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These 1950s Coffee Commercials Featured Violent ‘Muppets’ Prototypes

Buy Wilkins Coffee—or else.

In 1957, before Kermit the Frog became a household name, a prototype of the famous Muppet appeared in D.C.-area advertisements as a violent coffee lover named Wilkins.

Muppets creator Jim Henson produced these ads for the now-defunct Wilkins Coffee brand. Each was 10 seconds, including a two-second shot of the product, which meant Henson had precious little time to make them catchy. His solution? Have one character attack the other.

In the ads, Wilkins—who bears a striking resemblance to Kermit the Frog—tries to convince another proto-Muppet, Wontkins to drink Wilkins Coffee. Wontkins almost always refuses. In retaliation, Wilkins shoots him, stabs him, or otherwise inflicts physical harm upon him.

The commercials became a sensation: Henson later said that, of all ads in the D.C. area, “we were the number one, the most popular commercial.” From 1957 to 1961, he made over 179 spots. In fact, by the end of 1958, he was selling vinyl puppets of Wilkins and Wontkins, which came with the description: “Hey Kids! I’m Wilkins—he’s Wontkins. You see us on TV!”

Jim Henson's Fantastic World exhibition
Jim Henson’s Fantastic World exhibition Cliff/CC BY 2.0

Wilkins and Wontkins grew so popular that Henson soon brought them to a national audience. He started filming and producing advertisements for other companies, including Esskay Meats and Kraml Dairy*, often re-shooting the same commercial with different product names.

“We had up to about a dozen or so clients going at the same time,” he said. “I was making a lot of money.”

Other characters were soon brought on board, too. Don’t miss Henson’s Purina Dog Chow commercials, starring Rowlf, or his ads featuring a Cookie Monster-esque “Wheeler Stealer.”

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*Update: The story originally said that Henson filmed ads for Krant Milk. The ads were for Kraml Dairy.