In one commercial for Coors beer, a cowboy is strumming a guitar on stage at a bar when an old man hears him and asks to see his guitar. The cowboy sneers, "You play?", but hands it over, and the man immediately launches into an intricate blues solo. Impressed, the cowboy asks for his name. The old man smiles and says, "It's on your guitar." The cowboy glances down at his guitar, a Les Paul model, and then back up at the man in shock.
A Chanel N° 5 commercial has a man fall in love with Nicole Kidman, of whom his character didn't know she was famous.
In Fullmetal Alchemist, Al is addressed by Fuhrer King Bradley outside of the library and does not recognize him, to the horror of Lt. Hawkeye.
In A Certain Magical Index, no one recognizes Roberto Katze, The President of the United States of America, much to his annoyance.
In A Certain Scientific Railgun, Mikoto Misaka is the 3rd most powerful esper in Academy City, as well of the unofficial face of the city, due to being the only level 5 who is not obviously and dangerously insane. Random delinquents on the street still attack her, thinking she's just some cute middle-schooler they can have their way with. Worse is when they recognize her uniform as coming from Tokiwadai. It's a rich girl school, so sure they could get some money from her...but the school only accepts espers of level 3 or above, and the average delinquent is level 0.
In Dragon Ball Z, it doesn't take long for the public to completely forget the amazing feats of the heroes. Goku and Tien have both won the World Martial Arts Tournament, which is broadcast on national television, yet no one treats them like celebrities. Also, nobody recognizes Piccolo or Vegeta, even though they've terrorized the world and killed many people on national television and should logically be wanted for murder and terrorism.
In Live Free or Die Hard, John McClane fails spectacularly to pass himself off as a member of the culture. Most notably is when McClane fails to recognize a cutout of Boba Fett and tries to cover it by saying he's only familiar with Star Wars.
October Sky: Homer Hickam is a big fan of Wernher von Braun, reading his books on rocketry, and one of his most prized possessions is an autographed photo of him. When he wins the national science fair with his rocketry exhibit, one of the people to congratulate him is von Braun, but Homer doesn't recognize him.
In Apollo 13, the grandma character doesn't recognize Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they arrive to give support. After being introduced to them by name she asks, "Are you boys in the space program too?" Justified, and possibly Truth in Television (since she was a real person), as it's mentioned she's recovering from a stroke.
Justified in L.A. Confidential when Lt. Exley doesn't recognize Lana Turner because the Conspirator has had his prostitutes undergo plastic surgery to look like Hollywood starlets, so he thinks she's just a hooker cut to look like Lana Turner.
The Professional: In one scene the little girl plays a celebrity impression game with Léon, yet he fails to recognize anyone she impersonates, despite most of them being iconic celebrities like Charlie Chaplin. Astonishingly enough Léon even has no clue she's imitating Gene Kelly at one point, despite the fact that he watched Singin' in the Rain several times!
Borat: When Borat notices an Oliver Hardy impersonator he thinks he is "dressed up like Hitler".
A Hard Day's Night: John Lennon is recognized by a fan, yet he convinces her that he doesn't exactly look like him at all, to which she agrees and assumes it's not really him!
In the Discworld novel Moving Pictures, the wizards have mostly avoided the "clicks", so when Holy Wood stars Victor Marachino and Delores DeSyne are given the red-carpet treatment, they're totally perplexed by the whole thing.
Also, one clicks fan refers to the Patrician as "some local bigwig" trying to get reflected fame.
Live Action TV
In Arrested Development, Lindsay is trying to meet men. She is enticed by a bearded homeless fellow described as having the rugged, unkempt appearance of a movie star. When she finds out he's just homeless, she leaves. However, it turns out that the homeless man is actually Real Life actor Thomas Jane, doing some Method Acting character research for a couple upcoming movies by posing as homeless. When Lindsay finds this out, she is enticed again. Tom Jane is confused that she doesn't know who he is, but seems pleased that she thinks he's gross.
There was an episode of Fantasy Island where the (fictional) famous person had the fantasy of being somewhere where nobody knew who she was. She was sent to the wilds of [Africa/South America], where she fell in love with an explorer who didn't know who she was. Subverted though in that it turns out he did know, he just didn't care about her celebrity.
In The George Lopez Show, Carmen runs away and becomes one of the rapper Chingy's groupies. George ends up being the only person who doesn't know who that is.
In the iCarly episode "iLost My Mind", the main security guard of the mental institution has never heard of the web show iCarly, so he's not impressed when Carly and Freddie try to use the fact they are the stars of it as credentials.
