Ad Space – The Dark Origins of Kermit the Frog

You are now entering Ad Space, a realm of commercials, brought before us so we might examine how they work, and discuss why we both love and hate them so. So it is written …

The Product:
Wilkins Coffee

The Promotions:

The Pitch:
Buy Wilkins Coffee, or Jim Henson will kill you.

Before he was making films and TV shows, Jim Henson did a lot of advertising work. This included creating ten second ad spots for Wilkins Coffee starring two puppets: one who is … shall we say, enthusiastic about promoting the coffee (he’s named Wilkins) and another who refuses to drink it (he’s named Wontkins).

While the formula for the ads could vary (and they’d eventually be used to promote other products) the ads selected here follow a very simple pattern: Wontkins refuses to drink Wilkins Coffee, and Wilkins responds by violently assaulting him. The End.

These are the Wilkins Coffee ads everyone remembers, because that psychotic, hyper-violent puppet Wilkins? He bears a disturbing resemblance to one Kermit T. Frog.

He looks pretty much like Kermit, except without the fringe around his neck, and the voice Henson gives him is almost exactly his Kermit voice. So to a modern viewer, it’s nigh-impossible to watch these ads without imagining that’s Kermit himself onscreen. The guy who talked to children on Sesame Street and sang “Rainbow Connection” in The Muppet Movie … strapping people to electric chairs and holding razor blades to their throats.

These ads were always built around dark comedy; with less than ten seconds to work with, a bit of “can’t believe they went there” shock was probably the best way of making an impression on viewers. But like when we discussed the Flintstones shilling cigarettes, for later generations these ads feel transgressive in a way their creators couldn’t have envisioned.

Still mighty funny, though.