BOOTLEG FILES 166: “Cap’n Crunch Commercials” (a series of TV advertisements from the 1960s and 1970s).
LAST SEEN: Playing on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: They were meant to be ephemeral.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Yeah, right!
In this age of TiVo and unimaginative advertising, it can be difficult to imagine that there was a time when people actually looked forward to television commercials. Truth be told, there were many long-running commercials that were actually more entertaining and stylish than the programs they punctuated.
If you were watching American television in the 1960s and 1970s, you may recall what could be dubbed “The Golden Age of Cap’n Crunch.” Yes, I’m talking about the horrid breakfast cereal that prompted decades of accusations regarding the laceration of mouths. If the cereal leaves a lot to be desired, its advertising campaign was perhaps the most amusing ever designed for the promotion of a cereal.
And that was not an accident. Whereas most product branding comes either in conjunction with the product development or after the fact, Cap’n Crunch was created the other way around: a catchy TV campaign was put into place and then the cereal was developed to go with it.
It all began in 1962 with a fit of jealousy (which is often the best way to start groundbreaking campaigns). Quaker Oats was angry that its competition, General Mills and Kellogg’s, was enjoying extraordinary sales for their respective cereal lines. It wasn’t because they had better products – rather, both companies invested a great deal of time, energy and money into aggressive TV commercial campaigns aimed at impressionable kiddies who believed everything they saw on the small screen. Kellogg’s had its own line-up of cartoon characters to sing and prance about the bowls of whatever was being hyped, while General Mills licensed well-known characters created by TV animator Jay Ward.
Quaker Oats contacted Ward about creating a new cartoon character to promote an unnamed cereal that was being planned. Ward was initially skeptical on two counts: he was already working with General Mills and he didn’t what to be pigeonholed in the TV commercial genre. He eventually agreed to work with Quaker Oats, provided that he was given leeway on the contents of the commercials and the character development.
Ward created a very unlikely cartoon character: an elderly naval commander who sailed the oceans with a crew consisting of four small children and a bipedal dog wearing a sailor’s hat. Captain Horatio Magellan Crunch was the center of attention and he was everything that other breakfast commercial characters were not: old, not particularly intelligent, an authority figure and a bit of a kook. Ward brought voice actor Daws Butler, a star of his “Fractured Fairytales” cartoons, to create the captain’s doddering voice (the “Cap’n” moniker came as a result of a recording studio flub).
The Cap’n Crunch commercials stood out from the competition on several levels. First, they were on the longish side: they averaged one minute, where other commercials got their messages across in half that time. They were also fairly elaborate, with Cap’n Crunch and his crew taking on a wide variety of miscreant gangs in elaborate situations.
In one commercial that’s wildly un-P.C. by today’s standards, Cap’n Crunch is awaken from an afternoon nap and is informed the Good Ship Guppy is being attacked by Indians. The captain can’t believe the news, stating: “This isn’t the Indian Ocean.” Sure enough, a tribe of Native Americans in war paint storm the ship, and the captain’s juvenile crew repels their advances with water pistols and toy guns firing miniature plungers. Peace breaks out when Cap’n Crunch starts distributing boxes of his eponymous cereal. The commercial ends with the crew and the Indians sitting on the deck in a circle. Everyone is eating and Cap’n Crunch has this warped exchange with the tribal chief:
CAP’N CRUNCH: Eat all you want, Chief.
CHIEF: (Raising his hand in the air). How!
CAP’N CRUNCH: Out of a bowl, or from the box!
Ba-dum-dum! Okay, it’s a corny closing gag, but it served its purpose. In another commercial, Sea Dog (the canine member of the crew) falls overboard and is about to become lunch for a school of sharks. Boxes of Cap’n Crunch are thrown to the sharks, and the ravenous creatures prefer the cereal to the canine. Cap’n Crunch sagely explains to the sharks: “See how it stays sugar sweet and crunchy, even in sea water? Even though most of us feel it’s tastier in milk.”
