General Mills was hardly laughing, though, in the early '70s when a consumer advocate named Robert Choate, a civil engineer turned nutrition expert, went after the ready-to-eat cereals, saying that they were little more than empty calories. Choate called Wheaties "The Breakfast of Chumps." After the attack. General Mills started fortifying Wheaties with more vitamins.
Below the nutrition information on the side of the box is a curiously worded guarantee: "If you are not satisfied with the quality and/or performance of the WHEATIES in this box...."
Wheaties' performance peaked in the early '40s. Then World War II caused a temporary wheat shortage. After the war came television and supermarkets and, as a result, newer and jazzier cereals. The costs of commercials started to increase. Wheaties stopped sponsoring sports broadcasts and began relying on athletes' testimonials, which inexplicably lost their effectiveness when they hit the TV screen. Even Jack Armstrong began to lose his appeal, and his switch to the Scientific Bureau of Investigation didn't help. Jack died in 1951.
Wheaties' early TV commercials featured the likes of Ted Williams, Sam Snead, Bob Feller and basketball star Bob Davies, the model for Clair Bee's Chip Hilton. The theme was "What sparks a champion, sparks you," and there was always the reminder that there's a whole kernel of wheat in every Wheaties flake. In another set of early commercials, Mel Allen would say, "One of the things I like to do is talk about Wheaties. The other is to eat them." In 1954 Wheaties signed up the Yankee rookie Mickey Mantle.
But sales continued to dwindle, and General Mills decided to change direction. It made the monumental blunder of pulling Wheaties out of sports. The cereal went from Mickey Mantle to Mickey Mouse in hopes of capturing the children's market. The traditional silhouette of an athlete was replaced on the box by one of a child. Wheaties signed on The Lone Ranger and Wyatt Earp. The result was that while more kids were eating the stuff, many more adults were abandoning the Breakfast of Mouseketeers. In one year, 1956, sales dropped more than 10%. Even the revelation in that May's issue of Confidential magazine that Frank Sinatra was the "Tarzan of the Boudoir" because "he eats Wheaties" didn't help.
So Wheaties decided to go back to sports. The first choice for a spokesman was Bud Wilkinson, the Oklahoma football coach. Fortunately, as it turned out, the president of the university wouldn't permit Wilkinson to go around peddling cereal. In his stead, Wilkinson recommended Bob Richards, the two-time Olympic pole vault champion, decathlete and ordained minister of the Church of the Brethren. Wheaties and Richards was a union made, if not in heaven, at least in the boardroom.
For the next 14 years, Richards and Wheaties were inextricably linked. With Richards came the Wheaties Sports Federation, an organization that worked with the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the President's Council on Youth Fitness to make instructional films on all kinds of sports. Richards even took his cameras to the U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. track meet in 1958—COLD CEREAL MEETS COLD WAR—and sold the film clips to sports shows across the country. He also got together with an outfit which later sold the ABC network on the idea of a sports show spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat....
A man of unbounded energy and enthusiasm, Richards got whole families to believe that, with glass bowlsful of Wheaties with strawberries and milk, they could become as healthy and vital as his family. Mad did a parody of the consummate Richards commercial. After scarfing down a bowl of cereal, the Rev. Bob dives into a swimming pool and...glub, glub...drowns.
Richards' persuasive powers and preaching talents earned him big money on the lecture circuit. His film Life's Higher Goals wore out more than 500 prints and is still one of the top 10 most requested items in the General Mills library. He sold a kind of Wheaties of the mind. In the meantime, he was selling a lot of the real Wheaties.
The flakes themselves had changed. Cormack's original formula, which called for processing Wheaties a kernel at a time, remained untouched for 34 years. In 1958 "Redintegration" was introduced. Flakes were made from a more uniform mixture, and they became crispier, crunchier and more consistent.