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Jug Life: A History of the Kool-Aid Man

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When Robert Skollar joined the General Foods marketing team at Grey Advertising in 1988, it didn’t take him long to realize that there were certain perks that came with the job. As the executive behind the Kool-Aid ad campaign, Skollar inherited the Kool-Aid Man, the anthropomorphic pitcher of sugar water that had been a staple of the brand for more than a decade.

Two stories stand out: The first, Skollar says, is when he was working late one night and decided to try on the Kool-Aid Man’s fiberglass costume for himself. It was like being inside a Christmas ornament. “It’s hard to hear anything in there,” Skollar tells Mental Floss. “You just hope you don’t fall down.”

The second was when Skollar got caught up in the trend of New York professionals putting on elaborate birthday parties for their kids. Skollar asked Richard Berg, the voice of Kool-Aid Man’s “Oh, Yeah!” catchphrase, to actually wear the costume for a personal appearance at his son’s sixth birthday party. (Normally, Berg just recorded the line.) “It was the voice in the costume, which was a first,” Skollar says. “And half the kids were frightened to death.”

Fortunately, that was hardly the typical reaction. Introduced in 1975, Kool-Aid Man became one of the most beloved characters in advertising history, with a recognition factor that sometimes outpaced that of Ronald McDonald. He got his own video game, his own comic book, and his own museum display in Hastings, Nebraska.

Not bad for someone who started out as a disembodied head.

By the time advertising executive Marvin Potts created a sentient pitcher of Kool-Aid in 1954, the powdered soft drink mix had been on shelves for 27 years. Conceived by Edwin Perkins in Hastings, Nebraska, as an alternative to glass bottle drinks—which were expensive to ship—what was then known as “Kool-Ade” became a cheap, popular way to flavor water.

When Perkins sold the brand to General Foods in 1953, their contracted advertising firm of Foote, Cone & Belding trialed a few different television spots. Potts’s idea—a large, bulbous container of Kool-Aid with an animated mouth and eyes named Pitcher Man—was the most popular. (Company lore says Perkins came up with the idea after watching his kid draw a smiley face on the condensation of a window.)

In the 1960s, Kool-Aid opted for celebrity spokespeople like The Monkees and Bugs Bunny, relegating Pitcher Man to the sidelines. “I think they found out Bugs was overwhelming the whole campaign,” Skollar says. “Kids would remember him but forget the ad was for Kool-Aid.”

That ceased to be a problem in 1975, when Alan Kupchick and Harold Karp at Grey Advertising developed the idea for Kool-Aid Man, an evolution of Pitcher Man. His face stopped moving, but the addition of arms and legs gave the character a more bombastic personality. It also allowed him to commit sensational acts of property destruction.

Skollar recalls that the iconic breaking-through-the-wall sequence wasn’t necessarily planned. “From what I’ve heard, someone on set said that Kool-Aid Man really had to make an entrance, and someone else, maybe a producer, suggested he come through the wall.” Breakaway bricks were set up, and the character's fiberglass shell—“the same material used for a Corvette Stingray,” Skollar says—effectively became a wrecking ball.

Although he was never officially named Kool-Aid Man at the time, the mascot helped propel sales of the drink mix. “It was a phenomenon,” Skollar says. “Here you had this 50-year-old product that’s not really convenient and not particularly healthy, and it’s huge.”

As Kool-Aid Man’s star grew, so did his opportunities to branch out. The property got its own Marvel comic—The Adventures of Kool-Aid Man—as well as an Atari 2600 video game. The latter could be redeemed with 125 points earned from purchasing Kool-Aid, which amounts to about 62.5 gallons of sugar water. (You could also send $10 with 30 points.)

When Skollar was handed control of the campaign in 1988, the advice was pretty clear. “It was basically: Don’t screw it up,” he says, “and make it more contemporary.”

Skollar says he took inspiration from Pee-wee’s Playhouse and the Peter Gabriel music video for "Sledgehammer" to conceive of an entire Kool-Aid Man universe—one bursting with frenetic activity that kids would find exciting and adults would find impenetrable.

