I counted 3,450 flakes in a 12-ounce box of Wheaties, crumbs not included. The crumbs were flakes that couldn't withstand the weight of the Nature Valley Granola Bars that were also in the box, but that's General Mills's business. I'm not sure why I counted the flakes, except that I have always taken cold cereal very seriously and with milk. I understand some people put cereal in their coffee, but that's their business.
The Rev. Bob Richards used to say that enough Wheaties were sold in a year to fill the Rose Bowl up to the 56th row. Between the ages of eight and 18, I must have eaten at least 56 rows' worth of Wheaties, Frosted Flakes, Crispy Critters, Corn Chex, Rice Krispies, et cetera ad nauseam. What fun it was of a weekend morning to go through an entire Kellogg's Variety Pack, perforating the cardboard and eating all the varieties right out of the box. They don't make 'em like that anymore.
My appetite for cereal knew no bounds and caused no end of derision from my family. I dreamed once that word of my prowess had reached Battle Creek, Mich. and that I was invited to participate in the world cereal-eating contest. I had to go one-on-one with a chubby boy. We were placed atop two giant bowls and given our choice of cereal, and the first one to finish would be the winner. I forget what he chose, but I selected Rice Krispies, figuring I would have an edge because they would float to the top. I woke up, probably from the thunder of so much snap, crackle and pop, before I found out who won.
Not that I had anything against Wheaties. I looked upon them as a gourmet might view a very good porterhouse. I was even willing to swallow the Breakfast of Champions stuff, which is why I always stoked up on Wheaties before the baseball season. I certainly respected them more than did a friend in college, who plugged the cracks in his dorm room wall with wet Wheaties. Anyone who has ever washed out a bowl of midnight-snack Wheaties the morning after has discovered the strongest substance known to man. Ever wonder why houses aren't made of Wheaties on porcelain?
April 5, 1982
The flakes themselves appear fairly innocuous. They come in different shapes and sizes, although they are uniformly butterscotch in color. Up close, they look a little ugly, with little hills and valleys.
Wheaties are more than flakes, though. Inside that box, protected by liner paper, are fortune and fame, comedy and tragedy, church and state, thiamin and riboflavin. The 57-year history of Wheaties includes among its cast members Babe Ruth, Jack Armstrong, Lou Gehrig, Shirley Temple, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, The Lone Ranger, Henry Aaron, Bruce Jenner and Ed White. Well, some of those names are bigger than others. In 1937 a young sportscaster for WHO in Des Moines asked the sponsor of his baseball broadcasts for $300, half the cost of a trip to California, so that he could cover the Chicago Cubs in spring training. He got the money, and while he was out West, he passed a screen test at Warner Brothers. Today he's President of the United States. You've probably already guessed the sponsor.
Wheaties deserves a permanent spot in the American cupboard, if only for the beauty of its box, be it the 1-, 8-, 12-or 18-ounce version. The dominant color can only be described as Wheaties orange; it has no place in nature. The hue cries out at shoppers and pries open the lids of drowsy breakfasters. As Dustin Hoffman demonstrated in The Graduate, cereal boxes can make for fascinating reading between slurps.
Stretched across the top of the front of the box are the white letters, increasing in size as we go from w to S, of the trademark. The history of Wheaties, too, kept getting bigger and bigger, starting with its birth in 1924. Like gravity and penicillin, Wheaties was discovered by accident. In 1921 a health clinician in Minneapolis was mixing up a batch of bran gruel for his patients when he spilled some of the mix on a hot stove. Mennen-berg or Minniberg—his name has been crushed by the granola bar of time—heard the gruel crackle and sizzle, and he took a taste. Delicious, he thought. He took his cooled gruel to the people at Minneapolis' Washburn Crosby Company, which in 1928 would merge with three other mills to become General Mills. Favorably impressed, Washburn Crosby gave Mr. M. use of a laboratory. Alas, his flakes crumbled too easily and turned to dust in a box.
