SERIALS, CEREALS & PREMIUMS
Before ratings were developed, radio advertisers sought a way to measure a program's audience size and its effectiveness as a vehicle for their messages. This was especially true of daytime radio where audience polling wasn't introduced until 1938.
The origins of mail-order premiums for this purpose has been traced to the marketing of Mineralava facial mudpacks in late 1922 when the company sponsored the 15-minute talk, How I Make Up For The Movies, by actress Marion Davies and offered an autographed photo of the blonde movie star to all who requested it.
A decade later, another popular blonde, (or redhead), Little Orphan Annie, became the undisputed Queen of Radio Premiums. Created by cartoonist Harold Gray for The Chicago Tribune in August, 1924, Annie began her radio run on the Tribune’s WGN in 1930. The weekday afternoon serial moved to NBC in 1931 where the Swiss chocolate-malt milk flavoring powder Ovaltine used it to become a nationally known product. Over 60 different premiums - mugs, rings, badges, photos and other miscellaneous items - were offered for proofs of Ovaltine purchase by the show over its eleven years on the air.
Tom Tumbusch’s Illustrated Radio Premium Catalog & Price Guide reports that between 1928 and 1934 some 107 network and transcribed programs, appealing to both adults and children, offered premiums to their listeners.
Little Orphan Annie’s “birthday” broadcast of October 18, 1935 was an entire set-up and five-minute introduction for Ovaltine’s Birthstone Ring, offered with the listener’s choice of twelve, “…hand-made, simulated birthstones actually imported from Europe,” for just one Ovaltine jar seal and ten cents. The lengthy pitch was a tribute to the excited, yet friendly, appeal of announcer Pierre Andre who remained with the show throughout its six year Network Radio run. (1)
Annie’s Secret Society was introduced in 1936 and messages given to listeners in her Secret Mystery Code, deciphered “quick as a jiffy” with Ovaltine’s gold-colored Secret Society Decoder Pin and Annie’s Official Book of Secrets, both available “absolutely free” by sending an Ovaltine tin’s inner seal to Annie in Chicago. As evidenced in this episode from October 2, 1936, the biggest drawback to the secret code promotion pioneered by Orphan Annie and duplicated by others, was the airtime required to recite the numbers contained in each week’s messages, often up to a minute of interest to no one but Secret Society members who were dutifully writing down the numbers by their radios. Of interest to the Federal Trade Commission, however, were Ovaltine’s commercials, like in this broadcast, which promised to help sooth the young listeners’ nerves in school, resulting in better grades. (2)
The next kid serial to jump on the coded message bandwagon was Dick Tracy, based on Chester Gould’s popular comic strip which enjoyed 14 year multi-network run. It offered The Dick Tracy Secret Service Patrol Club in much the same format as Orphan Annie’s Secret Society. In this NBC broadcast from February 8, 1938, the detective’s ward, Junior, (Jackie Kelk), delivers the coded message of 18 numbers which can be decoded only with the help of the Dick Tracy Secret Service Patrol Code Book & Badge, available for two Quaker Puffed Rice or Puffed Wheat box tops.
Announcer Don Gordon took a more direct approach for sponsor Skelly Oil when enrolling members for Captain Midnight’s Flight Patrol in the Mutual broadcast of October 20, 1939. New recruits were instructed to have Mom or Dad drive them to a Skelly station and the dealer would give them a Junior Pilot’s Club application card, which the dealer would send in, then notify the family when the applicant’s Spinning Propeller Membership Badge arrived - requiring another trip to the Skelly station.
A long overlooked early 40’s generator of premiums was Libby, McNeill & Libby, one of the nation’s largest producers of canned vegetables, fruits and juices. As sponsors of Terry & The Pirates on WGN’s Midwest network in the 1941-42 season, the company introduced some new and unique premiums to afternoon radio. (3) For example, on November 19, 1941, The Terryscope was introduced for a label from a can of Libby‘s Tomato Juice and a label from Libby‘s Pineapple Juice plus a dime. The cardboard periscope, “…with eight special features printed on it,” was introduced by, “Terry Lee himself all the way from China”. The pitch began at 9:30 into the program and went on for nearly four minutes.
Libby followed with January 6, 1942’s modest 90 second introduction of Terry’s Adventure Game Book, featuring “…over 20 games and stories,” for two Libby juice labels but no money. Next came the April 16, 1942 pitch for Big Stoop’s Rainbow Code Writing Pencil - that writes in Dragon Lady Red, Burma Blue, Chinese Yellow and April Green for two Libby Tomato Juice labels and ten cents. Libby’s final offer of the year on May 12, 1942, was again introduced by hero Terry Lee, “…speaking directly to you” offering his uinque Airplane Spotter identifying 16 Allied and enemy aircraft by silhouette and dimensions. Again, the printed cardboard premium required two Libby labels and a dime.