“Most kid ads had a storyline at the time,” he says. “This didn’t. It was just surreal.”

This Lynchian Kool-Aid Man was no longer 7 years old, as previous marketing campaigns had implied, but 14 years old—old enough to play guitar and surf. Once naked, he now sported jeans and cool shirts. Skollar believes that the kinetic spots helped usher in a new wave of kid advertising that relied more on visceral, MTV-style cuts.

Not all of Kool-Aid’s efforts were focused on hyperactive kids, however. The drink mix was not without its controversies, having once been associated with the Jonestown massacre in 1978, where cult leader Jim Jones coerced his followers into drinking Kool-Aid and Flavor Ade laced with cyanide. There was also the matter of Kool-Aid suggesting gobs of sugar be added to the drink for flavor.

“We did a campaign targeted to moms, ‘Having Kids Means Having Kool-Aid,’” Skollar says. “And we told them they could control the amount of sugar they used. We also pushed that Kool-Aid had Vitamin C.”

Under Skollar, Kool-Aid sales shot to third place in the soft drink category—behind only Coke and Pepsi.

Kool-Aid Man makes an appearance at the NASDAQ
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Skollar stayed on the Kool-Aid campaign through 1994, at which point the account was passed to Ogilvy & Mather. Eventually, the fiberglass costume became nylon and computer effects began to enhance his features.

CG was something Skollar had already started to experiment with, but eventually discarded it for the analog outfit. “There was something about that rawness, that awkward-looking pitcher breaking through walls,” he says.

One of the original costumes from 1975 sits in the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Hastings, Nebraska, a testament to the character’s enduring appeal. Skollar says he once had research data supporting the fact that over 90 percent of kids could recognize Kool-Aid Man on sight.

The same wasn’t necessarily true of adults. “I remember one time we were shooting an ad where Kool-Aid Man was walking over a hill at sunset, holding hands with a little girl,” he says. “And a junior brand executive taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘We can’t see his face. How will we know who he is?’”

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Cracking the History of L'eggs Pantyhose
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twitchery, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was Robert Elberson’s job to take stock of a woman’s legs, and what he saw didn’t please him. It was 1968, and the recently-appointed president of Hanes Hosiery Mill Co. observed a growing number of pantyhose customers were grabbing cheap stockings at grocery stores for the sake of convenience. While a woman might shop for food multiple times a week, she would likely only head to a department store once every month or two. Rather than wait, she would purchase undergarments when it was most convenient.

The message was clear: Hanes needed to get its product into supermarkets. They would also have to stand out from the 600-plus other manufacturers who were producing pantyhose. Elberson needed a radical departure from the mundane cardboard packages. What his advertising firm came up with ended up revolutionizing the undergarment industry, and made the grocery store aisle practically competition-proof. It was called L’eggs, and it became a piece of retail art.

Ladies' undergarments experienced several radical paradigm shifts in the 20th century. Man-made nylon stockings, introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, provided an alternative to silk, which was pleasing to the eye and soft to the touch but tended to run and snag. When nylon was co-opted for the war effort, women drew “seams” on their legs to replicate the look and then practically rioted when stockings were once again made available.

In 1959, single-piece pantyhose made the labor of garters largely a thing of the past. Cheap to make and distribute, hundreds of companies glutted the market with product. But unlike other major consumer categories, there was no Coke or Pepsi—or even an RC Cola—of the pantyhose world; consumers had no brand loyalty. Pantyhose were pantyhose.

What women did prefer was buying them outside of department stores. This became even more apparent as the miniskirt and other slender fashion offerings made hem lines undesirable, and sales of hosiery climbed. Women, Elberson noted, embraced the convenience of tossing a pair of pantyhose in their cart along with bread and milk, even if the quality was poor. Hanes had been sticking with department stores. It was time for a change.