Exit Mr. M., enter George Cormack, Washburn Crosby's head miller. He liked the wheat cereal idea and kept experimenting with the flakes. He tested 36 varieties of wheat. He cracked them, he steamed them, he mixed them with syrup, he cooked them, he dried them, he rolled them. Finally, he found the perfect flake.
What to name them? A companywide contest was held, and the winner was Jane Bausman, the wife of the export manager. Her Wheaties won out over such entries as Nutties and Gold Medal Wheat Flakes. In 1924 Washburn Crosby decided to test-market the new cereal in the Illinois cities of Danville, Joliet and Peoria.
Wheaties didn't play very well in Peoria. They didn't play very well much of anywhere. In fact, they were going stale on grocery shelves until Christmas Eve of 1926. On that night, what is believed to be the first singing commercial was aired. Four men, who came to be known as the Wheaties Quartet, sang the following lyrics to the tune of She's A Jazz Baby on the Washburn Crosby-owned radio station WCCO in Minneapolis:
Have you tried Wheaties?
They're whole wheat with all of the bran.
Won't you try Wheaties?
For wheat is the best food of man.
Sales picked up considerably in the WCCO listening area, and the Wheaties Quartet, consisting of an undertaker, a bailiff, a printer and a businessman, would sing that song over the air for the next six years at $6 apiece a week.
Elsewhere, though, Wheaties wasn't packing any crunch. By 1929 General Mills was ready to drop the brand altogether. At a crucial meeting of the board of directors, only advertising manager Samuel Chester Gale spoke up for the product. Gale pointed out that of 53,000 cases sold nationwide in 1929, 30,000 had been bought in the Minneapolis St. Paul area, where the quartet had been singing. Don't drop Wheaties, argued Gale, expand the radio advertising. Gale swayed the directors and saved the day.
Sales tripled in the first year of national advertising. In 1931 Wheaties discovered the box top and sales quadrupled over the previous year's level. Wheaties began sponsoring the Skippy show, based on the adventures of the character in Percy Crosby's comic strip. James Thurber described the madness that followed in an essay called O Pioneers! that was part of a series entitled "Soapland":
"The kiddies loved 'Skippy,' and Wheaties became a household word.... You could get all this paraphernalia [a code book, instructions for a secret handshake] by sending in box tops, or facsimiles, and a signed statement from your mother that you ate Wheaties twice a day. A popular but somewhat unfortunate contest was staged, and the young winner, who got a free trip to Chicago and a week of entertainment, turned out to be a difficult brat who hated Wheaties and whose many brothers and sisters had helped him send in more facsimiles of the Wheaties box top than any other contestant."
The Wheaties box also began to change, growing in size and switching from blue to a burnt orange to the familiar orange. An early box is currently on display in the movie Pennies from Heaven. The character played by Steve Martin eats Wheaties for breakfast.
On the front of the current box, in the upper lefthand corner, is a white isosceles triangle with the insignia of General Mills inside. Wheaties was the first non-flour product sold by any of the companies that became part of General Mills. Wheaties, Cheerios, Trix, Betty Crocker, Hamburger Helper, Yoplait, Red Lobster, Monopoly, Nerf, Play-Doh, Darth Vader, Foot-Joy, Eddie Bauer and Izod/Lacoste all belong to General Mills today. This quiet conglomerate dresses preppies in alligator shirts and feeds rednecks on Slim Jims, while still selling Mom Gold Medal Flour.
General Mills showed net earnings of more than $196 million last year on total sales of nearly $5 billion. Wheaties, with its accent on vitality and fitness, did a lot toward lifting the company to its present lofty corporate heights.
Wheaties is small flakes at General Mills nowadays. Cheerios pulls in more dollars than any of the country's other ready-to-eat cereals, with Wheaties eighth, sort of the Purdue of the breakfast table Top 20. Still, General Mills feels very protective about Wheaties. "It may not be our largest seller," says Paul L. Parker, the company's chief administrative officer, "but there's something very special about Wheaties, something intangible. You could say the Wheaties ideal took over the entire company." Parker keeps a vintage Wheaties box, with Ducky Medwick in his St. Louis Cardinal uniform on the back, on his office desk.
