Drink our coffee. Or else.
January 29, 2016 7:48 AM   Subscribe

"That’s the message of these curiously sadistic TV commercials produced by Jim Henson between 1957 and 1961. Henson made 179 ten-second spots for Wilkins Coffee, a regional company with distribution in the Baltimore-Washington D.C. market, according to the Muppets Wiki: “The local stations only had ten seconds for station identification, so the Muppet commercials had to be lightning-fast–essentially, eight seconds for the commercial pitch and a two-second shot of the product.”" --from OpenCulture.com
posted by valkane (45 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
This answers the question "What if Jim Henson made a version of 'Itchy & Scratchy' and used them to sell stuff?"

I'm not sure if it needed to be answered, but boy howdy, it has been.
posted by eriko at 7:50 AM on January 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


I hear Wilkins Coffee is roasted with dragon fire.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:52 AM on January 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


Haha. The ur-Kermit is a mean, vicious bastard -- kinda like the ur-Mickey Mouse and the ur-Bugs Bunny were mean vicious bastards.

What's the theory behind that?
posted by notyou at 7:56 AM on January 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


Wow, "I don't like coffee" - immediately gets shot in the head. Kind of ISIS School of Marketing.
posted by colie at 8:00 AM on January 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Oh my god. I thought this post was going to be about the 2016 Super Bowl Commercial Death Wish Coffee Company Storm’s a Brewin’
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:09 AM on January 29, 2016


I still wish Peggy met Jim Henson in Mad Men season 5, so we could have had a fictional version of these commercial getting made. (Can you imagine Stan giving the La Choy Dragon directions to the men's room?)
posted by pxe2000 at 8:17 AM on January 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


Subtle.
posted by orange swan at 8:18 AM on January 29, 2016


Haha. The ur-Kermit is a mean, vicious bastard -- kinda like the ur-Mickey Mouse and the ur-Bugs Bunny were mean vicious bastards.

What's the theory behind that?


They're signage in an Ur-Jungian state.
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:19 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


From the OpenCulture link, the ur-Kermit character's name is Wilkins, and the other one is Wontkins.

That violence right out of the gate is really shocking. I'm thinking about what was going on at that time that made these successful ( “In terms of popularity of commercials in the Washington area we were the number one, the most popular commercial.”). Henson said “We tried to sell things by making people laugh.” Violence made people laugh? Pent up Cold War fears?
posted by achrise at 8:27 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Haha. The ur-Kermit is a mean, vicious bastard -- kinda like the ur-Mickey Mouse and the ur-Bugs Bunny were mean vicious bastards.

What's the theory behind that?


Violence is funny, but isn't enough to carry a brand or tell a larger story. It's easy to laugh at a villain in a sketch, but harder to connect with them over the course of a larger short or feature.
posted by codacorolla at 8:30 AM on January 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Only Thing That Stops A Bad Muppet With A Gun Is A Good Muppet With A Gun

...and Wilkins Coffee!
posted by leotrotsky at 8:30 AM on January 29, 2016 [11 favorites]


Previously
posted by HuronBob at 8:33 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting these! I'd seen them forever ago on the interwebs and promptly forgot to bookmark them and to this day couldn't remember specifics to google them. Until now!
posted by numaner at 8:36 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


I love how the proto-Kermit nods just like MY Kermit - made me smile every time.
posted by ersatzkat at 8:38 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


I just watched through the reel. There's a great sense of comedic timing on most of these. Also a few questionable choices that are relics of the era (like the African themed cannibal scene). It seems like Wilkins got bought up into Maxwell House at some point later, but these commercials have me wondering what it tasted like. Bad, I would imagine, but it's still effective advertising from the grave.
posted by codacorolla at 8:38 AM on January 29, 2016


More thoughts: rather than think about "violence making people laugh" which is supposed to somehow make people buy Wilkins coffee, it might be simpler to look at the explicit message, which is motivation by fear. I didn't watch all of them but the seem to be clearly buy this coffee or you will die/disappear/cease-to-be*.