In 1968, Elberson and Hanes planning manager (and future executive vice president) David E. Harrold instructed their employees to begin work on designing a product that would capture a woman’s attention in the supermarket aisles. Because they feared department store buyers would revolt, they codenamed the project “V-1” and relegated it to the basement of the Hanes plant in Weeks, North Carolina. They enlisted graphic designer Roger Ferriter, of the ad firm Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, to revitalize the clichéd packaging common at the time: hose stretched over a piece of cardboard and inserted into a plastic sleeve.

Ferriter’s idea came to him the morning he was scheduled to make his presentation to Hanes. Crumpling the pantyhose in his hand, he realized it could fit inside an eggshell—and eggs, in Ferriter’s mind, were representative of something new, fresh, and natural. He gave it the name “L’eggs” and won over the Hanes executives in an instant.

Another designer, Fred Howard, developed the perfect complement to the egg-shaped package—a revolving display that housed the L’eggs shells and nothing else, so stores would be unable to stuff competing pantyhose in the rack. Hanes also eliminated wholesalers; they sold stores the product on consignment and hired sales reps to maintain the displays.

The one-size-fits-all L’eggs eggs made their debut in 1971. Hanes knew women wanted pantyhose in grocery stores. But how would they respond to an egg?

Within months, L’eggs was the top-selling brand in the hosiery market. Consumers were captivated by the package, the fact that the product largely held up over time, and the idea that they no longer had to feel obligated to run to a clothing or apparel store in order to replace a torn pair of stockings. Hanes recorded $120 million in L’eggs sales in 1972 alone. By 1976, they had taken 27 percent of the entire grocery store pantyhose business, virtually double that of their nearest competitor.

Like the Quaker Oats can and actual egg cartons, the L’eggs containers proved to be an enduring presence in the household. Some people used them as holiday decorations, party favors, or planters; Hanes had tremendous marketing success tweaking them in different colors for holiday promotions. They even released a book offering dozens of craft ideas. It sold 23,000 copies in its first month of release.

Despite the fact that L’eggs appeared to be a utilitarian product purchase, the growing eco-consciousness of consumers in the 1980s began to reject the idea that Hanes’s plastic design was good for the environment. From the perspective of Hanes, it was also a shipping hassle: the “dead space” in the egg not taken up by the rumpled pantyhose added to delivery costs. In 1992, the company unveiled a new, recyclable cardboard package with an ovoid top resembling an egg.

While the original L’eggs package reappears periodically for anniversaries and promotional duties, the design has largely been rendered obsolete by waste concerns. As a monument to retail design, however, it was once stocked in some of the most valuable shelf space in the world: the Museum of Modern Art.

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Background: iStock, L-R: Keystone Colour/Getty Images, Tony Duffy /Allsport, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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When Network Stars Went to Battle
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Background: iStock, L-R: Keystone Colour/Getty Images, Tony Duffy /Allsport, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 1976 Olympic Games, held in Montreal over a two-week period in July, represented the absolute pinnacle of athletic competition. Caitlyn (then Bruce) Jenner proved to be the most impressive decathlete in the world; at 14, Romanian Nadia Comaneci earned a perfect 10 score on the uneven bars.

Just three months later, Jenner would be present—this time as an eyewitness—to a multi-discipline competition that was no less compelling, despite the fact that some of its participants were prone to smoking between events. That was the year ABC broadcast the inaugural edition of Battle of the Network Stars, a competition pitting small-screen talent from the three major networks against one another in relay races, kayaking, swimming, golf, and tug of war.

At any given time during the show’s semi-annual airings, viewers could expect to see Gabe Kaplan, Tony Danza, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, O.J. Simpson, Billy Crystal, Michael J. Fox, Ron Howard, Tom Selleck, Scott Baio, and other TV Guide cover subjects making very earnest attempts to outdo one another. While ABC’s motivation was clearly ratings, and viewers were compelled by both male and female stars sporting gym shorts, the participants were recruited based on a dual reward tier: Their egos would be challenged, and they could win a lot of money.

