The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile turns 70 this year. While some regard it as just a big rolling fiberglass frankfurter, others see it as an icon of good times and fun. No one knows that better than the elite team of drivers -- or hot doggers -- who pilot the company's promotional Wienermobiles across America.
You just don't let anyone drive a seven-ton, 10-meter-long hot dog cross-country. Oscar Mayer officials say out of more than 1,000 college graduates who apply to be a hot dogger every year, only 12 have what it takes to get the job. This year, Natasha Best of Yonkers, New York and Dave Lakata of Roxbury, New Jersey did.
En route through downtown Madison, Wisconsin, they honk the Wienermobile horn at some kids on the corner. It blares out the company's familiar theme song, 'Oh I wish I were an Oscar-Mayer wiener!' Best says, "Any time we pass a group of kids, we always play that horn for them." Lakata adds, "A lot of schools, a lot of daycare (centers), they'll see us and they'll go bring out of the daycare children and it's always a lot of fun."
Best and Lakata are one of 6 two-person teams that crisscross the nation, acting as ambassadors for Oscar-Mayer. The Wienermobile has been an effective marketing tool since it first cruised Chicago's streets back in 1936. Company officials won't disclose how much they spend to operate the 6-dog fleet, but they say the vehicles more than pay for themselves in the brand recognition and good public relations they generate.
And besides their eye-catching design, they're also impressive machines, each built on a Chevy chassis, with V-8 engine, global positioning system, and gull-wing hydraulic door. Driver Lakata says today's Wienermobile is a far cry from the first one. "It was actually driven with the driver exposed, the windshield only came up to the torso. Obviously (you'd) have to wear goggles to protect (your eyes) from bugs, various different elements while on the road." When Best explains that the very first Wienermobile from the 1930s was scrapped during World War Two, Lakata adds, "It was made into bullets and supplies for our troops."
The original Wienermobile may be long gone, but as a marketing icon, its reign in American culture is far from over. Monika Wingate is director of the A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research at the Univeristy of Wisconsin Madison. She says the Wienermobile packs just the right mix of grandeur, kitsch, and comfort for consumers. "It's cool in an anti-cool kind of way. The hot dog itself conjures up all sorts of memories, of being outdoors, of summertime, of road-trips, and family." She says that since 9/11, she's seen some return to traditionalism among Americans, pointing out, "Hot dogs, I think, are a part of that."
And then there's that song. At the Fiesta Hispano event in Madison, Best coaches a young girl with a pink dress and pigtails for the Sing the Jingle contest, line by line: "Okay, now go, Oh I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener, That is what I'd truly like to be, Because if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener, Everyone will be in love with me!" The rehearsal draws applause from the crowd.
Best says she never tires of the jingle, because everyone sings it differently. "We've had people rap the jingle, we had one person sing it like they were at the opera. We had a little boy dress up as a hot dog, and he had mustard and ketchup on him, so he was really cute," she recalls with a laugh.
Many older people come up and say hello to the Hot Doggers. Ed Roland manages the Wienermobile program for Oscar Mayer. He says, as outlandish as a traveling frankfurter is, it makes people reminisce about simpler times. "One of the first things that every Hot Dogger hears when a customer comes up to them is, 'I remember when.' 'I remember when I was 12 and I saw the Wienermobile at the state fair' or 'I remember when I got my first Wiener Whistle.' The Americana that exists with the Wienermobile is truly a priceless thing for us."
Lakata and Best will hit the road again, on to more fairs and events. Between their Wienermobile and the other five that travel the country, they'll log roughly 240,000 kilometers before they all hand over their keys to the next wave of Hot Doggers.