Nearly half of all Wheaties are made in General Mills's South Chicago factory, which is the company's oldest food-packaging plant. The grain elevator there dates back to about 1900. South Chicago produced 1,056,714 cases of Wheaties a year ago, which comes out to 25,361,136 boxes or 87,495,919,200 flakes.
The man in charge of the plant is Charley Gill, who has been with the company in various capacities since 1948. He dresses in white and his pants are held up by a hand-tooled belt on which are depicted the logos of all the products the factory makes. "My wife eats Wheaties every day," says Gill. "Me, I love Honey Nut Cheerios."
The process for making Wheaties and putting them in a box might have been designed by Rube Goldberg. The grain moves on a belt from the elevator to the processing plant next door, where it is steamed, malt syrup is added and the mix goes into a cooker. It comes out as a "Wheaties dough." The next stop is the extruder, which separates the Chaffies from the Wheaties, so to speak, and converts the dough into pellets. Then the drier takes over and feeds the pellets to the flaking rolls, then to the flake toaster. At that point, vitamins are sprayed onto the flakes. Then the packaging process begins, and, you will be pleased to know, a metal detector scans the boxes. A crew of 30 sweepers is in perpetual motion, clearing the floor of fly-away flakes. Every so often, someone from the lab upstairs goes down to check the integrity of the Wheaties. A woman named Pauline Duckett has been working on the line for more than 45 years. Over the din, she shouts, "Great product!"
Below the white letters spelling out WHEATIES, the box says, in yellow, "Crispy Crunchy Whole Wheat Flakes." Ah, there it is below, in smaller yellow letters: "The Breakfast of Champions."
That slogan, first used in 1933, is indelible, no matter how small the letters. It even bore fruit (some people like Wheaties with bananas) as a No. 1 bestseller in 1973. I am writing this too late to make the book jacket ("Laff riot"—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED), but Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Breakfast of Champions is funny and clever and more than a little sad. "Breakfast of Champions" is the line that Bonnie MacMahon, the fictional cocktail waitress, lays on customers in the lounge of the Midland City Holiday Inn whenever they order martinis. When a rude artist named Rabo Karabekian tells her that her little joke is tiresome, Bonnie replies, "I just try to cheer people up." A laff riot literally ensues.
Wheaties' day of destiny came in April of '33. General Mills had decided to spoon out $10,000 for the broadcast rights to the baseball games of the minor league Minneapolis Millers. Unbeknown to the company, the Millers threw in the billboard in centerfield of Nicollet Park as part of the deal. On the fateful April day, someone from the ball park came into the office of Knox Reeves, the advertising man for Wheaties, and asked him what should be put on the billboard. Reeves, seated behind his desk, doodled a cereal box on a piece of paper. Calliope whispered in his ear. Reeves wrote down the words, "Wheaties—Breakfast of Champions."
That was an epic year for Wheaties. Babe Ruth began plugging them—and for one box top you could get a free moviebook of the Babe hitting a home run. Wave the flag for Hudson High, boys—Jack Armstrong, the Ail-American Boy, went on the air in '33, too. The Wheaties song was worked into the show's theme, right after "boola boola boola boo rah rah rah." Jack Armstrong never tired of Wheaties, and neither will you.
Meanwhile, back in Minneapolis, a great slugger was attracting attention all across the land. He was Joe Hauser of the Millers. In 1933 Wheaties began offering a case for every home run hit by a member of the home team in Nicollet Park. Hauser hit 33 of his 69 that year at home, giving him a grand total of 792 boxes of Wheaties. That would probably be enough to last him until 1982. "Nah, they would have gone stale by now," says Hauser, who at 83 is alive and well and living in Sheboygan, Wis. "I gave most of them out to my teammates. Not that I didn't like them—still eat Wheaties. Oh, that was a great year, though. Did you know that you could have addressed a letter to Joe Hauser, U.S.A., and I would've gotten it?" Today, if you address a letter to Joe Hauser, Sheboygan, Wis., he'll receive it.
