This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
KELLOGG'S AND HOWIE WING
By Kathy Hammel © 2007
(From Radio Recall, June 2007)
Howie Wing, a Saga of Aviation was a children's serial about a young pilot and friends who foiled spies and smugglers with some fancy flying. Written by Captain Willfred Gibbs Moore, a flying reservist who'd served as a pilot in W.W.I, Howie Wing was considered authentic and educational. In late 1937, Kellogg’s was looking for a wholesome children’s show and Howie Wing was, apparently, just the thing.
On the broadcast waves as early as January 31, 1938 in Canada, Howie Wing was heard from February 14th in the western United States. By October 1938 it had gone National in both countries, and by 1939 was truly international when the transcribed show made it to Australia. Sponsored by Kellogg's in all three countries Corn Flakes was the cereal of choice in the US, and while Howie Wing captured the hearts of his young listeners, Kellogg’s went after their tummies.
Corn Flakes, invented by the Kellogg brothers in their health spa during the last decade of the 1800s, began offering premiums by the end of the first decade of 1900. So, by 1938 Kellogg’s was an old hand at using giveaways and mail-in premiums to drum up business. The prize-in-the-box or the send away items-for-box-tops-and-a-coin was, and still is, an effective strategy for ensuring market share.
In 1938 eager, air-minded youngsters made Howie Wing a hit. As the show took off, the promoting and the premiums came on hot and heavy. Surviving second season scripts reveal how Kellogg’s built up the excitement for the show and the product.
Boys! Girls! Here’s your chance to join a real national aviation club! … wear the official Corps Wings of glistening chromium that only members can have! You’ll be in an outfit with thousands of other wide-awake, air-minded American boys and girls. And in an outfit with real flyers! Yes, many of the nation’s leading airmen belong to the Cadet Aviation Corps as Senior Pilots, so you can see that the club is the real thing! (Script date, January 6, 1939)
In other scripts the announcer (Ralph Edwards) tells the kids how easy it is to join the Howie Wing Cadet Aviation Corps (and for Kellogg’s to collect valuable demographics!).
Now, fellows and girls, listen closely! … On top of every package of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes you’ll find a circle K… Just cut the circle K’s out on the tops of two boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and send them with 5 cents… your name and address and your age… (Script date, January 2, 1939)
While our announcer warns the youngsters not to be left out, well-known aviation figures, in the form of Senior Pilots of the Cadet Aviation Corps, plug Corn Flakes. For instance, a March 21, 1939 script features test pilot, Lee Gehlbach, who tells the kids, “It takes steady nerves and a cool head to be a test pilot and you’ve got to be on your toes every moment you’re in the air. A plane ripping through the sky at 500 miles per hour is a tricky thing to handle. And that’s why Kellogg’s Corn Flakes rate tops with me.”
Although there were quite a few such role models for the boys, the girls were not forgotten. In fact there appeared to be a concerted push to bring the girls into the fold. Stewardesses and celebrated women pilots were enlisted to reach out to the young ladies. One such was Louise Thadden, who in the January 12, 1939 script, offers her endorsement by saying, “I get a big thrill out of flying… but flying a ship is exacting work and I know I must be alert every second in the air. That’s why I prefer Kellogg’s Corn Flakes to any other kind of Cereal.”
Whether flight personnel were male or female, the announcer assures us...”that nine out of every ten airline pilots and stewardesses prefer Kellogg’s Corn Flakes over any other cereal.”
After getting the kids hooked on the show, enlisting them into the Cadet Aviation Corps was a good next step for Kellogg’s. When the youngsters sent in their two circle K box tops and a nickel, they received the Cadet Aviation Corps handbook, pilot wings and an official membership certificate with their name neatly typed on it. Kids got premiums and Kellogg’s got solid proof of the numbers of young fans of the show, kids that would be insisting their families buy Corn Flakes so that they could collect more of the circle K’s. This allowed Kellogg’s to pretty much guarantee their client markets a good share of customers for the product, which, in turn, garnered Kellogg’s more sales outlets for Corn Flakes.