Franklyn MacCormack, longtime announcer for Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy, broke the news on November 10, 1940 which faithful listeners to the Mutual weekday afternoon serial had expected for six weeks since the beginning of Jack’s Luminous Dragon Eye Ring adventure. (4) Yes, an exact replica of the mysterious Oriental ring that glowed in the dark could be theirs for a Wheaties box top and a dime! MacCormack turned on the hard sell for the episode of January 30, 1941 when he introduced The Jack Armstrong Pedometer. His two and a half minute opening spot introducing the premium for 10 cents and a Wheaties box top was followed by 45 second closing spot reminder. (5)
Unfortunately, surviving episodes of The Lone Ranger have been stripped of commercial content which prevents inclusion on this post of the program’s dozens of different premium offers from its various regional bread sponsors, (Bond, Butternut, Eddy‘s, Gingham, Merita, Miami Maid and Silvercup, 1933-1940), or its longtime national sponsor General Mills for its Cheerios, Kix and Wheaties cereals, (1941-1956). The program lured box tops and dimes from its young listeners for toy pistols, “silver“ bullets, belts, badges, booklets, photos, coins, pedometers and slide whistles.
In one premium category The Lone Ranger could have been considered the juvenile jewelry shop, offering rings of every description beginning with the National Defenders Ring in 1941 and 1942’s Secret Compartment Ring, (available with Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps emblems with The Lone Ranger and Tonto’s picture inside its secret compartment). World War II put a crimp in the production of plastic and metal premiums, but when it was over, The Lone Ranger returned to selling adornments for juvenile fingers: The Atomic Bomb Ring and The Weather Ring in 1947, The Flashlight Ring and The Six-Shooter Ring in 1948, The Movie Film Ring in 1949 and The Filmstrip Saddle Ring in 1951. (6)
The longest running and most elaborate of premium promotions, however, was also its biggest in size - covering 16 square feet of floor space. It was Lone Ranger Frontier Town, tied-in with the program’s 15th anniversary when the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming changed its name for one day - June 30, 1948 - to Lone Ranger Frontier Town and hosted an ABC Network broadcast starring Brace Beemer to commemorate the event. (7) The full story of this promotion that drew over 2.0 Million responses is told at GOld Time Radio’s post that profiles the program in detail, The Lone Ranger.
Captain Midnight’s turn to pitch Ovaltine’s familiar Shake ‘Em Up Mug came on May 14, 1947 when announcer Tom Moore spent four minutes at the show’s opening and another minute at its close urging kids to send in their Ovaltine label and 15 cents, “…tonight or tomorrow for sure.” (8) No money, however, was required when The Captain Midnight Secret Squadron began its re-enrollment campaign on the broadcast January 10, 1949 offering a new KeyOMatic CodeOGraph, important in the program’s plot, to decode secret messages from friends and Captain Midnight, himself. The latter often could be decoded to, d-r-I-n-k-m-o-r-e-o-v-a-l-t-I-n-e, or a variation of the sponsor’s drumbeat.
Continuing with badge offers, the Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters were alerted on the episode of August 10, 1945 to stand by for, “The best news you’ve ever heard!” - the introduction of a genuine metal Whistling Sheriff’s Badge with a built-in siren whistle to blow in emergencies and “Sheriff” stamped across its top,”…to make it official.” The badge was offered for the trademark from a Shredded Ralston cereal box and a dime mailed to Tom Mix in St. Louis. (9)
Kellogg had a history of small premiums contained inside boxes of its Pep cereal. (10) First it offered full color buttons depicting characters from its weekday afternoon Adventures of Superman and then cardboard replicas of Allied aircraft involved in World War II. That three year tradition ended with the Man of Steel’s Mutual broadcast of September 24, 1945, when it introduced the new Sundial Wristwatch for two box tops and a dime sent to Kellogg’s Battle Creek headquarters. What sets the spot apart is its brevity - only one minute in the field of three to four times that amount spent on others’ premium offers. When the sundial offer ran its course, Kellogg returned to its “Crackerjack mode” of packaging premiums - comic strip character buttons, cardboard airplanes and songbird trading cards - in boxes of Pep for the next two years.
On the March 14, 1947, episode of Superman, longtime Kellogg’s announcer Dan McCullough excitedly introduced two new collections that could be built with Pep box tops. For girls, he described a “beautiful silver-like” Charm Bracelet with a dozen assorted charms. The bracelet and each charm were available by mail for one Pep box top and a dime. For boys, McCullough had “a super-dooper silver-like” Key Chain with twelve “nifty” good-luck pieces that could be attached to the chain. For some unexplained reason, the key chain’s price was 50% more than the charm bracelet, 15 cents plus the obligatory Pep box top, although the good-luck pieces, like the charms, were only a dime.
The Kellogg premium machine rolled out, “…genuine U.S. Army Money Belts - the same ones that cost our GI’s a dollar!” for a dime and Pep box top on the Superman episode of June 13, 1947. The belts were advertised to feature three secret compartments and two smaller ones to contain, “…your secret codes, your identification, your money, even your secret messages.” (Who knew that Superman listeners had so many secrets?) The company turned to program-related toys made popular by General Mills in the first week of Superman’s Secret Rocket adventure on October 3, 1947, introducing a hand-held Skyrocket, “…almost half a foot long that you can zoom up over the treetops. Just flick your arm and launch your Skyrocket into the sky!” The price for this premium was clearly stated as a dime and a nickel, not 15 cents which invited postage problems, and a Pep box top. The Skyrocket was Kellogg’s final mail-in offer - it returned to souvenir photos of movies, sports and radio stars packaged inside boxes of Pep until its final broadcast of Superman on Mutual, December 22, 1947.