That other slugger, Ruth, was a most effective spokesman for Wheaties. When he said, "There's nothing like them to give you energy and pep," who could doubt him? Once, on a radio show, the Babe was asked to push a Wheaties cookie that mothers could bake for their kids. His closing line was supposed to be, "And so, boys and girls, don't forget to tell your mother to buy Wheaties, so she can make these cookies." But in rehearsal, for some reason, Ruth kept pronouncing "cookies" as "kookies" (as in "Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb"). Ruth apologized and promised the director that he would get the word right once he was on the air. But sure enough, the Babe said "kookies." After a moment of silence, he said, "I'm a son of a bitch if I didn't say kookies again." So powerful was Ruth's charm that nobody called or wrote to complain about his language.
In the 1930s Wheaties expanded its team of athlete-spokesmen. One of the first coups came when former Philadelphia Athletics Pitcher Howard Ehmke lined up his old teammates Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane, Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw for a grand total of $100. Of the 51 players in the 1939 All-Star Game, 46 had contracts with Wheaties. Carl Hubbell declared in print that Wheaties were "swellegant."
Jack Dempsey ate them. Johnny Weissmuller ate them. Maria Rasputin, "Europe's sensational wild animal trainer—fearless daughter of Russia's Mad Monk," was telling kids from the back of a Wheaties box, "To start the day right, I always recommend Wheaties."
The endorsement game became so competitive that after a while, athletes didn't know whose bowl they were eating from. A cereal called Huskies lured Lou Gehrig away from Wheaties. But when Robert Ripley of the Huskies-sponsored Believe It Or Not radio show asked Gehrig how he started his day, Larrupin' Lou replied, "I usually start with a big bowl of Wheaties." Even Ripley couldn't believe it.
The Wheaties baseball network, that in the mid-'30s had begun to sponsor games other than the Millers', grew to 95 cities by 1939. Ernie Harwell, now the Detroit Tigers' announcer, was working Atlanta Cracker games in the early '40s. "The Knox Reeves people kept in close contact with all of the announcers," he recalls. "In fact, they encouraged us to write our own commercials. After all, we had to do at least nine Wheaties commercials a game. I remember some of the Cracker players used to give me the Wheaties they'd won for hitting a homer. My cocker spaniel loved them."
Wheaties had become-America's breakfast food, topping one million cases in '39. That year General Mills offered a hike-o-meter to Jack Armstrong fans, and this literally emptied America's shelves of Wheaties. Even Shirley Temple sent in a dime and a box top.
Having already pioneered singing commercials, premiums, athletic endorsements and game sponsorships, Wheaties took another bold step as the best man in the marriage of television and sports. On Aug. 26, 1939, a major league baseball game, between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers, was telecast for the first time. Red Barber, the sole announcer, recently recalled the commercials aired that day. "First I put on a service-station cap and talked about Mobil Oil," he said. "Then I held up a bar of soap that was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure. But the big extravaganza was for Wheaties. I poured out an individual serving, added bananas, sugar and cream and said, 'Folks, this is the Breakfast of Champions.' "
On one side of the Wheaties box is all the nutrition information: the percentage of U.S. recommended daily allowances, the ingredients, etc. The last time Consumer Reports did a rating of ready-to-eat cereals, in 1981, Wheaties was ranked in the middle of three groups. In there with Wheaties were Special K and Froot Loops (Oot-fray Oops-lay). Cheerios was judged to be in the top group. The puzzling finding was that Total, a General Mills cereal that is nothing more than Wheaties with extra vitamins, finished in the group of least nutritious cereals. Consumer Reports pointed out that about 30 worth of chemicals makes Total 25¢ to 500 more expensive than Wheaties.
The scientific study was done with laboratory rats. This evokes images of rodents huddled over little tiny bowls, eating with little tiny spoons. General Mills didn't take the tests very seriously. Says Art Schulze, executive vice-president for consumer foods, "We passed around a memo recommending that we start advertising in such periodicals as Good Mousekeeping, Rodent Track and Mouse & Garden."