Battle’s origins can be traced back to the NBA—specifically, a lack of it. In the mid-1970s, ABC had lost the rights to broadcast National Basketball Association games to CBS, creating a hole in the network's Sunday afternoon programming schedule. An ABC executive named Dick Button proposed a show called Superstars, where well-known athletes would step outside of their comfort zones and try out a new sport.

ABC was elated when Superstars wound up outdrawing CBS’s NBA games in the ratings. The logical progression, according to former ABC executive Don Ohlmeyer, was to use the Superstars format and take advantage of the deep bench of attractive primetime stars appearing on television at the time. In an unlikely bit of collusion, ABC convinced both CBS and NBC to allow their contracted talent to appear on Battle of the Network Stars on the premise that it would amount to free advertising during a rival channel’s airtime.

The three network squads were a who’s-who of ‘70s fame. For ABC, team captain Gabe Kaplan (Welcome Back Kotter) led a charge that included Lynda Carter, Ron Howard, and Penny Marshall; NBC’s crew was comprised of captain Robert Conrad, Tim Matheson, Melissa Sue Anderson, and Ben Murphy; CBS appointed Telly Savalas to manage Lee Meriwether, Jimmie Walker, and Mackenzie Phillips.

Conrad would later recall that recruiting for the shows was easy, since “actors have tremendous egos” and took the competition seriously. An additional incentive was the fact that each member of the winning team would receive $20,000. (The amount would eventually go up to $40,000 as the series wound down in the 1980s.)

Despite the overall sheen of ironic detachment from commentator Howard Cosell, former Wild, Wild West star Conrad was fiercely competitive. Onetime contestant Melissa Gilbert recalled that Conrad once sent a kayak instructor and kayak to her house so she could practice for the event in her pool. During a relay race, when judges determined NBC had committed a foul, Conrad angrily demanded to face team captain Kaplan in a “run-off” to determine a winner. (Savalas, whose CBS team was destined for third place regardless, puffed on a cigarette and looked on with amusement.) Kaplan overcame an early deficit to surpass Conrad in a 100-meter foot race.

To Ohlmeyer, Conrad’s genuine outrage at the accusation of a foul helped set the tone for the specials, which didn’t appear to soften the events for the amateur competitors. Bikes were mounted without helmets or knee pads; Gilbert recalled seeing broken bones, sprained ankles, and contestants passing out from the heat; Falcon Crest star Lorenzo Lamas once took a spill off a cliff during a bike race, and landed in a ditch.

Several competitors had athletic backgrounds. Tony Danza was a former professional boxer; Mark Harmon was a quarterback at UCLA; Kurt Russell played minor league baseball. But an athletic background was no prerequisite: ABC was under no delusion about why many viewers were tuning in. Men like Lamas and Tom Selleck were of significant interest to audiences once they had disposed of their shirts, while the sight of a jogging Carter or Fawcett-Majors appealed to another demographic. “Giggly, jiggly starlets” is how Detroit Free Press columnist Mike Duffy described the action of the 1980 special, chiding producers for the shamelessness of dangling Dallas star Charlene Tilton over a dunk tank.

With a rotating cast, Battle taped most of its events at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, airing twice a year through 1985. Devoted viewers would eventually be treated to the surreal spectacle of Tony Randall or William Shatner leading a sports team or David Letterman paddling shirtless in a kayak while Dick Van Dyke commentated the action. During one climactic tug of war, Conrad recalled that the teams spent over 14 minutes locked in a stalemate.

It seemed viewers would never tire of such high drama, but Battle's novelty eventually wore thin. The 1985 season was its last, with brief revivals attempted in 1988 and 2003. More recently, ABC announced a reboot scheduled for June 2017 that will feature many of the show's previous participants: Lorenzo Lamas, Erik Estrada, Jimmie Walker, and Mackenzie Phillips will all be there. It might be diverting and it might not, but the sight of a celebratory Lynda Carter kissing Gabe Kaplan while Telly Savalas moodily drags on his cigarette is a scene unlikely to ever be matched.

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