Is Betty Crocker a real person? The question has plagued more than a few bakers since her introduction in 1921. The Washburn-Crosby Company first conceived of her as a way to answer customers’ cooking questions. When customers (mostly women) wrote to the company, they received a response signed by Betty Crocker.

“There are records of women who saved her letters who believed that she was a real person,” says Elizabeth A. Blake, an English professor at Clark University who researches cookbooks and food writing. “I’ve come across a lot of people who weren’t aware that she’s not real, even now.”

That’s right, Betty Crocker is not a real person. But the Washburn-Crosby Company, which became General Mills in 1928, sometimes marketed her as if she might be. Betty is just one of many fictional food mascots made famous in the 20th century. Here are some of the most famous:

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Betty Crocker

In 1921, the Washburn-Crosby Company in Minneapolis held a puzzle contest that gave customers a chance to win a pin cushion shaped like a flour bag. To the flour-milling company’s surprise, a lot of the women who entered the contest mailed in baking questions along with their entries. In response, Washburn-Crosby decided to create a female persona to respond to these customer queries.

The company came up with the name “Betty Crocker” and held a contest among its female employees to choose her signature. Pretty soon, customers were receiving replies to their letters signed, “Cordially Yours, Betty Crocker.” And that was just the beginning.

In the mid-1920s, Betty Crocker began hosting two radio cooking shows, with multiple actresses voicing the mascot in different regional markets. General Mills released Betty’s first portrait in 1936, and in 1942, her name appeared on a General Mills food product for the first time. That product was a dried soup mix (not exactly what she became known for), but in 1947 her name began appearing on cake mix boxes, which have become Betty Crocker’s signature product.

In 1950, General Mills released Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, the first in a long line of Betty-branded books. Over the next several decades, Betty released hundreds of cookbooks and had multiple makeovers. Betty’s image became younger after her first two portraits, and her hair and clothing changed with the times. But it’s her name more than her image that has helped keep her cookbooks and cake mixes in customer’s minds for more than a century.

Quaker Man

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Victorian advertising trade card from the Quaker Oats company featuring the familar Quaker man, c.1890.

Technically, the Quaker man on your oatmeal container doesn’t have a name, but people at the Quaker Oats Company call him “Larry.” The mascot dates to 1877, when the Quaker Mill in Ravenna, Ohio trademarked a “a figure of a man in ‘Quaker garb’” to advertise their oat breakfast cereal.

The Quaker Mill became part of the American Cereal Company, which in 1901 changed its name to the Quaker Oats Company. The company has continued to use the Quaker man as a mascot for more than a century, with occasional updates to his image. (He’s lost a little weight.)

The Quaker Mill founders who trademarked the mascot back in 1877 reportedly disagreed on who came up with the idea. One claimed he chose the image of a Quaker because of the religious sect’s association with good values. The other said he based the image on William Penn—a claim the Quaker Oats Company disputes.

Ronald McDonald

When Ronald McDonald first appeared as a “hamburger-happy clown” on a local TV ad in 1963, he had a paper cup for a nose, a tray of food for a hat and another tray sticking out of his torso. The man behind the makeup, Willard Scott, was one of the many actors who portrayed the popular TV character Bozo the Clown, and later became famous as a weatherman on NBC’s “TODAY” show.

Scott’s first few Ronald McDonald ads only aired in the Washington, D.C. area. But in 1965, the McDonald’s burger chain started using the mascot in nationally aired ads. The Ronald McDonald in these national ads had a different look: He had a red nose, wore a yellow jumpsuit and didn’t have a tray on his head (or sticking out of his torso). But like Scott’s first version, his main purpose was to appeal to kids. McDonald's created a fictional world called "McDonaldland," where Ronald interacted with goofy sidekicks like the Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, Grimace and the Fry Kids.

Ronald’s outfit remained mostly the same until 2014, when McDonald’s announced it was giving him a makeover, losing his billowy jumpsuit in favor of orange cargo pants, a rugby shirt and a red sport coat. Around this time, Ronald began to disappear from McDonald’s advertising. It’s not clear why, but possible reasons include the years-long criticism that Ronald encourages children to eat unhealthy food, or the fact that some people can't help seeing him as a creepy clown. The character continues to make live appearances—everywhere from the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade to events for the Ronald McDonald House, a company-sponsored charity supporting families with sick children—as well as on social media.

Captain Birdseye

If you live in the United Kingdom, you may be familiar with Captain Birdseye, the sailor mascot for the Birds Eye frozen food company. In 1967, British actor John Hewer began playing Captain Birdseye in TV ads for frozen fish sticks.

Hewer’s Captain Birdseye was a loveable, friendly sailor. His ads featured large groups of children happily sailing a ship and eating fish sticks. Hewer played the role for three decades, making him an iconic figure in the United Kingdom.

Since 1998, Birds Eye has employed a series of different actors in the role of Captain Birdseye. The most recent man to wear the captain’s hat is Italian actor Riccardo Acerbi, who piqued viewers’ interest when he debuted as the new captain in 2018.

In one of his ads, the surprisingly hunky captain—previous incarnations had been more grandfatherly—jumps off a boat into the sea. Afterward, the salt-and-pepper sailor returns to the boat to enjoy some fish sticks with his grandkids. Birds Eye pulled the ad after safety advocates pointed out the very real risks associated with jumping into cold water on a hot day.

Discontinued: Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben

There are some popular food mascots—for highly successful products—that companies employed for decades before acknowledging that they were problematic.

Aunt Jemima, a character whose name and face sold millions of boxes of pancake mix, was originally based on a caricature that romanticized slavery. Similarly, Uncle Ben, the face of a well-known rice brand, channeled the image of a happy, servile older Black man whose name and attire recalled similar stereotypes.

Both companies evolved their characters over the decades. Aunt Jemima’s hair and accessories changed to become modern, and the Uncle Ben mascot was given a “promotion” to chairman of the board. Ultimately, though, in response to public criticism, both were discontinued.

In 2021, Quaker Oats began selling its pancake mix and syrup under the brand name “Pearl Milling Company,” a reference to the original company that adopted Aunt Jemima. The same year, Mars, the parent company for Uncle Ben, began selling rice under the name “Ben’s Original” in packaging that no longer featured a portrait.