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A Brief History of Flintstones Vitamins

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The Flintstones has been off the air and in syndication since 1966. But Flintstones Vitamins remain on the shelves and in homes.

Meet the Flintstones

The Flintstones were, just like the theme song claimed, a modern Stone Age family.

Fred and Wilma Flintstone and their best friends and next-door neighbors, Barney and Betty Rubble, lived in working class suburban splendor in the city of Bedrock. Wilma was the consummate housewife, rocking “pearls” with her cavewoman-style dress and using a baby elephant as a vacuum cleaner; Fred, her lovable lug counterpart, worked at a local quarry and enjoyed bowling. A baby dinosaur, Dino, was the family dog and a sabertooth tiger, Baby Puss, the family cat. Later, little Pebbles Flintstone and Bamm-Bamm Rubble joined the cast.

But despite the fact that it was a cartoon and featured more rock-based puns than your average adult-oriented sitcom, The Flintstones was not originally for kids. In fact, when it premiered on ABC in 1960, it took the Friday night, 8:30 to 9 pm slot, and was meant to be a kind of Stone Age Honeymooners. And it was popular — but mostly with teenagers. This, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communication, heralded a shift away from live-action children’s programming towards animation.

The Merchandising

The show’s popularity with kids logically gave rise to a vast collection of Flintstones merchandising — alarm clocks, cookie jars, trading cars, bubble gum, toys, and, of course, vitamins.

Though they’ve obviously been around forever, vitamins, meaning a group of organic substances necessary to the function of a normal metabolism, were “discovered” by science in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the middle of the 20th century, however, vitamins had been removed from scientific study and placed squarely in the realm of commerce. Vitamins in pill form, a 20th century invention, were peddled not by medical personnel, but by retailers, such as grocery giant Kroger.

Vitamins were also high profit items, with a market ready for diversification. In 1960, the vitamin giant Miles Laboratory, owners of the One-a-Day label, developed Chocks, the first chewable vitamin aimed at children. And, even as doctors, Food and Drug Administration officials, and scientists tussled over the alleged medical benefits of vitamins, Miles was making a mint off its candy-like chewables.

With a hold on the children’s vitamin market, it wasn’t surprising, therefore, that the company would choose to pair up with one of the most popular children’s shows at the time. In 1968, Miles paired up with the modern Stone Age family, producing chewy vitamins in a variety of flavors and in the shapes of the characters.

The Flintstones were a solid, trustworthy lot who kids believed in and the vitamins were pretty much an instant hit. Miles Laboratory, which later introduced Bugs Bunny vitamins as well, dominated the children’s vitamin category for years, until it was acquired by Bayer as a subsidiary in 1979. Though Miles was no more, Flintstones Vitamins remained a market leader — and still are, though new characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and crew are starting to crowd in on the action. Nowadays, there are seven varieties of the flavor and vitamin-packed cartoon shapes: Flintstones Sour Gummies, Flintstones Gummies, Flintstones Complete with Choline (Choline, a nutrient found in breast milk and, of course, cauliflower, is good for brain development), Flintstones Plus Extra C, Flintstones Plus Calcium, Flintstones Plus Iron, and My First Flintstones.

Perhaps some of the explanation for the Flintstone Vitamins continued success is in their nostalgia for the generations of children who grew up with them — and who are now parents themselves. There’s even a Facebook group for those who ate the vitamins as a kid. And then there’s that jingle — “Ten million strong and growing!” — which, incidentally, was composed by Martin O’Donnell, the same guy who composed the music for the intensely popular Halo video game series.

Betty’s Not a Vitamin

But there was one great injustice underlying the Flintstones Vitamin empire: Nearly all the Flintstones characters — including the bizarre Martian character, Great Gazoo — all at one time had fruity, chalky likenesses. All, except Betty. Poor Betty, destined to always play second fiddle to Wilma, didn’t even warrant her own vitamin.

There were (at least) two possible reasons why Betty didn’t have her own vitamin: First, manufacturers claimed that Betty’s waist was too thin and kept breaking during production. Second, Betty was virtually indistinguishable from Wilma.

Though there was a small Betty for vitamin movement, including an Atlanta rock band that called itself Betty’s Not a Vitamin, it wasn’t until actress and comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, who played Betty in the 1994 live action film, brought Betty’s plight to the attention of the nation that anything was really done about it. O’Donnell, during a television interview about the film, complained that all the other characters were represented, but not Betty. A savvy marketing agency seized the opportunity to involve the consumer in the direction of the brand and launched a nationwide campaign to determine Betty’s fate. The agency set up prehistoric style voting booths in regional shopping malls across the country, as well as a 1-800 number, to allow consumers to decide whether Betty should be let in the club.

