Why you should care
Who knew a puppet could be such a sellout?
From their 2011 hit film to a new mockumentary-style television show reportedly in the works, the Muppets are officially back. And while it’s not easy being green, Kermit is awash in greenbacks — shilling for Lipton Tea among other corporate titans — thanks to the puppet troupe’s return to the spotlight.
Now, if you’re wondering whether the Muppets’ commercial turn has their creator, Jim Henson, who died 25 years ago today, turning over in his grave, the answer is: not likely. Truth is, the Muppets were hawking everything from dog chow to chow mein before many of us were born. And such money-making endeavors were not only integral to their eventual on-screen success but also vital to Henson’s creative development. Six decades before Kermit sipped a cup of Lipton tea, a coffee enthusiast (and Muppet) named Wilkins — looking and sounding remarkably like the famed frog — explained to TV audiences why they should try his brand of coffee … just before inflicting unspeakable violence on a fellow Muppet to drive home the point.
Through the course of the campaign, the poor Muppet was punched, stabbed, shot, bludgeoned, set on fire …
Jack Wilkins, the owner of a Washington-area coffee company that supplied many of D.C.’s hotels and restaurants as well as the White House, was a big fan of a five-minute puppet television show called Sam and Friends that ran from 1955 to 1961. The late-night show was the brainchild of a skinny, über-creative University of Maryland freshman named Jim Henson. The Mississippi native who dreamed of becoming either a great artist or a set designer used his band of handmade “Muppets” to make ends meet. Thanks to Wilkins, Henson would discover that his motley crew of creatures could make both his dreams come true.
Looking for some creative but cheap advertising to give his coffee brand a fighting chance against national brands like Maxwell House, Wilkins approached the 20-year-old puppeteer in 1957 and commissioned him to make 15 10-second commercial spots for television. Backing out the time it took to display the product and branding itself, that left Henson with roughly eight seconds to have puppets sell instant coffee to TV viewers. A challenge made even greater by the fact that Henson didn’t drink, or even like, coffee.
But creativity loves constraint, and Henson used both the time limit and his coffee aversion to craft an instant comedic brew. For Henson, the Wilkins commercials became, as Brian Jay Jones observes in Jim Henson: The Biography, “a playful way of working out what it would take to get him to drink coffee.” So, how do you sell a product with puppets in eight seconds? Immediate, senseless violence.
Over the next few years, Henson made about 180 commercials for Wilkins and other regional U.S. coffee makers, all based on the same two-puppet formula (and same characters, since the regional companies were not competing). Wilkins, the Kermitesque protagonist, pitches the instant coffee brand to his skeptical chum Wontkins, who declines the offer only to be mercilessly punished for the transgression. Through the course of the campaign, the coffee-averse Muppet gets punched, stabbed, shot, bludgeoned, electrified, set on fire and otherwise maimed in what Jones calls “increasingly absurd and sometimes shocking forms of punishment.”
Henson performed and voiced the gruff Wontkins, while his then-business partner and future wife, Jane Nebel, performed Wilkins, lip-synching to Henson’s pre-recorded voice. Television audiences, which had yet to see much humor or violence in any of the overly earnest advertising of the age, were delighted by the ruthlessly macabre Muppets. “Till then,” as Henson later explained, “the agencies believed that the hard sell was the only way to get their message over on television. We took a different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh.”
It worked. Wilkins’ sales shot up 25 percent thanks to the popular, award-winning ads. In addition to selling other coffee brands, Wilkins and Wontkins would serve as the pitchmen for products such as soft drinks, dairy products and bread, while Kermit and his gang of modern-day Muppets would find their way to Mammon with spots like this one Cookie Monster did for IBM.
Needless to say, the successful advertisements were extremely lucrative for Henson, but the commercials also provided him with a fully funded forum for experimenting with different techniques and characters, and letting his boundless imagination run hog wild as he mastered the medium of film. So while Henson’s early years may look like another example of an artist selling out, what he really pulled off was selling up, by leveraging the reach and financial rewards the commercials offered to perfect his art.
Which is why every subsequent generation of Muppets fans should be extremely grateful to Wilkins Instant Coffee — or else …