* This link has a list of all the things that happens to Wontkins. The article is full-on tongue-in-cheek, but the list looks OK. I found this looking for what happened to Wilkins (coffee) because a popular commercial isn't necessarily a successful one.
posted by achrise at 8:44 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


So this is where the idea for the famous National Lampoon We'll Kill This Dog cover came from.
posted by cleroy at 8:46 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Also, here's a bit of trivia from the Muppet wikia page,
The Wilkins Coffee ads stood out from the usual commercial fare. In a press release issued February 19, 1959, Senator John Marshall Butler (R-MD) strongly criticized the quality of broadcast television, but praised the Wilkins ads: "The Maryland Senator, an opponent of pay television, called on the networks and individual stations to re-examine their programming and advertising policies at once to provide the public with better television fare. He said that the Senate Commerce Committee, of which he is a member, will explore the entire situation... As to advertising, it insults the intelligence of the viewer. It is geared at know-nothings. As far as I am concerned, if I hear 'a thinking-man's filter and a smoking-man's taste,' I promptly switch to another channel. About the only clever advertising on the air today is 'Wilkins and Wontkins'. It pleases rather than irritates television audiences, and I am happy to learn that this series is bringing increased sales to the sponsor."

Huh... a republican senator from Maryland who's against marketing driven television. Butler himself seemed to be a McCarthy-ite, and was swept into office by anti communist mud raking against Tydings. From Wikipedia, Butler, "sponsored the Communist Control Act of 1954, which outlawed the Communist Party and authorized the prosecution of Communist-infiltrated organizations. When the federal courts blocked some prosecutions, Butler submitted a constitutional amendment in 1955 to limit the court's jurisdiction and an omnibus bill in 1958 for the same purpose. He was one of the twenty-two Senators who voted against the censure of Senator McCarthy in 1954. He supported returning offshore oil lands to the states, and voted in favor of the non-interventionist Bricker Amendment." Man... what a different era that was.
posted by codacorolla at 8:46 AM on January 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


Violence did make people laugh back then. See: Tom & Jerry, The Three Stooges, Punch & Judy, etc. I mean, people still laugh at that scene in Pulp Fiction where Jules blows the dude's head off by accident. The same thing happens in Spy.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:48 AM on January 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


To make more sense of these commercials, you need to revisit the other humor-based advertising of the same general period, which is just...horrifying and dreadful or just...oh dear. Wilkins and Wontkins were the work of an emerging master craftsman in a culture of soulless hacks.
posted by sonascope at 8:50 AM on January 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's quite jarring the way the guns and weapons are done realistically, rather than as puppet props/Tom and Jerry. Could be an unconscious or coded comment on the way Henson felt about offering up his characters to be expended in advertising.
posted by colie at 8:56 AM on January 29, 2016


My dad grew up living across the street from Jim Henson when he lived in University Park, MD. My dad was in elementary school at the time (I think), while Henson was at UMCP. This was about the Sam & Friends/Wilkins time period, I believe. He used to go over to his house all the time to play with the proto-muppets. You have no idea of the burning level of jealousy that overcame me as a child when I found out, and the sadness when I realized he didn't live there anymore when we would visit my grandparents.

My dad kind of just plays it off like "whatever" and I just wanna shake him.. "YOU TOUCHED GREATNESS! GREAAATNESS!!" Then my arms flail around Kermit style.
posted by tittergrrl at 9:26 AM on January 29, 2016 [25 favorites]


Violence did make people laugh back then. See: Tom & Jerry, The Three Stooges, Punch & Judy, etc. I mean, people still laugh at that scene in Pulp Fiction where Jules blows the dude's head off by accident. The same thing happens in Spy.

Not just back then! I cracked up laughing at that little commercial.

It's slapstick.
posted by rue72 at 9:27 AM on January 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


They looked like they had 20.00 budgets for each one, max. Which can sometimes lead to greatness, and these are pretty great.
posted by emjaybee at 9:39 AM on January 29, 2016


Do you folks like coffee?
posted by popaopee at 9:43 AM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've been listening to a lot of 40s-50s radio shows, and the one thing that strikes me about the ads is how, well, direct and bossy they are. "Try Fatima, Buy Fatima". "You really should get ...", etc.. They just come right out and tell you what to do.

I've heard that the 60s introduced the Soft Sell, but having grown up knowing only post-60s stuff the term never meant that much to me. I think in these old radio shows I'm hearing the Hard Sell and it's pretty abrasive. I can imagine hearing "a thinking-man's filter and a smoking-man's taste" in a wise-guy, I-know-better-than-you voice and can understand why the Senator found it irritating. Against that background the Wilkins ads are a complete send-up of these other ads. They say to me "Good Lord aren't you tired of those pushy ads? What's next? 'Buy our stuff or we'll kill you.'"
posted by benito.strauss at 9:47 AM on January 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


Are their really people who are puzzled by the appeal of slapstick humour? People who didn't understand why anyone would laugh at Home Alone or (more darkly) Gremlins?

On Metafilter there are.
posted by howfar at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sorry, did someone mention Gremlins? (US YouTube LINK to Key and Peele)
posted by Gor-ella at 10:12 AM on January 29, 2016


Violence did make people laugh back then.


