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Wheaties is a brand of General Mills breakfast cereal. It is well known for featuring prominent athletes on the exterior of the package, and has become a major cultural icon. Primarily comprising a wheat and bran mixture baked into flakes, it was introduced in 1924.1
Wheaties was created in 1922, as a result of an accidental spill of a wheat bran mixture onto a hot stove by a Minnesota clinician working for the Washburn Crosby Company (later General Mills). By November 1924, after over 36 attempts to strengthen the flakes to withstand packaging, the process for creating the flakes had been perfected by the Washburn head miller, George Cormack, and the cereal was named Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. Soon after, the name was changed to Wheaties as a result of an employee contest won by the wife of a company export manager, Jane Bausman. Other names passed over included "Nutties" and "Gold Medal Wheat Flakes".
Wheaties began to be advertised on Minneapolis' WCCO radio station (owned by Washburn Crosby) on December 24, 1926, with the first-ever commercial jingle.2 Its lyrics were sung to the tune of the then-popular "She's a Jazz Baby":
"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.2
Wheaties began its association with sports in 1927, through advertising on the southern wall of minor league baseball's Nicollet Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the contract, Wheaties sponsored the radio broadcasts of the minor league baseball team, Minneapolis Millers, on radio station WCCO and Wheaties was provided with a large billboard in the park to use to introduce new slogans. The first such slogan on the new signboard was penned by Knox Reeves, of a Minneapolis advertising agency. When asked what should be placed on the sign for Wheaties, Reeves sketched a Wheaties box on a pad of paper, thought for a moment, and wrote "Wheaties-The Breakfast of Champions".
Throughout the 1930s, Wheaties increased in popularity with its sponsorship of baseball broadcasting, and by the end of the decade, nearly a hundred radio stations carried Wheaties sponsored events. During these events, athlete testimonials about Wheaties were used to demonstrate that Wheaties was indeed the breakfast of champions. Also in the early 1930s, athletes began to be depicted on the packaging of Wheaties, and the tradition is continued today.
The heyday of Wheaties came in the 1930s and early 1940s, as testimonials peaked from nearly every sport imaginable. Among the many testimonials included were: baseball stars, managers, and trainers; broadcasters; football stars and coaches; circus stars and rodeo; livestock breeders; a railroad engineer; horsemen and jockeys; a big-game hunter; automobile racers; an aviator; a speedboat driver; an explorer; and parachutists.
Wheaties maintained brand recognition through its definitive association with sports, and its distinctive orange boxes. It became so popular that in the 1939 All-Star Game, 46 of the 51 players endorsed the cereal. In the months following, Wheaties became one of the sponsors of the very first televised sports broadcast to allow commercials. On August 29, 1939, NBC television presented the first major league baseball game ever televised between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers to approximately 500 television set owners in New York City over experimental station W2XBS (now WNBC). Red Barber was the play-by-play broadcaster. Although full commercial television would not be authorized until July 1, 1941, the FCC allowed commercials to be inserted in this particular, special event broadcast as a test. Barber had to ad-lib three live commercials, one for each Dodger sponsor. For Procter & Gamble, he held up a bar of Ivory Soap. For Socony, Barber put on a Mobil gas station cap and raised a can of oil. For General Mills, he poured Wheaties into a bowl, added milk and sugar on top (some reports say he also sliced a banana), then proclaimed "Now that's the breakfast of champions." "There was not a cue card in sight," Barber said.
A measure of the product's familiarity is the reference in the 1941 baseball song Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, performed by Les Brown and his orchestra during DiMaggio's record hitting streak. In the song, Joe D. gets a clutch base hit, and the band awards him "a case of Wheaties".
- The Breakfast of Champions
- You Better Eat Your Wheaties
Wheaties radio broadcasting in the 1930s touched the early career of Ronald Reagan, who was at the time a sports broadcast announcer in Des Moines, Iowa. He was asked to create play-by-play recreations of Chicago Cubs baseball games using transcribed telegraph reports; his job performance in this role led to his selection in 1937 as the most popular Wheaties announcer in the nation. He was awarded an all-expenses paid trip to the Cubs' spring training camp in California, and while there he took a Warner Bros. screen test. This led to his eventual film career; thus the Wheaties claim of perhaps leading Reagan into show business, and later politics as governor and 40th President of the United States.
Due to increasing costs in the 1940s of sponsorship of broadcasting, Wheaties began simple commercial sports testimonials on television or radio. These were less effective than the overall sponsorship (especially in the case of television), yet also greatly reduced costs for advertising of the product.
In the early 1950s, costs and strategy forced General Mills to redirect the Wheaties brand into a focus on children, alongside such noted brands as Cheerios, which had great success in this market. While initially seen as a growth measure, sales of Wheaties declined dramatically even after association with The Lone Ranger and The Mickey Mouse Club (and the development of their own mascot, a puppet character called Champy the Lion, produced by Bil Baird and voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft), mainly due to the adult cereal consumers dislike of a "children's cereal". More children did in fact eat Wheaties due to this association, but the gain was not enough to increase sales, much less stave off the decline of adult consumption.
