Let’s be frank about what Oscar Mayer means to Madison and Wisconsin

Beyond the reactions to the Wienermobile rebrand.
Illustration shows the former wienermobile, now frankmobile, over a collage showing workers at a meatpacking plant, a forest fire, industrial cattle pens, and the now-empty Madison Oscar Mayer location, surrounded by a close-up photo of hot dogs.
Illustration by M. Rose Sweetnam.

Beyond the reactions to the Wienermobile rebrand.

The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, as of mid-May, is now called the “Frankmobile.” Based on reactions across the internet and state, it is as if the sun imploded.

In reality, the reactions and soulless media coverage are indicators of the intrinsically linked relationship between hot dogs and their production in Madison, Wisconsin, and even the United States.

Oscar Mayer no longer calls Wisconsin its headquarters, after the company officially closed its Madison plant in 2017, leaving over 1,000 people out of jobs and a massive, shuttered industrial park in its wake. When the plant closure was initially announced, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said that “It was one of those places that was always there and we thought was always going to be there.”

Well, turns out Wisconsin didn’t get to keep its meatpacking plant, but we did get to keep a nearly 30-foot hot dog on wheels. To this day, the Wienermobile clogs up roadways and city streets, haunting Wisconsinites and garnering media coverage on its every move. Each time it leaves the driveway, insipid coverage on its whereabouts across the state ensues. 

The mobile sausage, launched in the late 1930s, is a part of the company’s longstanding marketing practices, from teaching children how to spell the word “B-O-L-O-G-N-A” to creating an earworm about wishing you were a hot dog. Despite leaving sprawling acres of overgrowth and concrete on the city’s Northside, Oscar Mayer headquarters the Wienermobile in Madison, as well as the “Hotdogger” marketing program that fuels the vehicle’s cross-country escapades. 

Oscar Mayer’s decision to leave Madison wasn’t a one-off. It was part of a massive, company-wide restructuring that also closed plants in California, Pennsylvania, Ontario, and New York. Parent company Kraft Heinz, purveyors of boxed macaroni and ketchup, was controlled by a private equity firm that was known “less for nurturing growth at the companies it buys than for firing people, shutting factories, and taking cost-cutting to exceptional lengths.”

In the wake of the plant closure, Oscar Mayer moved its headquarters to Chicago, and Madison was left with an arsenic-contaminated parcel of land, as well as the donation of an old wiener to the state’s historical society. 

Given the plant is no longer in operation and its closure left thousands in the lurch, why should Wisconsinites care about a wiener rebrand? 

If media coverage and continued public reactions to the company’s decision to change the dog’s name is any indicator, the state’s relationship with the meatpacking company is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: Oh Oscar, we had some good decades together, but it is fine if you leave me for a richer partner in Chicago. Can’t wait to see you drive through my front lawn. Don’t worry about the poison you left in the apartment.

Rightfully, the giant hot dog has a place in many people’s hearts as a summertime reminder of childhood barbeques and Americana. More broadly, hot dogs conjure up fierce debates about proper toppings depending on the region. ( For example, I used to be a Chicago Dog fanatic until I tasted the glory of a Seattle Dog.)

Even with Madison’s rocky history of keeping hot dog shops afloat, the city still celebrates sausage each summer, despite questionable marketing visuals and questionable music lineups. In years past, east-side residents have even devoted entire days to carving sculptures of processed meat.

But it is impossible to talk about the meatpacking industry without addressing its impact on climate. Some estimates suggest the entire meat industry accounts for nearly 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but it’s unclear how much of that is associated with hot dogs or even Oscar Mayer, as Kraft, reportedly, doesn’t “give out supplier lists.”

Even more, it is hard to focus on hot dogs without talking about the conditions of meatpacking plants for workers—an industry where workers average two amputations a week and a Wisconsin company employs children to clean out the blood and guts. 

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Green Bay area meatpacking plants were linked to the fast-paced spread of the virus, highlighting the role that the working conditions played in spreading the disease. This explosion of the COVID-19 virus at plants in the region was cited by the United States Department of Agriculture in a working paper on how the disease flourished in cramped meatpacking plants. In the years since, JBS Green Bay, whose global parent company grossed $72.6 billion in revenue during 2022, had to pay a roughly $15,000 fine to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

Amidst all of the factors that go into making hot dogs and other industrially processed meat, animals have it no better, as large-scale pork farms breed inhumane conditions. As Alma Avalle writes for Bon Appétit: “When we joke about the meat industry, hot dogs are a punchline, a catch-all for the worst ills of factory farming.” 

Americans eat 20 billion hot dogs a year, with Oscar Mayer in second for most sold. 

In an aptly-American food consumption manner, we’re fed knowledge about the truths and harms of an operation, and continue to devour its products. I am no stranger to this, as I adore hot dogs and will likely continue to drench them in mustard and relish them when I can. (But, given all of the above, maybe a veggie dog needs to be added to my sausage rotation.) 

Still, the reality of Oscar Mayer’s impact on Madison can’t be understated. When you’re stuck in traffic behind this massive wiener, try to think of the newly named Frankmobile as a figurative vehicle that embodies the role hot dogs play in people’s lives and memories, rather than a literal vehicle owned by a corporation that abandoned its workers and still wants you to buy more of their hot dogs.

Long live the hot dog. Death to the Wienermobile. 

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