"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."


-Mel Brooks
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:43 AM on January 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


So this is what you get if you scream "fifty tags! on my desk! tomorrow morning!" at someone. Hm!
posted by majuju at 11:02 AM on January 29, 2016


Just buy the goddamn cheese!
posted by Naberius at 11:55 AM on January 29, 2016 [7 favorites]


Was this type of branding common at the time, or did these particular ads inspire this sequence from Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected? Or was it one of those Galapagos-jokes, that developed in Henson and Hertzfeldt’s minds independently?
posted by Riki tiki at 12:44 PM on January 29, 2016




Somewhat related: adverts for Panda Cheese
posted by psolo at 1:20 PM on January 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Love those Panda cheese ads. So Tarantino.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:21 PM on January 29, 2016


Hmm, sorry Naberius, didn't see you there.
posted by psolo at 1:23 PM on January 29, 2016


I want to see more of these guys.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:30 PM on January 29, 2016


Are their really people who are puzzled by the appeal of slapstick humour?

This might be addressed at me, so I'll just say that I don't think depicting murdering someone with an execution-style point-blank shot to the head just because they don't think like you as slapstick. Maybe my mind isn't in the right place due to recently observing loons in a wildlife sanctuary.

Many of these are funny and not cruel. Some of them are very dark. My point was, this is a reflection of society's mindset at the time since this was actually a popular and successful campaign. Am I forgetting a first Trump presidency?
posted by achrise at 4:56 PM on January 29, 2016


For the person who asked whether Henson was anti-commercialization, the answer according to many of his biographies is not particularly. He was passionate about being a great puppetteer but not especially precious about Art vs Commerce. The main exception to this was Sesame Street, of course.
posted by softlord at 8:18 PM on January 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'll just say that I don't think depicting murdering someone with an execution-style point-blank shot to the head just because they don't think like you as slapstick.

But (at the risk of quoting Brian Conley) it's a puppet. We know it's not really dead. We know it will return in the next 10 second skit. It's like Home Alone where the burglar grabs the door handle. The Week consulted a doctor about that.
"If this doorknob is glowing visibly red in the dark, it has been heated to about 751 degrees Fahrenheit, and Harry gives it a nice, strong, one- to two-second grip. By comparison, one second of contact with 155 degree water is enough to cause third degree burns. The temperature of that doorknob is not quite hot enough to cause Harry's hand to burst into flames, but it is not that far off... Assuming Harry doesn't lose the hand completely, he will almost certainly have other serious complications, including a high risk for infection and 'contracture' in which resulting scar tissue seriously limits the flexibility and movement of the hand, rendering it less than 100 percent useful. Kevin has moved from 'defending his house' into sheer malice, in my opinion."
But we don't experience it like that. We accept the "just a nasty burn" story, even though the actual violence is extreme, as anyone who's ever touched a hot thing. Slapstick as humour is based on the fact that we have one reaction to the violence, and another to the fact that we know it's not real.

Mr Punch murders his baby, his wife, a policeman and (in some versions) Satan himself. And he does it with a thing that's actually called a slapstick.

It's fine not to think a piece of slapstick is funny. I often find it unpleasant myself. And slapstick can be dark, political and cathartic too, like other forms of comedy. But it is a matter of cultural and historical fact that slapstick has exhibited extreme violence for centuries, and continues to do so, in among the more minor whackings. Hence I don't think these are likely to tell us anything much about society at the time. Society is just like that. Many of us often laugh at some really cruel stuff.
posted by howfar at 1:46 AM on January 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


Let's see, gun violence, crushing, defenestration, dismemberment, decapitation (by rabbit, no less), blowing people up, torture, murder, crucifixtion, cannibalism, yep, even fish slapping. If you don't like your comedy with a side of the old ultra-violence, I suggest you avoid Monty Python's Flying Circus. But then you might not see the violence inherent in the system.
posted by valkane at 6:08 AM on January 30, 2016


"Not me, I.... 'll take mine with cream and sugar" was pretty funny.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:11 AM on January 30, 2016


A fun tidbit about the Wilkins Coffee spots mentioned in the Henson biography from a few years ago is that Jim Henson personally hated the taste of coffee.
posted by GameDesignerBen at 8:31 AM on January 30, 2016


Just like how Mel Blanc detested carrots and would chomp on celery when recording Bugs Bunny voiceover.
posted by softlord at 5:17 PM on January 30, 2016


I say enough how much I enjoyed this. Great find.
posted by 4ster at 7:48 PM on January 30, 2016


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