General Mills was hardly laughing, though, in the early '70s when a consumer advocate named Robert Choate, a civil engineer turned nutrition expert, went after the ready-to-eat cereals, saying that they were little more than empty calories. Choate called Wheaties "The Breakfast of Chumps." After the attack. General Mills started fortifying Wheaties with more vitamins.
Below the nutrition information on the side of the box is a curiously worded guarantee: "If you are not satisfied with the quality and/or performance of the WHEATIES in this box...."
Wheaties' performance peaked in the early '40s. Then World War II caused a temporary wheat shortage. After the war came television and supermarkets and, as a result, newer and jazzier cereals. The costs of commercials started to increase. Wheaties stopped sponsoring sports broadcasts and began relying on athletes' testimonials, which inexplicably lost their effectiveness when they hit the TV screen. Even Jack Armstrong began to lose his appeal, and his switch to the Scientific Bureau of Investigation didn't help. Jack died in 1951.
Wheaties' early TV commercials featured the likes of Ted Williams, Sam Snead, Bob Feller and basketball star Bob Davies, the model for Clair Bee's Chip Hilton. The theme was "What sparks a champion, sparks you," and there was always the reminder that there's a whole kernel of wheat in every Wheaties flake. In another set of early commercials, Mel Allen would say, "One of the things I like to do is talk about Wheaties. The other is to eat them." In 1954 Wheaties signed up the Yankee rookie Mickey Mantle.
But sales continued to dwindle, and General Mills decided to change direction. It made the monumental blunder of pulling Wheaties out of sports. The cereal went from Mickey Mantle to Mickey Mouse in hopes of capturing the children's market. The traditional silhouette of an athlete was replaced on the box by one of a child. Wheaties signed on The Lone Ranger and Wyatt Earp. The result was that while more kids were eating the stuff, many more adults were abandoning the Breakfast of Mouseketeers. In one year, 1956, sales dropped more than 10%. Even the revelation in that May's issue of Confidential magazine that Frank Sinatra was the "Tarzan of the Boudoir" because "he eats Wheaties" didn't help.
So Wheaties decided to go back to sports. The first choice for a spokesman was Bud Wilkinson, the Oklahoma football coach. Fortunately, as it turned out, the president of the university wouldn't permit Wilkinson to go around peddling cereal. In his stead, Wilkinson recommended Bob Richards, the two-time Olympic pole vault champion, decathlete and ordained minister of the Church of the Brethren. Wheaties and Richards was a union made, if not in heaven, at least in the boardroom.
For the next 14 years, Richards and Wheaties were inextricably linked. With Richards came the Wheaties Sports Federation, an organization that worked with the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the President's Council on Youth Fitness to make instructional films on all kinds of sports. Richards even took his cameras to the U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. track meet in 1958—COLD CEREAL MEETS COLD WAR—and sold the film clips to sports shows across the country. He also got together with an outfit which later sold the ABC network on the idea of a sports show spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat....
A man of unbounded energy and enthusiasm, Richards got whole families to believe that, with glass bowlsful of Wheaties with strawberries and milk, they could become as healthy and vital as his family. Mad did a parody of the consummate Richards commercial. After scarfing down a bowl of cereal, the Rev. Bob dives into a swimming pool and...glub, glub...drowns.
Richards' persuasive powers and preaching talents earned him big money on the lecture circuit. His film Life's Higher Goals wore out more than 500 prints and is still one of the top 10 most requested items in the General Mills library. He sold a kind of Wheaties of the mind. In the meantime, he was selling a lot of the real Wheaties.
The flakes themselves had changed. Cormack's original formula, which called for processing Wheaties a kernel at a time, remained untouched for 34 years. In 1958 "Redintegration" was introduced. Flakes were made from a more uniform mixture, and they became crispier, crunchier and more consistent.
Redintegration or not, you can't let a bowl of Wheaties sit for too long. And so it was that Richards began to go soggy after a while. The Rev. Bob began to tire of being known as Mr. Wheaties, and surveys showed that America was beginning to tire of seeing him. In 1969, in his swan song, Richards took off on a cross-country jogging and bicycle tour. Art Linkletter and O.J. Simpson, symbols of the commercial past and the commercial future, saw him off.
