Petaluma’s 50 years with Clo the Cow

Clover’s beloved bovine spokes-cow honored with museum exhibit|

It is herd-ly possible to bull-ieve it, but Clo the Cow is turning 50 this year.

If you are un-mooved by this announcement, you clearly haven’t lived long in this cow-munity.

Clo the Cow - she of the sweetly smiling, tooth-filled face, the iconic, pun-packed billboards and the highly huggable bovine mascot costume - has indeed been delighting milk-drinkers and automotive passersby since 1969. That’s when Gene Benedetti, the founder of Clover Stornetta Farms (re-branded last year as Clover Sonoma) first came up with the idea of Clo, a cartoon cow, who would bring whimsically positive attention to the local milk producer, and differentiate the Petaluma-based company from all the other dairy farms in the area.

According to Marcus Benedetti, the grandson of Gene and the current CEO of Clover Sonoma, his grandfather’s brainstorm was initially met with head-scratching skepticism by Clover’s board of directors.

“When Gene first presented the idea to the co-op board, they thought Clo looked nothing like a dairy cow,” Benedetti says. “They didn’t understand it on any level. But they let him try one billboard as an experiment. For six months. I think that first billboard just said, ‘Support Your Local Cow.’”

People did more than support her. They fell in love with her.

Today, Clo the Cow is one of the most instantly recognized characters in Northern California. The often outrageous puns that frequently accompany Clo on billboards and other advertisements have become a kind of cottage (cheese?) industry. Originally, those puns were the work of legendary advertising man Jim Benefield. For years, the Clo drawings were mainly done by advertising artist Bill Neller.

Today, Clo’s look and ad copy are the primary responsibility of artist Anne Vernon.

To mark Clo’s 2019 milestone, the company has a number of treats and surprises planned for the entire year. The celebrations begin this weekend, with the opening of a two-month-long exhibition at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum. Titled “Clo at the Mooseum: 50 Years Young,” the show will feature posters, mementos, advertisements, billboards and other artifacts of Clo the Cow’s career. The exhibit is paired with another show featuring photographs by Petaluma’s Scott Hess, of the popular book “On a River Winding Home,” authored with John Sheehy.

In addition to the museum show, the city of Petaluma is honoring Clo by naming her the grand marshal of this year’s Butter and Egg Parade, which bears the theme “It’s Always Punny in Petaluma,” an homage to Clover’s pun-happy efforts over the years.

“People really appreciate those puns,” agrees Benedetti. “But those jokes have had to evolve over the years. A while back, we did a billboard that said, ‘Tip Clo through your two lips,’ and it was a huge hit, because most people got the joke.” The humor, of course, comes from the phrase’s rearrangement of the famous Tiny Tim song, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” made popular in the ’60s as part of the television show “Laugh In.”

Notes Benedetti, “Today, though, no millennial would understand that.”

Rarely has Clo ever created much cow-ntroversy, but there have one or two billboards that suffered a tiny bit of blow-back. There was, for instance, the time that Clover installed a billboard near Vallejo’s Marine World, with Clo in a scuba suit and the words “Jacques Cow-steau,” and obvious tip of the scuba mask to the famous marine biologist Jacques Cousteau. According to Benedetti, the nonprofit Cousteau Society briefly attempted to sue Clover, until the national media picked up on it. The Cousteau Society got so much feedback from Northern California fans insisting that being punned by Clo the Cow was actually a great honor, the organization quickly dropped its suit.

“Then, recently, there was a billboard we actually retracted,” Benedetti says, first mentioning that it’s typically an 18-month process from an original Clo idea to creation of the actual billboard, and a lot can change in 18-months. “This one had Clo dressed up, with a martini glass, and the billboard had the words, ‘Talk Dairy to Me.’ When we first came up with it, people loved it. It was edgy, but not too edgy.” But when it came time to put the billboard up for all the county to see, it was right in the middle of the Cavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, when the news was full of conversation about unwanted sexual harassment, verbal and otherwise. “The joke suddenly didn’t seem as lighthearted and funny as it had when we first thought of it,” says Benedetti. “Fortunately, that hasn’t happened much over the course of Clo’s first 50 years.”

Benedetti’s personal favorite, he says, is the billboard that said, simply, “Amazing Graze.”

“It featured Clo in her regal best, enjoying the epitome of our local bucolic terroir,” he laughs.

According to Kristel Corson, vice president of marketing at Clover Sonoma, the company has quite a year planned for their udderly adorable company mascot.

“Because a milestone like hers deserves a whole lot of very special attention,” affirms Corson.

That attention includes a new “Clover the Hill” billboard, a stepped-up series of public appearances for Clo at county fairs and other events all over the state, and the release of a brand new ice cream flavor, to be titled “Clo’s Birthday Cake,” which will be given away for free at public events starting this summer. Clo will also see the publication of a brand new children’s book, “Pasture Bedtime,” written and illustrated by Ann Vernon, Clover’s resident designer and, in the words of Corson, the company’s “punster extraordinaire.” The book will be in stores this July or August.

It is especially appropriate that Clo’s birthday will coincide with a children’s book, suggests Corson, since kids are among the playful character’s biggest fans. Not only has Clo the Cow, in her famous costume form, become legendary for the epic hugs she generously distributes to eager kids at public appearances. Those puns she’s always accompanied by are, for many youngsters, an introduction to the powerful playfulness and tongue-twisty elasticity of the English language.

“The way to teach children how to play with language is to do it with jokes and puns,” Corson says. “We’ve heard from so many adults who say they learned to love words and word games by reading the Clo billboards as a kid.”

For Corson and the rest of the team at Clover Sonoma, Clo’s birthday is a personal milestone as well as a professional one.

“We love her,” she says. “Every day, we come to work, and see her face all over, and she makes us smile. Clo’s birthday is really a celebration for all of us. We’re so thrilled she’s having this moment in the spotlight.” Recognizing that she sometimes sounds as if she believes Clo is a real cow, Corson laughs.

“Well, Clo is real to so many children,” she says. “She’s real to me too, though maybe in a slightly different way.”

That’s true, too, of Benedetti, who literally grew up with Clo the Cow, and has actually stepped inside that Clo costume on countless occasions. Of the upcoming exhibit, the parade, the book and the birthday ice cream, Benedetti allows that he’s having a lot of fun talking about Clover’s star performer.

“For us, it’s kind of a neat thing to recognize that this cartoon cow, that was started 50 years ago, still resonates three generations later,” he says. “It gives us confidence to really lean into Clo in the future. She’s not just a marketing campaign anymore. She’s a legacy community project. I hope she continues for at least another 50 years.”

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