Friday, March 29, 2013

What Would Wontkins Brew?

Although I  had quite an assortment of odd and interesting jobs as a student, my old school chum -- the late and great Jim Henson -- worked his way through college in a far stranger and ultimately memorable way. I should admit that I am using the term "school chum" very loosely: I attended College Park for only one year and Henson had graduated before I was born. Between his college days and my own, I was very active as an amateur muppeteer in my church, but did not follow his work closely until much later, and did not know of his coffee work until just a few years ago.

For the past few years, I have been sharing clips like those shown here with my geography of coffee students. Like them, I first assumed these were spoofs and was then astonished to find that these were real television commercials. Long before Kermit became a household name the remarkably similar character Wilkins was bludgeoning his companion Wontkins into a reluctant brand loyalty to the eponymous Wilkins coffee.

Scores of these 10 second television spots were produced between 1957 in 1961. This was the heyday of outrageous coffee advertising. With price competition driving quality standards ever lower, outrageous advertising was used to build market share. If anything Henson's work -- though violent -- stands out for its avoidance of the misogyny commonly used by other brands.

I am grateful to the blogger Open Culture for sharing even more of these disturbing clips and for telling the rest of the story, which includes Henson's subsequent work for regional coffee roasters throughout the United States. As with the unfortunate Wontkins, Wilkins coffee is no longer with us. Details are uncertain but it appears that the roaster was sold to A & P and the brand name absorbed by another regional roaster

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