With her husband off to war, Helene Burton Kaplan set off to Hollywood to write ad jingles in 1942.
It was the first step in an extraordinary 70-year career as a trailblazer in the male-dominated world of advertising, where she would leave a lasting mark on such popular brands as Betty Crocker and Baskin-Robbins.
Kaplan, who died at age 98 on Feb. 2, was one of the first female advertising executives in Minnesota and a mentor to younger generations who would follow in her path.
She was credited with naming hundreds of consumer products, including Softsoap and creating commercials that lingered in pop culture for decades (“Let’s all go to the Dairy Queen ...”).
“Helene was such a creative force,” said Diane Sims Page, who cofounded Leapfrog Associates, an idea factory and marketing firm, with Kaplan and another partner in the 1980s. In an era when women often were pigeonholed as secretaries, Kaplan’s talent and ambition set her apart, Page said. “She was a pioneer.”
Helene Burton was born in New York in 1918, and after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, married a Minnesotan, Sheldon Kaplan, on Dec. 7, 1941. It was only after she arrived for the ceremony, and saw the rabbi in tears, that she learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Her husband, who became a prominent Minneapolis attorney, would later joke that their wedding date “would live in infamy.”
During her wartime stint in Hollywood, Kaplan rubbed shoulders with celebrities like George Burns and Dinah Shore while writing ads for their radio shows, said Mary Jo Kaplan, her eldest daughter.
After the war, she became a copywriter at some of Minneapolis’ top advertising firms, rising to creative supervisor in the 1960s — the proverbial Mad Men era.
As to her success, “she used to say it was like the dancing bear syndrome,” her daughter said. “It isn’t that she did it all that well, it’s that she did it at all.”
She also knew that she was paid less than her male colleagues, her daughter recalls, but she didn’t let that stop her. “She was one of those people that loves to work, and it wasn’t about the money.”
According to her family, Kaplan ghostwrote two Betty Crocker books, using her children as guinea pigs for recipes. “I’m pretty sure we were a test family for Hamburger Helper,” recalls son Jeffrey Kaplan, and as kids, they were drawn into “countless brainstorming sessions” for products from General Mills, 3M, Pillsbury and others.
By 1970, Kaplan founded her own firm, Creative Ventures. One of her claims to fame, says daughter Mary Jo, was naming ice cream flavors for clients Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins. Among her favorites: Pralines ’n Cream and Jamocha Almond Fudge. “She got paid in coupons for ice cream,” her daughter remembers.
Beyond her work, Kaplan was an adventurer who loved to travel, concocting fishing trips to Africa to lure her husband to exotic locales, said her daughter.
But she never truly stopped working, said Eileen Manning, a marketing executive who called Kaplan a mentor and “a dear friend.” Even in her 90s, Manning recalls, “I always knew I could send her an e-mail at 1 a.m. and get a response.”
After her husband’s death in 2011, Kaplan left Minnesota for San Diego to be close to family. She died at her assisted-living home.
She is survived by a sister, Lois Bamberger; four children, Jay, Mary Jo and Jeffrey Kaplan and Jeanne Burton; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. No memorial service is planned.