This is inverted in one episode of Hello Cheeky, in which Tim, Barry and Denis all confuse fellow cast member John Junkin for Doris Day. Particularly surreal as John is middle-aged, male, and bald.
In the Full House episode "Air Jesse", Jesse has no idea who Kareem Abdul Jabbar is when the basketball star shows up in person.
In "Beach Boy Bingo", The Beach Boys show up in person. Danny's daughters don't know who they are.
Played with in Doctor Who. In her first appearance, Harriet Jones was a member of parliament of a relatively small and unknown constituency, so she'd taken to greeting new people by flashing her ID at them and stating "Harriet Jones, MP". She retains this habit even when she becomes the Prime Minister (and later ex-Prime Minster), leading many sighing people to reply, "Yes, I know who you are".
Another sketch has Prince Charles meeting Mark Knopfler and asking him what he does for a living? Knopfler says: "I'm in Dire Straits", to which the crown prince replies: "Oh, I'm so sorry for you, but we'll try to help you out."
A sketch featuring a parody of a 1980s drug prevention advert with rock star Pete Townshend also plays with this trope. Townshend meets some teenagers in the park and tells them he understands that they are curious about drugs and that he's been "down that that road" too, but that they shouldn't try it. The teenagers, however, haven't got any idea who he is?
During a 1964 episode of the Morecambe and Wise show The Beatles were a guest on the show Eric Morecambe pretended not knowing who they are and jokingly confused them with The Gay Sisters.
And as for the other brother, about half the cast of Mario And Luigi games has difficulty recognizing him or remembering his name, including Bowser. At the end of Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, Bowser finally says Luigi's name.
In Seymour Goes to Hollywood, the first puzzle is realizing that the security guard at Seymour's movie studio will not recognize Seymour unless he wears sunglasses. Everyone else in the game recognizes Seymour regardless.
In the Citadel DLC of Mass Effect 3, during the charity ball at the casino, two Asari socialites mistake Commander Shepard for just another refugee from Earth, living homeless on the Citadel.
A recurring gag in Spoony's reviews of the Ultima games is his annoyance at characters failing to recognise the Avatar, who in addition to being the Christ-figure of their religion, has entire museums devoted to their deeds that stretch through hundreds of years of their recorded history.
Spoony!Avatar: Read a book people?! I know humility is supposed to be one of the Eight Virtues, but I'm the Goddamn Avatar!
In RWBY, Jaune Arc didn't know who Pyrrha Nikos is, even though she's a world famous athlete who won four fighting tournaments in a row (a world record) and endorses products. She later reveals this was why she fell for him. Since he didn't know who she was, he approached and talked to her like an equal. Everybody else was intimidated and kept their distance.
The Donald Duck cartoon "The Autograph Hound" has Donald travelling to Hollywood trying to get an autograph of various famous movie stars. Eventually Shirley Temple gives him one. When a police officer tries to arrest Donald for trespassing Shirley shouts: "Leave him alone, that's Donald Duck!" Only then does the policeman recognize him and wants an autograph. Even more astounding: everybody in Hollywood, even actors that previously tormented Donald when he bugged them, now all recognize him and also want his signature!
He also confused Stephen Hawking with Larry Flynt. And in "The Regina Monologues" then British Prime Minister Tony Blair with Mr. Bean.
In "Stark Raving Dad" Homer apparently never heard of Michael Jackson, something that especially in 1991 during Michael's heyday was outrageously impossible. Even Jackson self says to Homer: "I can't believe you've never heard of me? I'm a very popular entertainer" and names several things that made him famous ("Motown", "Thriller", MTV, "Beat It"), even singing "Billie Jean" while performing his moonwalk dance, but none of these rings a bell with Homer. A twist on this is vital to the plot of "Stark Raving Dad" — since Homer doesn't know who Michael Jackson is, he has no problem believing the story of an obese mental patient who claims to be him (and does have the moves and the voice). Everyone else in Springfield knows who Jackson is though, so when Bart is told over the phone that Michael Jackson is coming to his house for dinner, and he spreads the word, Hilarity Ensues.
And this trope is not just relegated to Homer. One of the funniest recognition failures goes to Mayor Quimby for not recognizing Leonard Nimoy:
Winters: Hi, I'm Jonathan Winters, the famous comedian.
Farmer: The who? The what?
Winters: OK, I'm Jonathan Winters, the not-so famous comedian.