I look at the pretty girl playing racquet-ball on my box of Wheaties, and I still see Bob Richards. The house that Wheaties built is the Crossbar Ranch in Santo, Texas, about 40 miles west of Fort Worth. This Ewingesque spread of 10,000 acres has all the terrain of a Wheaties flake.
Out in the front yard, where other people might put pink flamingoes, is an entire pole vault ensemble: runway, pit, standards and crossbar. Also scattered around the yard are a discus, a shotput, a javelin, hurdles, a soccer ball, barbells and a bench for pressing. Over by the garage is a basketball court, down the hill is a lake filled with bass, out in back is a large swimming pool. The heavy bag is in the basement.
On the kitchen counter is an 18-ounce box of Wheaties, torn at the top as if someone couldn't wait to get inside. In the cavernous living room, the carpet is butterscotch and the curtains are almost Wheaties orange.
"Wheaties was very good to me," says Richards. "Part of the dilemma, though, was that I became so identified with Wheaties that nobody knew my name. I was Mr. Wheaties or Jack Armstrong, and it's even true to this day. I remember shaking President Nixon's hand in the White House, and he said, 'Bob, how's Wheaties?' "
Richards looks fit as a fiddle. "I did 12 feet on my 56th birthday last week," he says. "Did you know that Wheaties and I were born in the same year?" Actually, he was born two years later, but that's close enough.
Richards still competes in Masters track meets, which he helped originate. Even without Wheaties, he's a very busy man. He produces natural gas on his property and buys and sells heavy equipment. He and his son, Paul, 29, manufacture Sky Poles for vaulting in a little factory in Santo. He and his second wife, Joan, a former actress (as Kimberly Burke, she played the role of Rookie's girl friend in 77 Sunset Strip), put out a line of products under the Heart of America label—household cleaners, vitamins, cosmetics, etc. Richards is also encouraging Bobby Jr., 15, to make the Winter Olympics as a figure skater and the Summer Olympics as a pole vaulter. And there are always speaking engagements.
Richards moved to Santo from Long Beach, Calif. in the early '70s to be centrally located; most of his audience lives in the Midwest, South and Southwest. He claims, and who would argue, that he has made more speeches in more communities than anyone in history. By his own estimate, he figures he has given more than 17,000 talks in more than 9,000 gyms, ballrooms and meeting halls. "My films have been seen by 65 million people," he adds. "Gone With the Wind had 35 million the first time around." The demand for inspirational speeches isn't what it once was, but Richards is still on the podium about 100 days a year.
In his living room, he talks passionately of the lack of leadership in the country and the lack of a national youth sports program. "We give all our attention and money to a thimbleful of athletes when we should be pushing fitness for everyone," he says. "That's the kind of thing Wheaties should be behind. Wheaties needs a spokesman.
"When I was a kid, I ate Wheaties. I listened to Babe Ruth when he said I could hit home runs if I ate my Wheaties. They really are good for you. I've been studying all about vitamins and chemical bonding and DNA. Together with the calcium in milk, Wheaties gives you an outstanding combination of some pretty basic life substances. I was disappointed when I heard that a lot of the vitamin E is taken out of Wheaties in the manufacturing, but then, no food is perfect.
"I truly believe you are what you eat," says Richards. "Why, last night I had Wheaties for dinner."
"I know," says Joan. "I had to clean the bowl out this morning."
On the back of a current Wheaties box is a tantalizing picture of a bowl of cereal and below that a three-paragraph soft-sell on those crispy, crunchy, whole-wheat flakes. After Richards departed, Wheaties' advertising got delightfully flaky. Knox Reeves passed away, and the account went to the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample agency. Its most notable campaign, in the early '70s, gave the Wheaties sports heritage a flip side. In one commercial. Reds Catcher Johnny Bench would fall, run into a screen and strike out. While he was stumbling around the field, a singer by the name of Bobby Bloom would wail, "Hey, John, you didn't have your Wheaties...." It was a catchy tune and a catchy commercial, and similar ones were made with Henry Aaron and Tom Weiskopf. The campaign might have gone on for years.
