Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Coffee or Death

"Things just seem to happen to people who don't drink Wilkins Coffee."

Young Jim Henson brought his puppets to television during his college years at the University of Maryland.  His little 5-min shows caught the attention of a coffee company called Wilkins.  They instructed him to create a series of 10-second spots featuring his puppets.

Ten seconds.  That goes by pretty fast.  Henson knew that he had to get the audience's attention and he had to get it fast.  Something loud, something bold, something unfit for daytime television.

Cold-Blooded Murder

Henson used his limited time frame to his advantage, creating a mockery of advertising techniques that are all too common.  He understood that you need to convince the audience they need the product to survive.  However, instead of promoting the product's qualities, he created a deranged mascot that would threaten anyone who didn't buy, enjoy, or possess knowledge of Wilkins Coffee.

Here are just a few of the 179 commercials made.  More can be found online, and you'll quickly find yourself desensitized to the needless violence.

Every commercial follows the same general structure.  Wilkins will offer Wilkins coffee to his companion Wontkins, who won't drink the coffee.  For this, he shall perish.

Surprisingly, the ad campaign was a success in the eyes of the company.  They even started encouraging children to buy their own Wilkins and Wontkins dolls.

"Hey kids!  Now you can experience the fun of brutal carnage at home!"

Today, we may scoff at the parents of the past who found television to be "too violent" but it turns out, they were right!  Advertisements like these would be boycotted and pulled from the airways as soon as a gun appears (around the 5-second mark).

Wilkins naturally responded to all protesters with cannon fire.

Each ad Henson constructed can be considered an apt parody of advertising in general.  As seen from the clip, Wilkins encourages Wontkins to join the bandwagon (which promptly crushes him).  He uses scare tactics to "convince" Wontkins that he actually does like the coffee.  He endlessly beats the notion into poor Wontkins's head until the poor man-thing starts to believe it himself.  Not once do we learn about what makes this product different from all other coffee brands.  But Henson knew that advertising ultimately appeals to the lowest common denominator.  If you don't remember the ad, you don't remember the product.  While it may not actually strike fear into the hearts of the consumer, it is an unforgettable campaign.

One of the first lessons Henson learned about puppets and business is that violence sells.  Puppets become living cartoon characters that can be mercilessly ravaged upon yet end up fine in the next scene. On The Muppet Show, Kermit is constantly abused by Miss Piggy, Beaker is mercilessly tortured by Bunsen, and Gonzo basically exists as an excuse for the puppeteers to throw a puppet against the wall.  The next time you watch an episode, just count the number sketches that end with explosions.  They are a lot more common than you realize.  While he treats all of his characters with care and respect, Henson never forgets that they are toys, and toys are to be played with.

Very few people would have been as bold as Henson to create such a sadistic advertising mascot as Wilkins.  Currently, edgy random humor has turned from a quirky fad into the norm in commercials (just look at the Burger King king), but Henson, as always, was way ahead of the curve.  With a permanent smile etched into his face, Wilkins challenges the viewer at home to tempt fate and buy a lesser brand.  And he's always pleased as punch to set you straight.

Sooner or later, you'll forget about Wilkins Coffee.  Then you will be punished.


  1. Ah, the wonderful commercial style of Jim Henson! I really like this post, as it gives an overview of Jim's possibly most well known series of commercials, and the precise way that he conducted them.

    It's ironic that Bill, Gill, Jill, and Kermit end up using the exact opposite of his strategy in The Muppets Take Manhattan, isn't it?

  2. Thank you for this great post. I love coffee! I am used to using coffee capsule, I make my own coffee capsules with a k cup & nespresso coffee capsule filling sealing machine. But I am trying new ways to enjoy coffee recently