The Commercial Ad Legacy of The Muppets


The first Muppets movie in six years hits theaters a day before Thanksgiving with the hopes of rejuvenating the franchise. The last two films—Muppets Wizard of Oz (2005) and It’s a Very Merry Muppets Christmas Movie (2002)—largely fell flat. This time around, titled simply The Muppets, the new film hopes recapture the success of the 1979 original The Muppet Movie, which was not only a critical darling but also the highest-grossing Muppet movie of all time.

But it’s a new age of filmmaking, and The Muppets are tacked with more than entertainment. Like all other Hollywood stars, they’re being asked to sell a film, and, in the process, move product. Muppet News Flash: the film is going to have product placement.[more]

Based on 1976’s The Muppet Show, the Muppets gang, with plush leaders Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, is an icon of Americana. More than that, many of the Gen X (and Gen Y) persuasion view the Muppets as representative of a time before crass mass commercialization and the rise of big box stores, cheap credit, and an America obsessed with brand names. As with all nostalgia, this view contains a grain (just a grain) of truth.

“The Muppets face the indignity of product placement” reads the headline of a Hitfix piece about how “Our fuzzy friends star in tongue-in-cheek UK cinema ad for phone network.” The piece laments that the ads are the home of “down-and-out vaudeville veterans.”

The author concludes that he would “watch these guys in life insurance commercials if it comes to that.”

Besides mistaking the difference between a product placement and a tie-in, we regret to tell the author that it long ago “came to that.”

As far back as the 1980s, The Muppets were pitch-puppets for Polaroid:

And, talk about facing an “indignity,” the mid-2000s found the gang co-starring in Pizza Hut commercials with then-superstar Jessica Simpson:

And (and shades of Ford’s Focus Doug) the new Muppets gang are touting Chrysler (top), while just a couple years ago Kermit was a spokesfrog for Ford’s Escape.

Not only are the Muppets as commercial entities nothing new, it’s in their DNA.

Muppets creator Jim Henson won early success with his 1955 show Sam and Friends, which featured the first appearance of Kermit. But with employees and kids to feed, Henson took on significant commercial work on the side. One of those commercials, for Wilkins Coffee, used Kermit’s voice:

There was also this spot for C&P Telephone:

And this spot for La Choy:

And, pertinent to today’s cash-strapped times, Housing and Urban Development FHA loans:

Those shocked by the “indignity” of starring in commercials would probably be stricken to see the early 1960s Henson commercial for “fabric finish” Linit. The ad clearly features the face of Ernie of Sesame Street‘s Ernie and Bert fame. Henson, by the way, did not work on the Sesame Street show until 1969.

The ads were a hit for Henson and laid the foundation for him to develop what would become Sesame Street and then The Muppet Show. And his commercial success was no accidental fluke.

The book Of Muppets and Men: The Making of The Muppet Show quotes Henson on his approach, “Till then, [ad] agencies believed that the hard sell was the only way to get their message over on television. We took a very different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh.” (Taking an opposite course, Dr. Seuss started out illustrating ads on Madison Avenue.)

One wonders what Henson, who died 21 years ago, would think of this legacy of selling things by making people laugh, and how his Muppets continue to figure in to that strategy. Of course, today they’re answering to a boss, Disney, whose monetization savvy knows no bounds.