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Cereal Television

Bullwinkle w/the Trix rabbit

Bullwinkle plugs Trix in 1960. The "silly rabbit" made its debut as a hand puppet on Rocky and His Friends.

As is the case today, pioneers of new media back in the day were those with things (whether objects or ideas) to sell. By 1923, 536 radio stations had crammed their way onto the airwaves as banks, poultry farms, police departments, churches, and others rushed to get their piece of the then-unregulated spectrum. Among them was the Washburn Crosby Company (which changed its name four years later to General Mills), which teamed with the city of Minneapolis and a group of budding entrepreneurs to buy a local radio station and name it after themselves, WCCO.

The milling company launched another experiment that year: the production and marketing of a ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, Wheaties. Among their innovations was the first-ever program-length singing commercial. The Wheaties Quartet, a tossed-together vocal jazz group, performed jingles and other musical selections during its half-hour show on WCCO. The show lasted six years, until General Mills decided it wasn't working, took the show to a national network, and redirected their ad message to an untapped market: kids.

Wheaties Quartet To carry out the new campaign, General Mills hired ad wiz Frank Hummart, the genius responsible for inventing soap operas, creating continuing daytime radio dramas, purchasing airtime from the radio network, and convincing soap companies to pay for it all. Hummart went to work immediately by adopting a popular cartoon character, Skippy, to be Wheatie's mascot.

The Skippy radio program was born in 1931 and featured the hero's exciting adventures along with intermittent plugs for Wheaties. The show was a huge success, spawning the Skippy Secret Service Society, contests, several premiums, and other paraphernalia, as well as a genre of similar shows by competing cereal manufacturers.

Skippy eventually met with an unfortunate promotional disaster (an episode in which one of his friends was kidnapped coincided with the real-life abduction of the Lindbergh baby) and was canceled in 1933. So Hummart invented a new hero: Jack Armstrong, the "All-American Boy," an airplane-flying, horseback-riding, spy-catching, football- and baseball-playing wonder.

Jack, like Skippy, was a hit with the kids. But also like Skippy, he had his share of promotional woes. One storyline brought up the plight of Jack's dying mother, who needed an expensive operation to survive. Apparently the only way Jack could get the money and save her life was by recovering a rare $20,000 stamp.

While the struggle played itself out on the radio, our hero urged listeners to send in a nickel and a Wheaties box top to receive their own Jack Armstrong stamp. The Federal Trade Commission intervened, however, on the grounds that the promotion misled kids.

In another unhappy incident, two Minneapolis kids who were tuned into the Jack Armstrong program heard a gunshot outside their home and, upon opening the window, found their dead dad lying in a pool of blood. Since the kids remembered what was happening during the program at the time they heard the shot, the police requested a copy of the Jack Armstrong script to determine the exact time of death. Following the trial, General Mills made the best of an ugly situation. According to company officials, they gave the grieving kids "a thrill" by presenting them with a copy of the Jack Armstrong script autographed by the stars of the show.

So successful were these promotions that Wheaties remained a top seller for years on end. This despite the fact that, according to General Mill's own account, the success of the cereal had nothing to do with the taste or health value of the flakes themseves. In blind taste tests, Wheaties salesmen time and again couldn't differentiate the flakes from other brands. As a former General Mills ad man puts it in Scott Bruce's and Bill Crawford's Cerealizing America, "The product is no different from anybody else's. It's just a product of unique and consistent advertising."

When it came to TV, the Wheaties promo team got off to a relatively slow start. By then Post was selling piles of the rocklike morsels known as Grape-Nuts via arrangements with The Danny Thomas Show and The Andy Griffith Show (the cast of which sang the Post cereal theme song so that the show's familiar opening whistle would flow seamlessly into the Post jingle). And Kellogg's--partnered with Winston cigarettes--had a huge hit with The Beverely Hillbillies.

Scantily clad cap'n crunch Wheaties had become old-fashioned. Half-hearted appeals to kids--advertising on Chompy the Lion, Ding Dong School Lone Ranger, Mickey Mouse Club--weren't getting through, nor were sports-star endorsements. The answer to all their problems was the Reverend Bob Richards--a minister/Olympic track star gone full-time motivational speaker.

In 1958 Richards started working for Wheaties. Reborn as a breakfast cereal zealot, he helped launched a fitness/health craze throughout the U.S. The star of Life's Higher Goals and other motivational films, Richards crossed the country delivering motivational talks, wrote dozens of self-help books, and used cereal boxes to promote push-ups and jogging, all for "the cause, the cause, the cause!"

Decades later, Richards found an even greater cause when he ran for president in 1984 backed by the Populist Party--the right-wing sect that went on to support former KKK Grand Dragon David Duke. Richards garnered 62,000 votes, losing the election to another former Wheaties pitchman, Ronald Reagan. --CM

Source: Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal, by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford.