoing. You need to know that there's no off time. It doesn't matter if it's your off day, a drive day, or a work day; you're the face of the brand. Hotdoggers have to enjoy being the center of attention. So it's people that have done things in leadership roles and demonstrated that they are outgoing and like to travel.”
Participants in the Hotdogger program typically go on to their studied fields, often successfully. Roland says that Hotdoggers have a special connection with each other and have private Facebook groups. Alums often meet up with Hotdoggers in town, sometimes inviting them to stay in their homes.
“The Wienermobile is truly an American icon; it's a piece of pop culture, it is something that people are connected to, and it is so flexible,” Ed says. “That's what's really cool about it. It's probably more important today than in 1936 in the world of social media. Part of the responsibilities of a hotdogger is to generate and be a content contributor to our social channels."
Wienermobiles continue to bring smiles to people’s faces as they did during the Great Depression. After years of COVID, deepening economic woes, and looming existential environmental threats, Hotdoggers keep on truckin.' These fresh-faced, outgoing 20-somethings driving a goofy car shaped like a hot dog bring a momentary break from doom. The Wienermobile is apolitical, non-denominational, and beloved in cities, suburbs, and the country. Even vegetarians can at least appreciate the coachwork. That ability to make everyone smile is why the Wienermobile is integral to the Oscar Mayer brand.
“The world is in a tough place sometimes. So it’s important to bring joy and a little light-heartedness,” Roland says. “The Wienermobile allows people to take themselves less seriously, and I don't care where you are or what your day is like, if you have a surprise sighting of a giant hot dog on wheels rolling down the street, you're gonna smile. Going down in Manhattan and seeing these businessmen trying to hide the fact that they're taking a picture of the Wienermobile is hilarious. The Wienermobile is about brightening people's days.”
Oscar Mayer’s recent refresh by BrandOpus also incorporates the Wienermobile into the packaging, demonstrating just how critical it is to the brand. The promotional vehicle isn’t just a rolling brand asset; it manifests a core brand attribute.
“Diving into the archives of the 138-year history of Oscar Mayer, we discovered the Wienermobile is far more than just a hotdog on wheels," says Paul Taylor, chief creative officer and founding partner of BrandOpus. “All we had to do was take a ride in one to see the looks on everyone’s face that we passed; it creates a visceral reaction, and it is impossible not to smile and take a picture when you see it."
"That inspired us to embrace the Wienermobile as a core brand visual equity and distinctive asset," Taylor adds. "By emulating it through illustration and an emblematic graphic icon, it now has a role across the full visual identity, packaging, and brand world. Elevated to become more than just an activation, the Wienermobile now takes its rightful place as the unmistakably memorable mascot of the Oscar Mayer brand.”
So why do brand mobiles like the Goodyear Blimp, the Budweiser Clydesdales, and the Wienermobile elicit so much giddiness? In a polarized society filled with venomous tribalism, cynicism, and existential despair, it seems paradoxical that corporate-run novelty cars would remain so popular. But vehicles like the Wienermobile cut through the malaise of the modern world, and there’s a mighty nostalgic factor that transports us back to a time in our lives that was less complicated and more fun.
Americans love kitsch, and it hardly gets kitschier than a giant hot dog on wheels. Oscar Mayer’s Wienermobile can wow kids and give grown-ups license to have some wholesome fun. Brand mobiles are goofy and self-aware enough that even hipsters can ironically get into them.
But even beyond kitsch, Americans love advertising and branding. The Super Bowl is perhaps as anticipated for its commercials as for its showcase of sport. Mad Men is a highly acclaimed TV series set in the world of advertising. Folks tattoo their favorite corporate mascots on themselves, and car enthusiasts create their form of brand mobiles in the form of highly customized cars called donks.
The Wienermobile hits that spot we all have for some much-needed levity, and their signature promotional device has a universal appeal that transcends politics, race, generation, and education level. Moreover, Oscar Mayer has diligently maintained the Wienermobile’s prominence in pop culture. Since 1936, the Wienermobile has invited consumers to smile, to take life a little less seriously.
Or, as the brand puts it, “Keeping it Oscar.”
To see where the Wienermobile will be, or to apply for the Hotdogger program, visit the Wienermobile’s webpage.