Jug Life: A History of the Kool-Aid Man

Kraft
Kraft

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.

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?’”

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

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Apple

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Sony

For the listener who likes a traditional over-the-ear headphone, this set by Sony will give you all the same hands-free calling, extended battery power, and Bluetooth connectivity as their tiny earbud counterparts. They have a swivel folding design to make stashing them easy, a built-in microphone for voice commands and calls, and quality 1.18-inch dome drivers for dynamic sound quality.

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Sony

This Sony headphone model stands out for its extra bass and the 30 hours of battery life you get with each charge. And in between your favorite tracks, you can take hands-free calls and go seamlessly back into the music.

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Martha Stewart

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

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Jashen

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Townew

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FenSens

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

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Miami Sound Machine: Remembering Don Johnson's Music Career

Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand in September 1988.
Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand in September 1988.
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Don Johnson had a problem. It was 1986, and Johnson was one of the hottest television stars of the era, starring as Miami cop Sonny Crockett on the hit NBC drama Miami Vice. Sporting pastel shirts and white suits, Johnson was a new breed of television authority figure. He had a gun, but he also had fashion sense.

Johnson's problem was not with the show, or with his shoulder pads, but the fact that he was beginning to speak about his music career and his debut album, Heartbeat. Already, Johnson was feeling the heat applied to actors who attempt to sing. It was made worse by the fact that Philip Michael Thomas, his co-star on Miami Vice, had also recorded an album, Living the Book of My Life, that had come and gone unceremoniously. Johnson wanted to be taken seriously as a singer. He wasn’t sure the media or his audience would let him try.

 

Before he had ever aspired to become an actor, Johnson was performing solos for choir anthems at the Baptist church in his small hometown of Galena, Missouri. The attention—and occasional quarter—he received, he later said, may have sparked his interest in becoming an entertainer. Impressing with a leading role in a production of West Side Story, he eventually won a drama scholarship to the University of Kansas and got a grant from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which led him to Hollywood. From there he took on small roles, including one in 1975's Return to Macon County, which also featured Dickey Betts, guitarist for the Allman Brothers.

Johnson had always kept one eye on the music scene, using some of the proceeds from his acting jobs to pay for demo recordings. (He could sing, play guitar a little, and write.) With Betts, he co-wrote two songs, “Blind Love” and “Can’t Take It With You,” for the band’s 1979 album, Enlightened Rogues. Throughout the 1970s, he had also hung out with The Doors and befriended Frank Zappa, getting a self-admitted education in the hedonism of the music scene without actually appearing on stage.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas co-starred on Miami Vice for five seasons. Both also recorded albums.NBC Television/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Johnson filmed a number of failed television pilots before scoring Miami Vice in 1984. After the show was a certifiable hit, he was at a party with CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff. The two began to discuss Johnson’s interest in music. Yetnikoff believed Johnson’s fame and ardent fan following could help make an album a hit. He signed Johnson, then 36, to a deal on the spot.

There were some obstacles. For one, Johnson had no band. To guide him through the process, he hired manager and record executive Danny Goldberg, who in turn enlisted Chas Sandford, a songwriter who had worked with Stevie Nicks and John Waite. Soon, a group of session players, including bassist Mark Leonard and keyboardist Bill Champlin, materialized. Johnson and Sandford began fielding pitches from songwriters, many of whom seemed too dependent on Johnson’s association with Miami Vice. Songs titled “Mr. Miami” and “Miami Don” were quickly discarded. Instead, Johnson pursued a contemporary rock playlist and got contributions from Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Dickey Betts. (Recording at Criteria studios in Miami, Johnson even roped in friend Whoopi Goldberg to appear on a track titled “Streetwise.”) Johnson himself wrote lyrics for “Heartbeat,” which was originally composed by drummer Curly Smith. It eventually became the title of the album.

With the help of media consultant Elliot Mintz, Johnson managed to avoid some of the baggage that accompanied actors recording albums by passing up Entertainment Tonight in favor of Rolling Stone and other media outlets that focused on music. He emphasized that music had run parallel to his acting career and charmed journalists by being self-effacing about his ambitions.

“People will say this [record] is bullsh*t and ‘the jerk ought to stay with what he does,’” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. “But I’m someone who likes to take risks.”

"Heartbeat" quickly gained airplay on Top 40 radio stations; the song's popularity was bolstered by the fact that Johnson could actually sing. One writer for the Los Angeles Times played the album for people without telling them it was Johnson. All were impressed, then incredulous when they were told who they were listening to.

Johnson’s Miami Vice schedule made it nearly impossible to tour to support the album. Instead, he filmed a one-hour musical released on VHS that incorporated all 10 tracks from Heartbeat. (It also features an appearance by Giancarlo Esposito, who would go on to portray Gus Fring in Breaking Bad.) Most of the songs focused on love, with tracks like “Heartache Away,” “The Last Sound Love Makes,” and “Can’t Take Your Memory” showcasing Johnson’s vocal talents.

“Heartbeat” made it to number five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in October 1986, and Johnson experienced virtually none of the scorn reserved for actors who dared to try something different. He even performed a duet with then-girlfriend Barbra Streisand, '"Till I Loved You," in 1988, and released a second album, Let It Roll, in 1989. Johnson later appeared on stage in 2007 as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. Mostly, however, he was content to keep his musical interests private.

Heartbeat was ultimately a respectable endeavor for Johnson, though he wasn’t quite able to completely divorce himself from the reality of being a television star. On some versions of the album’s cover, a tag line made that extremely clear. It read: “Don Johnson: The Star of Miami Vice.”