In 1957, Jim Henson was approached by a Washington, D.C. coffee company to produce commercials for Wilkins Coffee. The local stations only had ten seconds for station identification, so the Muppet commercials had to be lightning-fast—essentially, eight seconds for the commercial pitch and a two-second shot of the product.
From 1957 to 1961, Henson made 179 commercials for Wilkins Coffee and other Wilkins products, including Community Coffee and Wilkins Tea. The ads were initially filmed at Rodel Studios in Washington D.C. The ads were so successful and well-liked that they sparked a series of remakes for companies in other local markets throughout the 1960s. The “Cannon” spot was one of his most popular and produced for at least 14 clients, such as Kraml Dairy, Red Diamond, Community, Nash's, and more.
The ads starred the cheerful Wilkins, who liked Wilkins Coffee, and the grumpy Wontkins, who hated it. Wilkins would often do serious harm to Wontkins in the ads—blowing him up, stabbing him with a knife, and smashing him with a club, among many other violent acts.
Wilkins and Wontkins were generally the only characters in the commercials, though on rare occasions, such critters as a Muppet whale or baby birds would appear. Company owner Mr. Wilkins was also invoked more than once.
The characters proved so popular that in October 1958, the company offered vinyl puppets of Wilkins and Wontkins through the mail for $1.00 and a coffee can label. The offer on the can said, "Hey Kids! I'm Wilkins—he's Wontkins—you see us on TV!" Obviously, Wilkins Coffee and Henson knew that the Muppet characters had kid appeal, although this doesn't seem to have had any effect on the use of violence and terror in the ads.
The only time Wontkins was caught drinking a coffee that was not Wilkins was in the 1958 "Steamroller" ad.
Another series of commercials were produced for the company, notably not featuring Wilkins and Wontkins. Instead, the commercials star Scoop and Skip (as Scoop Wilkins and Skip Others, respectively) for the "Wilkins News Report." Scoop headlines from the studio newsdesk, while Skip corresponds from all over the globe, typically referring to real-life current events of the time.
These are Henson's official titles for the commercials.
- Other titles
Wilkins News Reports
|Abominable Snowman||Skip reports from the Himalayan Mountains, attempting to prove the existence of the Abominable Snowman, using the aroma of Wilkins Coffee as bait.|
|Coffee Break||Coffee breaks and their effect on workplace productivity are in the news. Skip cites one executive in favor of coffee breaks - Mr. Wilkins.|
|Congo||Skip mistakes "the Congo situation" for the "Conga."|
|Cuba||Skip reports from Havana, having accidentally been drafted into Fidel Castro's army.|
|Food for Peace||The Wilkins Company is adopting their own "Coffee for Peace" initiative, sending their products to "depressed areas" (i.e. their consumer markets).|
|France||Instead of covering John F. Kennedy's trip to France, Skip has instead been trading Wilkins Coffee for perfume with the locals.|
|Medical Care Bill||From the Speedy Relief Research Institute, Skip believes Wilkins Coffee can ease one's personal tension.|
|Moscow v. Peeking||Skip details the tensions between the Kremlin and "red China" has been inflated thanks to Nikita Khrushchev's negative encounter with a Chinese cleaning establishment.|
|President's Cabinet||Skip takes a look inside the President's cabinet - the President of the Wilkins Coffee company to be precise.|
|Russian Rocket||After the Russian's attempt at space travel, Skip reports that the local astronaut is none-too-thrilled to have landed back in Russia.|
|Second Cup||Skip claims people are going backwards to get a second cup of Wilkins Coffee, but he really just wound the camera backwards by accident.|
|Spring Fever||Skip can't report on the major headlines of the day because he has spring fever.|
|Venus||With news of Russians trying to get to Venus, Skip remarks he'd like to go there too - "Haven't you seen that de Milo girl?"|
Red Diamond Coffee
The Wilkins Coffee ads stood out from the usual commercial fare. In a press release issued February 19, 1959, Senator John Marshall Butler (R-MD) strongly criticized the quality of broadcast television, but praised the Wilkins ads: "The Maryland Senator, an opponent of pay television, called on the networks and individual stations to re-examine their programming and advertising policies at once to provide the public with better television fare. He said that the Senate Commerce Committee, of which he is a member, will explore the entire situation... As to advertising, it insults the intelligence of the viewer. It is geared at know-nothings. As far as I am concerned, if I hear 'a thinking-man's filter and a smoking-man's taste,' I promptly switch to another channel. About the only clever advertising on the air today is 'Wilkins and Wontkins'. It pleases rather than irritates television audiences, and I am happy to learn that this series is bringing increased sales to the sponsor."