The public didn’t let her down. More than 3,000 kids and their mothers voted in person and more than 17,000 calls were logged, with 91 percent in favor of bringing in Betty. She became a character in December 1995, replacing the Flintmobile.

Notably, Betty’s Not a Vitamin was named one of the 100 best band names by Paste magazine.

Yabba Dabba Doo!

And finally, vitamins weren’t the only things that the modern Stone Age family hawked. In fact, one of the show’s original sponsors was Winston cigarettes: Fred and Barney were Winston men, all the way. One early cartoon featured Fred and Barney taking a “Winston break,” because “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.”

While the Winston ads weren’t so much a problem, people later objected to the Flintstones pushing drugs, even if they were multivitamins. The concern there was that commercials for Flintstone Vitamins were misleading in terms of the actual health benefits of the vitamins. Miles Laboratory, in the early 1970s, was forced by FDA and Federal Trade Commission scrutiny to pull away from advertising during children’s programming, such as the Saturday morning cartoons hours.

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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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Medicine
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

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Eye Doctors Still Use This 100-Year-Old Test for Color Blindness

You may have seen them at your ophthalmologist's office: large circular diagrams made up of colored dots. People with normal vision are able to discern a number among the dots of contrasting colors. People who are color blind might see only a field of spots.

These elegant, deceptively modern drawings were published 100 years ago by a Japanese ophthalmologist, Shinobu Ishihara. Thanks to the designs' simplicity and diagnostic accuracy, the Ishihara test is still the most popular and efficient way to identify patients with color vision deficiencies.

Born in Tokyo in 1879, Ishihara studied medicine at the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University on a military scholarship, which required him to serve in the armed forces. After graduating in 1905, he worked for three years as a physician specializing in surgery in the Imperial Japanese Army, and then returned to the university for postgraduate studies in ophthalmology. In his research, Ishihara focused on identifying and recruiting soldiers with superior vision, thereby increasing the overall effectiveness of the military. And that became of prime importance to Japan beginning in 1914.

As World War I spread across Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, the Japanese army asked Ishihara to develop a better way to screen draftees for color vision problems. The most popular method at the time was the Stilling test, invented by German ophthalmologist Jakob Stilling in 1878 as the first clinical color vision test. (Previous tools had asked patients to identify the colors of wool skeins or illuminated lanterns—useful skills for sailors and railway conductors, but an imprecise method for diagnosing vision issues.)

"Though popular, 'the Stilling' retained a distinctly 19th-century flavor, more treatise-like and less diagnostically incisive," according to Eye magazine.


Shinobu Ishihara
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Japanese army officials requested a new diagnostic tool that was easier to administer and interpret. The test Ishihara began to develop was based, like Stilling's, on the principle of pseudo-isochromatism—a phenomenon in which two or more colors are seen as the same (or isochromatic) when they're actually different. A person with normal vision could easily see the difference, while people with red-green deficiency, the most common form of color blindness, would have difficulty distinguishing those two opposing colors. Those with blue-yellow color blindness, a less common type, would have a hard time discerning reds, greens, blues, or yellows.

Ishihara hand-painted circular designs comprised of small dots of different areas and colors so that variations in the design could be discerned only by color and not shape, size, or pattern. Hidden in the field of dots was a figure of a contrasting color that people with normal vision could see, while those with deficiencies could not. Other plates in the series were designed to show figures that would be visible only to people with deficiencies. When physicians displayed the diagrams, patients said or traced the visible figure within the circle without needing to use ambiguous color names, which standardized the possible results.

The earliest sets of Ishihara plates, produced in 1916, were reserved exclusively for the army's use and featured Japanese characters within the diagrams. In 1917, in an effort to sell the series internationally, Ishihara redesigned it with the now-familiar Arabic numerals and published a set of 16 plates as Tests for Colour Deficiency.

The tests were adopted throughout the world beginning in the early 1920s, and eventually grew into a set of 38 plates. But their popularity almost led to their undoing. Unauthorized publishers printed their own version of the plates to meet demand, throwing the accuracy of the diagnostic colors into doubt. "The plates have been duplicated along with an easily memorized key by cheap color processes in the tabloid press, and exposed in public places, reducing the fifth edition [of the collection] to a parlor game," one psychologist warned in the Journal of the Optical Society of America in 1943.

Despite those obstacles, the tests proved indispensable for both practicing physicians and researchers. Ishihara continued to refine the designs and improve the color accuracy of the images into the late 1950s, while he also served as the chair of the ophthalmology department and then dean of the medical school at Tokyo Imperial University. In addition to Tests for Colour Deficiency, he also published an atlas, textbook, lectures, and research studies on eye diseases. But he is remembered most for the iconic charts that seamlessly blend art and science.

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