Meanwhile General Mills killed one promotion and introduced another with the July 22, 1947 broadcast of The Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger’s stable mate on ABC also originating at WXYZ/Detroit. For Cheerios, an excited Hal Neal announced the close of a contest offering 200 Webcor Home Recording Machines, (complete with microphone), for the winning entries completing the statement, “I like Cheerios’ Walt Disney Pocket Sized Comic Books because…” in ten words or less and submitted with a Cheerios‘ box top. The Webster-Chicago wire recorders, complete with a supply of stainless steel recording wire carried a value of $149.50, a big departure for the company that normally conducted contests with bicycles and table radios as major prizes. The broadcast closed with a tease for, “…Model City, the next exciting offer from General Mills‘ beginning next week!’. (11)
Sure enough, the “exciting” Model City promotion that began in late July was still going strong on The Green Hornet broadcast of December 2, 1947. The show was sponsored for part of the one season by General Mills’ Betty Crocker Cereal Trays - containing ten single serving boxes of Cheerio’s Kix and Wheaties. Printed on the backs of the cardboard cereal trays and its boxes were buildings, houses and cars from a “swell looking” Model City that listeners were invited to cut out and assemble, “…with no glue necessary.” (12) While the kids put scissors to the backs of the packages, their mothers were encouraged to save the coupons printed on the side of the cardboard Cereal Trays, redeemable for Oneida Community Silverplate dinnerware.
The third contribution to Network Radio from WXYZ/Detroit, Challenge of The Yukon, introduced Quaker Puffed cereals’ latest premium on February 21, 1949, in an ABC episode appropriately titled, The Magic Light. Immodestly heralded by announcer Jay Michaels as, “The hottest news since gold was discovered in the Yukon! It’s the new, official, Challenge of The Yukon Secret Two-Way Signal Flashlight!” The half-hour drama’s three-minute middle commercial pitched the black, four-inch flashlight, that sent beams of red or green light for, “secret coded messages to friends,” available for 25 cents and a Puffed Rice or Puffed Wheat box top.
The plot was continued in Challenge of The Yukon’s next episode as the intrepid Sergeant Preston pursued the villain from the previous program, allowing a familiar maneuver in premium offers to be employed by Quaker in this situation: the invention of the premium’s prototype within the story, itself. Such was the case in the February 23, 1949, Challenge of The Yukon when the battery powered multi-colored flashlight was introduced into the story set in the 1890’s. Historically, the timing of the invention was questionable, but it helped move premiums, and more importantly, sell more cereal.
And that was what it was all about.
(1) Little Orphan Annie was broadcast on both NBC and Mutual during the 1937-38 season. The show eventually moved to Mutual in 1940 for the final two years of its run when sponsorship shifted from Ovaltine to Quaker cereals.
(2) The FTC finally caught up with Ovaltine in May, 1945, when it charged the drink with false advertising, promising to steady nerves, fight colds and improve vision.
(3) Milton Caniff’s Terry & The Pirates was created in 1934 for The Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News.
(4) Jack Armstrong began his network run on CBS, (1933-36), moved to NBC, (1936-41), stopped at Mutual for the 1941-42 season, then went to Blue/ABC until he left the air in 1951. General Mills sponsored the entire run.
(5) It’s interesting that Wheaties’ high pressured premium pitches were delivered by Franklyn MacCormack who also was the velvet voiced announcer of Wayne King’s Lady Esther Serenades. (See The Waltz King on this site.)
(6) The Atomic Bomb Ring of 1947, available for 15 cents and a Kix box top, was the most successful premium of Network Radio’s Golden Age with 1.3 Million units sold requiring three production runs. When the, “bomb’s” secret compartment tail was removed in the dark, flashes caused by polonium striking a zinc screen could be seen through its tiny plastic lens.
(7) Credit for this highly successful and cost effective promotion belongs to sponsor General Mills and its ad agency Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample.
(8) The danger of ripped envelopes and overdue postage was present in soliciting any cash payment for premiums beyond a dime. For example, 15 cents could be interpreted as fifteen pennies.
(9) It was never mentioned that the real Tom Mix was killed in a 1940 auto accident although credit was given to singing actor (Joe) Curley Bradley for playing the title character at the conclusion of every episode.
(10) Whole wheat Pep, The Sunshine Cereal, was Kellogg’s answer to General Mills’ Wheaties. Pep went out of production in 1978.
(11) Announcer Hal Neal became General Manager of WXYZ in 1958 and was later promoted to President of ABC’s owned and operated stations.
(12) The Green Hornet’s Model City was the same idea as The Lone Ranger’s Frontier Town only on a much smaller scale and months earlier.
Copyright © 2018, Jim Ramsburg, Estero FL Email: firstname.lastname@example.org