Achievement. Controversy. Beauty.
And yes, even (perhaps especially) scandal and shame can get you on the cover of Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, or Time magazine.
But one—and only one—necessity is required for an appearance on the coveted face of a Wheaties cereal box: Champion.
In one of history’s most brilliant marketing schemes, the idea of merging the image and relevant minutia of a popular sports figure with a nutritious morning meal launched an American tradition, which has endured for over 75 years.
And what better way for average Joe to justify casting etiquette aside in favor of reading at the table?
Wheaties first hit the market in 1924. It was sold in a rather plain box without the famous action images generations have come to expect. Even so, the cold cereal—in flake form—was a novelty and quickly became popular. Previously, breakfast cereals were only of the hot porridge variety, similar to oatmeal or creamed wheat.
In early 1930s America, sports was in its heyday. Clever marketing agents at General Mills seized on the idea of placing fictional athletes on the Wheaties box. They were given names suggestive of positive athletic ideals, such as Jack Armstrong and Betty Fairfield. Jack and Betty were depicted in action poses with golf club and tennis racquet.
Soon, popular real-life athletes jumped on General Mills’ gravy train and offered their endorsement of the cereal in exchange for an appearance on the box—at that time, on the back or side panel. The commercial coup de gras came in 1933 when Knox Reeves, in a moment of marketing brilliance, coined the simple slogan, “Breakfast of Champions.”
The great Yankee baseball icon, “Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig was the first pro athlete to grace the Wheaties box in 1934. Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the versatile “do anything well” phenom, in 1935 lent her endorsement and image and became the first female athlete on the box. In 1936, who else but Jesse Owens should become Wheaties’ first black athlete?
In 1958, General Mills took a gamble, and for the first time placed an athlete on the front of the box, giving the sportsman equal billing with its famous name and slogan. That athlete was Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.
Apparently the gamble paid off as Wheaties has maintained a record of longevity and popularity worthy of the “Iron Horse” himself.
In recent years, entire teams have been emblazoned across the front of the Wheaties box, symbolic of the original theme of “Champion”.
Micheal Jordan, in keeping with his mega-star status and multiple championships, has been on the box an incredible 18 times. His memorable admonition “You better eat your Wheaties” still rings in our subconscious.
While “Champion” remains the sole qualification for a Wheaties box appearance, General Mills cannot guarantee the future conduct of its featured athletes. Tiger Woods for example, has had 14 appearances. It is doubtful he will be featured again.
Any elite athlete worth his salt longs for a spot on the Wheaties box. The honor is truly a stamp of approval in the American sports scene. Trophies and medals are nice but they remain, for the most part, unseen on the mantle or wall.
However, the Wheaties box—and its contents—is devoured literally and figuratively by millions of sports fans across the country every week.
To an athlete, that is an honor mere hardware cannot convey.
Anyone else craving a bowl of cereal right now?