But then Choate intervened with his Breakfast of Chumps attack, and Wheaties beat a hasty retreat. Wheaties came back fortified with vitamins and a new ad campaign. This time the theme was, "He knows he's a man." With Bloom again singing, father and son would go off and shoot the rapids. That deliverance angle, however, ran smack dab into feminism. Wheaties kept a low profile for a time, emerging again in 1975 after a Reader's Digest article praised the effects of bran. The new ad campaign was called Bran News. One spot featured an announcer asking skiers on a lift line if they knew that Wheaties was whole bran. The skiers registered astonishment.
Before the bran news got very old, along came the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, starring Bruce Jenner. In March of 1977 Wheaties signed Jenner, and by May he was lapping up the cereal on our home screens, the picture of health and innocence.
A hotshot assistant district attorney in San Francisco didn't see it that way. He claimed Jenner was misleading the public and accused our hero of committing consumer fraud. The prosecutor's grandstand play backfired, however, when Jenner came forward and said, nonsense, I've been eating Wheaties all my life, and my mom will back me up. The folks at General Mills still chuckle at the cartoon in the San Francisco Chronicle depicting a SWAT team with the assistant D.A. shouting through a bullhorn, "We have you surrounded! Come out with your hands up, Wheaties!"
Sales picked up a little with Jenner's arrival. His commercial was fairly straightforward, with the clips of his decathlon victory at Montreal followed by Bruce at the table, spoon in hand, telling us that his favorite breakfast cereal is Wheaties.
Jenner turned out to have far less staying power than Richards. Wheaties was holding steady at $56 million a year, but its share of the market had fallen from 3.4% in 1971 to 2% in 1980. Had the cereal been able to hold its share, sales would have been $95 million. General Mills panicked, Jenner was dropped, and the account was switched to the Need-ham, Harper & Steers agency. There was never any thought of replacing Jenner, who still heads the Wheaties Sports Federation, with, for example, speed skater Eric Heiden, who just happened to tell the press after winning the first of his five gold medals at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980 that he ate Wheaties for breakfast.
What the minds at Needham, Harper & Steers came up with was Eaties for Wheaties. This is an attempt to capture a broader market, specifically teenyboppers, for the cereal. Says Schulze, the General Mills consumer foods veep, "We had the feeling, and our research confirmed, that many people have forgotten how good Wheaties tastes. Many people see the Breakfast of Champions as sort of a training table food. Because it's good for you, they reason, it can't taste very good."
The 30-second commercials, which began airing last August, initially starred Darryl Dawkins of the Philadelphia 76ers and Ed White, a San Diego Chargers' guard. Ron Cey of the Los Angeles Dodgers has since been added. The spots also include anonymous amateur athletes with whom the viewing audience presumably will feel right at home. One of the commercials opens with a woman tennis player hitting a ball and singing, "Before a day of breaking servies, I get the Eaties for my Wheaties." Then a referee sings that before he whistles pass incompletes, he gets the Eaties for his Wheaties. Dawkins finishes by jamming the ball into a breakaway hoop and moaning, "Before I slam my gorilla dunkies...." You get the idea.
Richards doesn't much like the new campaign, and neither do I. The rhymes are so lame they need Bute ("umpiring peewees"). But, lo and behold, the commercials are catching on, and although no sales figures are yet available, General Mills is pleased. They certainly haven't gotten cold feeties.
"I get a lot of teasing about it," says White, whose line is, "Before I put on my little cleaties." "I certainly heard a lot of Eaties for Wheaties when I was leaving stadiums this fall."
Perhaps Wheaties is adding yet another chapter to American advertising, and we'll soon have Alexander Haig claiming that before he negotiates his strategic arms treaties....
Wheaties was, is and will always be the Breakfast of Champions, no matter what some ad agency cooks up. Besides, Wheaties tastes good. "Have you tried them with brown sugar?" says White. "They are absolutely delicious." I have and he's right.
*COPYRIGHT ¬© 1948, 1976, THURBER AND SAUERS, FROM "THE BEAST IN ME—AND OTHER ANIMALS"