Whether any child tried to have Cap’n Crunch with sea water was never recorded. But the off-beat humor that was typical of Jay Ward’s cartoons made this type of advertising stand out.
Another commercial has the captain and his crew visiting Robinson Crusoe. Their attempts to lure the fabled shipwreck survivor off his isolated island are driven by the one piece of civilization that Crusoe lacks: access to Cap’n Crunch cereal. Crusoe takes the box and declares that now he has everything!
But the main antagonist from these commercials was one Jean LaFoot, a.k.a. The Barefoot Pirate. With his thick Gallic accent and oversized bare feet, the pirate was among the most comically degenerate creations on television. His attempts to steal Cap’n Crunch were always foiled. As the captain himself would laughingly note: “You can’t get away with the crunch because the crunch always gives you away.”
Jean LaFoot would later have his own cereal, something called Cinnamon Crunch, and variations of the Cap’n Crunch brand would later be rolled out. This included Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries, which was promoted with the introduction of a polka-dotted creature called the Crunch Berry Beast, and Peanut Butter Crunch, which had Smedley the Elephant joining the crew on the Good Ship Guppy (at one point, an attempt to put Smedley on roller skates created inevitable catastrophe – but the cereal remained crunchy). There was even a green and red version of Cap’n Crunch released during the Christmas season.
The popularity of the Cap’n Crunch commercials were without precedent. One survey conducted in the late 1960s discovered that Cap’n Crunch was the most popular animated character on television – no mean feat, as the character didn’t even have his own show! (For years, original comic books featuring the commercials’ character were included in the cereal boxes.) Quaker Oats was naturally ecstatic at the response and Jay Ward enjoyed a long-term contract with the company. Every new cereal that was introduced had a Ward-produced series of commercials to launch them. By the mid-1970s, Ward’s studios survived almost entirely on the financial input from the Quaker Oats contract.
Yet lightning didn’t strike twice. With the mild exception of Quisp, which featured a zany extra-terrestrial as its spokesperson, none of the other Quaker Oats-Jay Ward creations clicked with audiences. There was the muscular miner Quake, the regal King Vitaman, the antipodal Simon the Quangaroo – any of them sound familiar?
But even if the other cereals got soggy, Cap’n Crunch stayed fresh. Jay Ward created the cereal’s commercials until 1982, when he called it quits. Other animators took over, but it was never really the same – the off-kilter dry humor was absent, most of the original characters were jettisoned in favor of awful new creations (most egregiously the milky monsters known as The Soggies), and the joyful level of harmless slapstick was erased amid concerns of violence in children’s programming. Daws Butler continued as the Cap’n Crunch until his death in 1988; replacement actors were unsatisfactory and the character eventually became silent before being elbowed completely out of the commercials.
But the influence of the original commercials permeated pop culture with surprising depth. According to Answers.com, several bands (including GWAR and Newsboys) have incorporated Cap’n Crunch into their songs. Neal Stephenson’s classic novel “Cryptonomicon” has a lengthy passage devoted to the consumption of the cereal. References to Cap’n Crunch have turned up in culture-skewering TV shows such as “Family Guy” and “Futurama,” and the cereal even made it to the stage as part of a song in “Rent” and as an instrument in the Blue Man Group’s long-running shows.
The original Cap’n Crunch commercials from the 1960s and 1970s have never been gathered into a single video or DVD collection, which is a shame since they represent both the best of Ward’s animation and the finest in American commercial advertising. Some of the commercials have been circulating in faded bootlegs and they’ve turned up both in unauthorized collections of vintage commercials and in standalone presentations on YouTube and other Net sites.
Cap’n Crunch continues to be a best-selling brand, thanks in large part to parents who grew up with the Jay Ward commercials buying the product for their kids. And that, perhaps, is the greatest testament to the strength of those wonderfully wacky old commercials.
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