Because of the great decline in sales in the middle part of the 1950s, by 1958 General Mills was convinced that the sporting roots of Wheaties were its strongest selling point. In that year, the marketing strategy employed a three-pronged assault. First was the selection of the brand's first spokesman, Bob Richards, two-time Olympic pole vault champion. Second, Wheaties reentered the sports television sponsorship arena, while pioneering the concepts of the pre and post-game show, and third was the introduction of the Wheaties Sports Federation. The Wheaties Sports Federation promoted physical fitness, training, and participation in athletic events, through direct financial support of Olympic educational programs and the Jaycee Junior Champ track and field competition, and also through educational and instructional athletic films.
From the 1960s through the 1990s, Wheaties provided in-box promotions, but maintained a focus on athletic fitness and on-the-box sports figure promotions. Since the debut of the front cover depiction of Bob Richards, hundreds of athletes have been shown and promoted, including entire baseball, basketball, and football teams, while also highlighting Olympic successes (including regional Special Olympics editions). Wheaties also does not limit itself to current athletic stars, as special edition boxes have depicted baseball players from the early 20th century, and many athletes who were too early for Wheaties to cover (see Jim Thorpe).
- 1926 - First ever singing radio commercial, using the jingle "Have you tried Wheaties?" (to the tune of Jazz Baby)
- 1934 - First athlete depicted on a Wheaties box - Baseball player Lou Gehrig
- 1934 - First woman depicted on a Wheaties box - Aviator Elinor Smith
- 1935 - First woman athlete depicted on a Wheaties box - Golfer and athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias
- 1936 - First African American athlete on a Wheaties box - Jesse Owens
- 1939 - First televised commercial sports broadcast sponsorship, of the 1939 Major League Baseball All-Star Game
- 1958 - First athlete depicted on the front of a Wheaties box - Pole vaulter Bob Richards
- 1969 - First male golfer depicted on the front of a Wheaties box - Lee Trevino
- 1984 - First woman athlete depicted on the front of a Wheaties box - Gymnast Mary Lou Retton
- 1986 - First football player depicted on the front of a Wheaties box - Walter Payton3
- 1987 - First team depicted on a Wheaties box - 1987 World Series Champion Minnesota Twins
- 1989 - First baseball player (individual) depicted on a Wheaties box - Johnny Bench4
- 1991 - First ice hockey team depicted on a Wheaties box - 1991 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins
- 1992 - First non-orange Wheaties box, colored red and black in honor of the Chicago Bulls
- 1997 - First automobile race driver depicted on the front of a Wheaties box - Dale Earnhardt
- 1999 - First professional wrestler depicted on the front of a Wheaties box - Stone Cold Steve Austin
- 2001 - First sambo wrestler featured on Wheaties boxes (Wheaties Energy Crunch) - James Chico Hernandez
- 2002 - First university wrestler featured on Wheaties boxes - Cael Sanderson
- 2005 - First women professional sports team to appear on Wheaties box - Sacramento Monarchs
- 2006 - First college football rivalry to appear on Wheaties Box - State Farm Lone Star Showdown, the rivalry between the Texas A&M Aggies and the Texas Longhorns
- 2012 - 9-year-old Samantha Gordon is the first female football player to be featured on a Wheaties box.5
- Michael Jordan holds the record for most depictions on a Wheaties box, a total of 18 times, followed by Tiger Woods at 14 times.
There have been a total of seven spokespersons for the Wheaties brand since 1958, listed here with their date of selection:
- Bob Richards - 1958
- Bruce Jenner - 1977
- Mary Lou Retton - 1984
- Walter Payton - 1986
- Chris Evert - 1987
- Michael Jordan - 1988
- Tiger Woods - 1998
Like many popular cereal brands from the early 20th century, Wheaties has had its share of spin-off brands. Also, several athletes featured on the cereal boxes of regular Wheaties are featured on these brands. These are the four brands which have been created in response to the popularity of Wheaties, along with their introduction date:
- Honey Frosted Wheaties (Commonly abbreviated HFW) - 1996
- Crispy Wheaties 'n' Raisins (Commonly abbreviated CWR) - 1996
- Wheaties Energy Crunch (Commonly abbreviated WEC) - 2001
- Wheaties Fuel - 2010
- Shredded Wheat Bite Size (European Version)
- Phil Ament. ""Wheaties Cereal History": The Great Idea Finder. 2007". Ideafinder.com. Retrieved 2011-01-06.
- Wojahn, Ellie (1988). "Choose a Partner". Playing by Different Rules. amacom (American Management Association). p. 19. ISBN 0-8144-5861-0.
- A Football Life, "Walter Payton." Premiered on NFL Network, Oct. 13, 2011
- "Johnny Bench gets his picture on Wheaties box". Deseret News. wire services. July 6, 1989. p. D7.
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