The Senator's approval was echoed in a 1965 article in the Washington, D.C. Evening Star, which reported the findings of a poll in the D.C. area about television commercials: "John H. Wilkins, Jr., of the Wilkins Coffee Company, can be proud of the overwhelming endorsement of Washington area viewers of his Muppet TV spots. The Wilkins commercials, which he conceived, are easily the favorite of voters in this area."
Following the success of the Wilkins Coffee commercials in the Washington, D.C. market, Jim Henson sold the concept to coffee companies in other local markets around the US. The same ads were reshot, with the only difference being the name of the coffee company.
The other companies included:
- Community Coffee: Thirty-seven 10-second ads for Community Coffee, a Louisiana-based company, from 1959 to 1969. Beginning in 1966, the commercials were produced in color.
- Donovan Coffee: Thirteen 10-second ads for the Donovan Coffee Company, an Alabama-based company that produces Red Diamond Coffee. Six spots were produced in 1961, and an additional seven color spots were produced in December 1966.
- La Touraine Coffee: Fifteen 10-second ads for La Touraine Coffee, a Boston-based company, from 1958 to 1962.
- Martinson Coffee: Fifteen 10-second ads for Martinson Coffee, a New York City-based company that produces Jomar Instant, from 1958 to 1962.
- Nash's Coffee: Twenty 10-second ads for Nash's Coffee, a Minnesota based company, from 1958 to 1961.
The "TV Anti-Violence League" spot was released on a commercial DVD by Madacy Home Video.
The "TV Anti-Violence League" spot from 1960 was recognized by the Clio awards, as runner-up in the category of best television/cinema spot.
Later merchandising by Wilkins
In October 1990, the Wilkins Coffee company attempted to revive the Wilkins and Wontkins characters without the approval of the Jim Henson Company. The company offered t-shirts and ran ads from at least December 1990 to February 1991.
Wilkins filed trademark applications on the characters in March 1992, in categories including "marketing and licensing of children's characters," toys, clothing, hair products, television programs, printed items (books, napkins, etc), and cough medicines. These filings had been abandoned by April 1993.) The company sold the film and toy rights to the characters to John T. Brady & Associates, a New York marketing firm. The company set up a booth in June 1992 at the Licensing Expo in New York City, attempting to sell licensing to the characters. The booth was decorated with images of Jim Henson and the rest of the Muppets, and the phrase "Original Muppets Created by Jim Henson." Jim Henson Production staff viewed the booth on the first day of the show; Jane Henson viewed it on the third day, and attempted to tear down the display. Jim Henson Productions filed a lawsuit in federal court, and Brady threatened to countersue. Brady responded that he didn't "see why we should be prevented from expanding the Muppet culture."
Wilkins ran the t-shirt promotion again in 1994.
- Client: Wilkins Coffee, Belmont Ver Standig, Washington DC
- Agency Producer: James W. Young
- Cinematographer: Del Ankers
- Copywriters: James Henson, James Young
- Performer/Voice: Wilkins & Wontkins (puppets), Jim Henson (voice)
- Production Company: Rodel, Washington DC
- Animation & Art: Jane & James Henson
- Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones (page 107)
- Karen Falk, the Jim Henson Company Archives.
- "Weekly Poll: Voters Feel Strongly on TV Commercials," Harold Stern and Jack Boyle, The Evening Star, March 22, 1965.
- Falk, Karen. "Jim Henson's Red Book," 3/13-14/1969 – Shoot Community Coffee.
- Falk, Karen. "Jim Henson's Red Book," 12/13-15/1966 – Shoot Community and Red Diamond Comm.
- Wilkins and Wontkins T-Shirt Offer, The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), October 21, 1990.
- "Search results for the query of Wontkins," US Patent and Trademark Office.
- Eben Shapiro (The New York Times), "Legal fight brewing over use of two Muppets," The Arizona Daily Star (Tuscon, Arizona), July 19, 1992, pg 5.
- "Wilkins & Wontkins T-Shirt Offer," The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), February 20, 1994.
- from Clio Awards Archive database, now offline