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American pickle legend Robert J. Vlasic has died at age 96

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Whether you're the friend who hates pickles or the one sneaking them off everyone's plates, you probably know the name Vlasic.

(SOUNDBITE OF VLASIC ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Dad, when are you going to eat that pickle?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) When am I going to eat this pickle right here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Thanks, Dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKLE CRUNCHING)

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Vlasic started out as a creamery business in the early 1900s, then expanded to pickles. Robert J. Vlasic, known as Bob, joined the family business after the Second World War.

(SOUNDBITE OF VLASIC ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Jovny, the Vlasic stork) To pick the perfect pickle, pick a Vlasic, the perfect pickle for perking it up.

PFEIFFER: Before long, the popularity of these pickles eclipsed Vlasic's other products. But that wasn't just because of Vlasic gherkins and sauerkraut and other briny foods made consumers' tastebuds happy. It's because Bob Vlasic was serious - very serious - about making sure his company didn't take itself too seriously.

CHANG: That's right. He decided pickles were a fun food, and he lived by this. He thought pickles were funny and spent years collecting jokes about them. You can find a bunch of them in his book, "Bob Vlasic's 101 Pickle Jokes."

PFEIFFER: Ailsa, brace yourself. I'm going to tell you one of them. You ready?

CHANG: Oh, my God - go.

PFEIFFER: It's kind of a dad joke.

CHANG: I'm already laughing.

PFEIFFER: Hey, Ailsa, what's green and pecks on trees?

CHANG: Jeez, I don't know, Sasha.

PFEIFFER: Woody Woodpickle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: When their business was growing, Vlasic spent a lot of money on advertising, often more than all their competitors combined. And they made sure to focus on the fun.

PFEIFFER: Picture that iconic Vlasic stork, the one on all its jars. He was a mailman hat, and he holds a pickle like a cigar. That stork became the Vlasic mascot in 1974.

(SOUNDBITE OF VLASIC ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Jovny, the Vlasic stork) It's a Vlasic.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKLE CRUNCHING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Jovny, the Vlasic stork) That's the tastiest crunch I've ever heard.

CHANG: Now, a stork might not strike you as the obvious choice for a pickle company mascot, but this was after the post-war baby boom. And the story goes that the stork got into the pickle business since the baby business bottomed out.

(SOUNDBITE OF VLASIC ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Mom, the stork's here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Oh, no, no. Oh, my gosh. I'm not expecting.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Jovny, the Vlasic Stork) It says right here, Vlasic sweet gherkins for the Perkins.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) But I thought the stork...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As Jovny, the Vlasic stork) Certainly. But with the birth rate down and the Vlasic pickles sales up, I deliver Vlasic pickles now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Oh, my.

PFEIFFER: Bob Vlasic helped grow the company into America's No. 1 pickle provider and helped shape America's eating habits around them, too. In 1933, per capita pickle consumption was around two pounds per capita. By 1978, that number had grown to eight pounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF VLASIC ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Jovny, the Vlasic stork) Test Vlasic yourself and see why it's America's No. 1 pickle.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Aren't you the Vlasic stork?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As Jovny, the Vlasic stork) Well, I'm certainly not Mother Goose.

CHANG: Bob Vlasic said his success came because their competitors were manufacturing-oriented, but Vlasic came in as the opposite - as marketers who manufactured products so that they would have something to sell.

(SOUNDBITE OF VLASIC ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) So that's where pickles come from.

PFEIFFER: Robert J. Vlasic died at his home earlier this month in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He was 96 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.