The Muppets and Wilkins Coffee Commercials: The Very First Vines
Wilkins and Wontkins
Do you ever find yourself unwilling to watch a 10 minute video on YouTube, but then you put on a 40-minute Vine compilation and watch the entire collection in one sitting? Like cutting a sandwich into four pieces rather than eating it whole, it’s easier to digest a large amount of content in smaller bites.
Vine was not the first to utilize this short-short story method. A young Jim and Jane Henson and two puppets changed the face of TV commercial advertising by presenting short, slapstick comedy bits to sell Wilkins coffee in the 1950's. Instead of just telling audiences to buy the coffee, they centered their bits around the coffee in a Green Eggs and Ham-style ongoing saga, coming up with different ways of either enticing or punishing a character who is unwilling to try a cup of Wilkins coffee.
Using puppets to sell an adult product feels like a risky choice, but the commercials were a big hit, proving to advertisers that a commercial can be just as entertaining as the program that it is sponsoring. Keeping them short and simple kept audiences wanting more, which led to dozens of variations of the bit, much like today's video vines. But while vines are for entertainment purposes only, Henson's Wilkins coffee commercials significantly boosted coffee sales for the company. Here's how they did it...
Jim Henson statue at the University of Maryland not far from where the commercials were filmed.
Getting the Job
Jim Henson’s Muppets have taken many different forms in their careers. From Sesame Street to Saturday Night Live, they have always adopted the right tone and humor for their intended audience, and every incarnation has worked. Before The Muppet Show, Labyrinth, and Sesame Street, however, there was Sam and Friends, a 10-minute puppet show that was tacked on to the end of the evening news in 1956. It was a spot they had earned after a few successful Tonight Show appearances. They were eventually moved to the end of the late evening news just before The Tonight Show, though it ran for only five minutes at that time slot.
The show caught the attention of Helen Ver Standig, owner of an advertising agency in Washington, D.C. who was hired to develop a series of commercials for the John H. Wilkins Company. Wilkins Coffee had been a successful coffee brand since its inception in 1900. The company had started as a single coffee shop before expanding into a wholesale coffee business in 1917. By the 1950’s, the Wilkins Coffee Company was being run by the son of its founder, John H. Wilkins Jr., and was selling over 11 million pounds of coffee per year. Still, they were in need of a successful advertising campaign to reach television viewers, a brand new entertainment medium in which to draw in consumers.
Wilkins and Wontkins in color.
The Henson Approach to Advertising
Jim Henson and his soon-to-be wife, Jane, had been performing their puppetry acts since college and had perfected numerous techniques for filming their acts and utilizing the benefits of camera angles and voice-over work in order to tell entertaining stories. Jim and Jane were given the opportunity to create 15 separate commercials in 10 second slots. Only eight seconds would go to the puppets while the final two seconds would be spent showing the coffee itself.
The early Muppets weren’t so much animals or humans as they were simple shapes. Even Kermit, when he was on Sam and Friends, was not originally a frog, just a green felt creature with a familiar voice. Jim Henson also liked to see his characters engaging in over-the-top, Looney Tunes-like violence, blowing each other up, shooting each other, or knocking each other out to get a laugh (Miss Piggy is still known for karate-chopping her friends, and even her beloved frog, when the moment calls for it).
As a result, Henson created two new characters for these commercials: Wilkins and Wontkins. The co-stars were different in every way. Wilkins loved Wilkins Coffee. Wontkins didn’t want to try it. Wilkins was skinny and round. Wontkins was wide and cone-shaped. Wilkins had a high, excited Kermit-esque voice. Wontkins was low and grouchy, like a grumpy Rowlf the Dog.
Both characters were voiced by Jim Henson, though Jane operated one of the characters onscreen for each of the commercials. Every storyline centered around the same premise. Wilkins tries to convince Wontkins to try some Wilkins Coffee. Wontkins refuses. So, Wilkins punishes Wontkins with a club to the head, a cannon to the chest, etc. Sometimes Wilkins would turn his weapon on its viewer and warn them to buy Wilkins Coffee or else. It was a very unsubtle slogan that was a complete 180 from the company’s previous slogan, a gentle boasting that Wilkins Coffee was “a wonderful way to start the day.”
A Compilation of Wilkins Coffee Commercials
The initial deal for 15 commercials turned into 180 commercials which ran from 1957 to 1961 and became the most popular commercials in the D.C. area. They even inspired the production of Wilkins and Wontkins hand puppets that were sold to consumers who mailed in one dollar along with an inch of the winding band on a Wilkins coffee can. Over 25,000 puppets were sold in December 1958, though the Hensons did not profit from that part of that deal. Still, the commercials allowed them to pay their bills while they worked on new projects and appearances which would ultimately become the Muppet dynasty that we know today.
Consumers loved the commercials despite its violent tone in the same way that audiences can forgive the exaggerated anvil-dropping, cliff-falling, and mallet-pounding violence of classic cartoons. The exaggeration is what makes it funny, and the brief storylines were easy to grab a viewer’s attention at a time during their show when they otherwise would have lost interest while waiting around for their show to resume. In fact, some viewers admitted to leaving the TV on even when they didn't like a show just to catch one of the Wilkins commercials. Henson got to be edgier (a concept that he was constantly trying to experiment with without losing the innocence of his more kid-friendly projects), incorporate his unique sense of humor, and put to use the filming techniques he had learned which would become instrumental in the more famous work that followed.
The book where most of the research for this article came from.
The Muppets are still around to this day, and they still appear in commercials from time to time. Kermit was most recently the "spokesfrog" for Lipton tea, a campaign that inspired a sassy meme about minding one’s own business after providing snarky commentary on a subject or someone’s behavior. This all stems from the same vein of the Wilkins’ commercials, showing that the spirit of Jim Henson’s early Muppet characters are still present in their modern-day forms. Vines can even be considered a grandchild of these early commercials. The jokes may be cruder, and the platform may be more modern, but it goes to show that no matter what the era, people love a quick and edgy joke.