In an episode of The Boondocks, Grandpa Freeman doesn't know who Usher is, and thinks everyone is talking about a theater usher, wondering what the big deal is?
Riley: No Granddad, Usher the singer.
Granddad: A singing usher? That doesn't make any sense. How would the audience hear the movie?
In another episode involving Martin Luther King Juniornote In this universe the assassination attempt was a failure, but put him into a decades-long coma, Huey and MLKJ try to get past a bouncer to MLKJ's own benefit, only for the bouncer to demand a cash payment.
In the Superman: The Animated Series episode "Warrior Queen", an old woman witnesses Superman and Maxima's battle, and from her commentary has no idea who Superman is.
There was an episode of The Powerpuff Girls where a burglar had somehow never heard of the girls, leading to a Freak Out! when he sees their powers.
Occasionally in The Transformers, even though the Transformers are public knowledge and the Autobots were declared national heroes all the way back in episode 3, there is a person who has somehow never heard of them.
Similarly, in G.I. Joe, there are occasionally people who have never heard of G.I. Joe or Cobra. For example, in "My Brother's Keeper", a meddling cop tries to arrest Sgt. Slaughter and his teammates, thinking they're troublemakers. Slaughter explains that they're members of G.I. Joe chasing some Cobra agents, but this info is meaningless to the cop, forcing them to escape.
In the King of the Hill episode "The Father, The Son, and J.C.", Bobby mistakes the visiting Jimmy Carter for the Second Coming of Jesus. At the end of the episode, when the others correct this mistake, Bobby has no idea who Jimmy Carter is.
In "Hank's Unmentionable Problem", Hank walks in on Peggy watching a programme about constipation by former Surgeon General C. Everett Coop. Hank immediately exclaims "Who the hell is that? Howard Stern?"
In the Dexter's Laboratory crossover with Dynomutt Dog Wonder, while Dexter is a fan of the Blue Falcon, Dexter's dad mistakes him for the mascot of a football team called The Falcons. When the superhero tries to correct him, Dexter's dad doesn't get it.
As strange as it might seem even in real life people may fail to recognize celebrities. There are several logical reasons behind this:
The very idea of meeting a celebrity in the street is something most regular people would find highly unlikely. So when it does happen they might assume it's just an imitator or a look-alike.
Certain actors and musicians are difficult to recognize without their make-up or Iconic Item. Also, they may appear a lot smaller or thinner in real life, compared with their public image.
Some celebrities are more famous for their name than their face. This is especially true for authors, for instance, but also to some iconic, internationally known celebrities like Neil Armstrong.
People who suffer from amnesia, prosopagnosia (an illness that makes it difficult to recognize faces), went through a coma or don't keep up with modern times anymore may also have trouble recognizing celebrities.
When you're not interested in certain professions you won't recognize or care for celebrities in that niche either. For instance, someone who doesn't read novels will not recognize authors, while someone who doesn't care for sports will not recognize members of the national team. And since the majority of people don't care about politics at all they will fail to regognize or know most politicians either.
Age is also a factor. You can hardly blame a child or a teenager for not recognizing certain celebrities at an age when they are still learning a lot about the world. This is especially true of most people who were famous before they were born. Also, certain topics, like politics or history, may not interest them that much. In the same way older people may also be unaware of more recent celebrities, because it's not always easy to keep up with all the trends and their interest in certain subjects may fade away. For instance, most people may lose interest in current pop music once they start settling an adult life with a job, a spouse and/or a family to raise.
Lack of access to modern media can also play a role. If you don't own a radio, TV or Internet you will be unfamiliar with many media celebrities.
Then there is the matter of nationality. Local celebrities will not be recognized outside their town or country.
Certain isolated countries, where censorship of foreign media is rampant, can also play a vital role in this.
The passage of time can also play a role. People who were famous in their time may fall into obscurity after a few years, decades or centuries. For instance, does anyone know any famous Roman gladiator or Ancient Greek Olympic champion? How many vaudeville stars of the 19th century would you be able to recognize? Or movie stars from the silent era? Even popular media stars may be more famous to people who grew up with them than the generation who followed behind them. A good example would be Shirley Temple, the most recognizable child star of all time. Yet she was mostly in the media during her heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. After that she left showbusiness and thus remained out of the public picture. Even when she did appear in public the once adoreable little girl had now become a grown-up woman and wouldn't be recognized that easily, even by people who knew her as a child star, unless someone told them so.
David Lee Roth tells stories of coming off of Van Halen's wildly successful first tour and not being able to get into Studio 54.
