What A Character! – Fatty Turkey

City Desk IconA recurring series in which we take a look back at the city’s most familiar advertising icons.

From the annals of spokesfigures whose time had come and gone before they’d even arrived, there’s Fatty Turkey, the eponymous mascot of Fatty Turkey Brand Whole Frozen Turkeys. A subsidiary spawned from McLaren Preservatives, the Fatty Turkey Brand was the brainchild of founder and then-president Leland McLaren, who’d decided to expand his modest nitrate and polysodium empire into the market which his goods typically serviced.

Debuting in freezer sections in 1977 – during the height of the health-conscious mania gripping thirties-bound baby boomers – McLaren’s advertisedly bad-for-you birds may have seemed a counter-intuitive comestible.

Fatty TurkeyLeland’s reasoning was, as he stated in a company newsletter and PR release later that year, “to reclaim the word ‘fat’ from the doomsayers and finger-wagglers.” The 131-pound, six-foot-two McLaren – then fifty-five years old – continued, “When I was a boy, ‘fat’ meant healthy! ‘Fat’ meant robust! We all drooled at the thought of a fat, juicy chicken for dinner or a nice, fat goose for Christmas.”

Essential to McLaren’s campaign to reclaim the luxurious implication of the long-since demonized word, pot-bellied Fatty Turkey himself was stamped onto the trademark Fatty Turkey “Rich White” packaging. The smiling, rotund bird sported a very unfashionable full-figure, which nonetheless seemed to ring a chord with typically calorie-conscious consumers.

In time, Fatty Turkey was joined by Fatty Goose, Fatty Duck and Fatty (Cornish) Game Hen, both in the freezer section and in the company’s promotional coloring books, tee-shirts and cardboard cut-out finger puppets. Collectors of mascot memorabilia may be interested to know that the entire Fatty Family of plump poultry once adorned the cardboard cover of an Easter Egg dying kit, in 1984.

Leland McLaren’s one-man mission to return respectability to “fatness” (what one Alternative Weekly newspaper reporter called “McLaren’s Crusade for the F-Word”) derailed in the late Eighties. During a live television broadcast of the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade from the Central Corridor and Downtown, McLaren – whose company had sponsored an in-parade appearance by health guru Richard Simmons and many of the super-sized dancers from his popular Sweatin’ To The Oldies series of videocassettes – interrupted himself during a television interview in order to indulge a seemingly unprompted tirade.

Rumored to have had personality clashes with the colorful Simmons, Leland McLaren went on-air accusing the “homosexual community” of “maliciously and malevolently appropriating the word ‘gay!’” for “Lord only knows whatever (bleeped) purpose!”

“When I was young, gay meant happy! Now what does it mean? I’ll tell you – “ was as far as the rant was allowed to go by sound booth engineers.

Apparently, one reclaimed word was enough, and McLaren stepped down owing to internal pressure from Nabisco, who’d purchased McLaren Preservatives two years earlier. The Fatty Turkey Brand was dissolved, and Fatty Turkey and his Fatty Friends have since waddled off to Fatty Obscurity.
– Jon Morris

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