Apparently, Bryan Danielson was often not recognized by security guards when he showed up at the arena for his wrestling matches.
A security guard denied CM Punk entry into Madison Square Garden on the Dec. 30, 2011 edition of WWE Smackdown as he “didn’t buy that he was a wrestler.” It wasn’t until a second security recognized Punk and got him into the building.
Mickey Mantle was once in upstate New York when he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Anticipating that the other visitors there would request his autograph, he brought along a couple hundred autographed photos of himself to hand out to people. But despite spending all day at the baseball mecca, the Yankee great was recognized by absolutely no one...save for one guy who looked at him and said, "Hey, aren't you—?...Nah, you couldn't be."
Jimmy Page was refused entry to a event for Led Zeppelin after he shaved his beard earlier that day and nobody recognized him.
Naomi Watts has noted that people hardly ever notice her when she goes out in public. Some people will even brush her aside to get to her husband Liev Schreiber or ask her to take their picture. She likes this, as this means people don't bother her like they do most celebrities.
Author Clive Barker once showed up early at a horror convention where he was a featured guest and was not only unrecognized by the convention goers, but by security and was told that he had to pay admission. Being the prankster that he is, he paid the admission fee and had a grand time mixing with the convention goers.
Cardigans singer Nina Persson enjoys singing in karaoke bars occasionally. In a recent interview with Billboard, she told a story about an outing where she sang "We Are the World" at a karaoke bar in New York and got a bunch of smack from one of the other customers for, "Trying to sound like the girl from The Cardigans." Persson found the whole thing very funny.
Often happens to celebrities whose names are better known than their faces, or whose fame peaked several decades ago and who look, well, several decades older now.
Former WWE Diva Amy Zidian was incredibly rude to several people, including Vickie Guerrero and Stephanie McMahon. It turned out that she had no idea who the later two were and assumed they were stupid hired help. Refusing to apologize after they explained who they were led to her being fired.
Nathan Fillion and Wil Wheaton both told attendees at Ottawa ComicCon 2013 how they had been to a local restaurant the previous evening when a enthusiastic fan approached their table for a photograph with Wheaton and, not having any idea who Fillion was, asked him to take the photo. Fillion's and Wheaton's versions of the tale were self-deprecating, but remarkably similar in emphasizing how much fun it was for Wheaton.
Randy Taraborrelli's biography about Michael Jackson tells an anecdote from the mid 1970s when the pop star was interviewed by a journalist and to his amazement had no idea who (then current U.S.) president Gerald Ford was!!
It happened with Jackson too. Belgian children's book illustrator Marcel Marlier, of the "Martine" book series, was approached by the pop star to make some drawings for him. The old artist felt flattered, but had no clue who Jackson was?
Queen Elizabeth II met rock stars Brian May, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck in 2005 and asked them: "And what do you do?"
In 1983 American teenager Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Soviet President Yuri Andropov asking him whether Russia wanted to go to war with the U.S.A.? The Soviet leader assured her this wasn't the case and invited her and her parents for an official state visit to Russia. While Samantha was there she received a phone call from cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova - the first woman in space. Unfortunately the little girl had no idea who Tereshkova was and simply hung up again.
Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar met George Harrison in 1966, but didn't know much about the man, having only vaguely heard that he was part of "a very popular band in the West."
Big conventions, such as the San Diego Comic Con and similar can also lead to this happening, where people from various different mediums and fandoms are coming together. As not everyone is going to follow every nerdy genre being celebrated at the con, they're likely to not know who every single attendee is, no matter how big or famous they are with their specific genre.
In a similar case at conventions, there's also cases where people cosplaying as certain characters will be completely unrecognised by many attendees. Thanks to the popularity of recent superhero films, this can lead to cosplayers dressing in grouped outfits for some of them (the ones who're dressed as characters with movies) to be identified easily, while others in the same group (whose characters don't have films) to be completely invisible to some people. A tumblr post commenting on this notes how a duo dressed as Hawkeye and Mockingbird had to put up with people excited to take pictures with the Hawkeye, but completely ignoring the Mockingbird cosplayer due to the latter's lack of a film appearance.
In 2009 a seventy year old man was arrested for loitering in New Jersey. Who you might ask? Bob Dylan! At the time he wasn't carrying ID and the officers that accosted him had never heard his name before!
Matt Groening once try to explain to a woman in Thailand who he was by drawing Bart Simpson. The woman seemed to to recognize the character but then said: "Ah! Mickey Mouse!"