Another marketing tool was to encourage kids to write to Howie Wing. These “letters” took the form of testimonials and were quoted on air. One young listener is purported to have written, “I got my membership kit from you today. It certainly is swell! I showed the Corps wings to my gang, and they’re so envious they’re all going to join the Cadet Aviation Corps, too.”
The letter goes on to talk about all the wonderful things in the handbook and the other merchandise that airplane-crazy kids can obtain - if they collect enough of the Corn Flakes circle K’s. In fact the letter is so well done in terms of jump on the bandwagon style advertising, one could be excused for wondering if this “young listener” isn’t, in reality, a 34 year old advertising exec. This impression only deepens as one reads similar letters in other scripts, with the same key words and product plugs repeated in other “letters from listener” spots.
Catching the kids attention and loyalty was effected by Captain Moore’s exciting story lines, but the sponsor also needed to keep the youngsters tuned in to Corn Flakes. So, Kellogg’s offered other premiums, including a medallion, celluloid button, pilot goggles, a weather forecasting ring, Howie Wing T-shirts and various model airplanes. Kellogg’s also ran a series of on-air contests where kids won prizes for not too much effort.
One contest was in poetry writing, which took place from mid-February through late-March, 1939. Each broadcast day a key word was given over the air and the kids were asked to write a two-line poem and send it in. Then, says the announcer, “Every day the judges will pick the ten best poems sent in by boys, AND the ten best poems sent in by girls. Each of these lucky winners will receive a crisp new one-dollar bill with the compliments of Howie Wing. Just think of that!”
Key words related to the show or the product, of course. For instance, an early key word was “Howie” and the announcer gave kids samples of how to use this in a nifty two-line poem.
Howie’s always flying high.
He’s most at home when in the sky!
Our hero’s name is Howie Wing.
He loves to fly like anything!
Other key words were “ship” (as in airship), “sea” and “corn”.
The lure of the crisp one-dollar bill must have been pretty strong in itself, but it didn’t stop there. At the end of the contest, the judges would pick the very best of the bunch… one from a boy, one from a girl… and “these two ‘grand prize winners will each get... something that’s never been given before in any contest!... a round-the-world suitcase filed with some grand presents!” This unique prize was announced on February 13, 1939, and this part of the contest officially kicked off on the February 20 show.
Recall that the year is 1939, and an around-the-world flight is no common thing, so this was quite a major event. These suitcases would be the first items ever to be shipped around the globe by air express!
Kellogg’s had certainly hit upon a thrilling and unique way to not only capture the kids, but perhaps also to get their parents to tune in. It was a rather extravagant publicity stunt, and to add even more excitement, the cases were in a race to see which one would make it back to Kellogg’s Battle Creek airport first. For the next several weeks, the announcer gave reports on where the suitcases were, while urging the young listeners to send in their poems for a chance at the dollar and a shot at the grand prize drawing. He also reminds them to keep eating those crispy golden Corn Flakes, just like real flyers do.
The suitcases began their journey on February 21st, with each plane heading off in an opposite direction, one to the East and one to the West.
As the suitcases made their separate ways around the globe, on a series of different aircraft, updates were given, like this one on February 28th:
“The boys bag left Guam Island in the Pacific on the China Clipper this morning, and, at 3:15 this afternoon reached Manila… The girl’s bag left
Dakar on the African Coast this morning on an Air France plane, and is scheduled to arrive at Casa Blanca in Morocco in a few minutes.”
For the curious, the contents of each of the suitcases is also noted. The boy who won would receive an overseas cap, flying goggles and an autographed copy of Fighting the Flying Circus by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. The lucky young lady would receive a suitcase containing a stewardess cap, a beauty kit donated by Jacqueline Cochran (who used her air fame to launch a successful line of beauty products), and an autographed copy of High Wide and Frightened by Louise Thadden. The suitcases’ epic journey lasted just under one month.
As if that wasn’t enticing enough, announcer Edwards shared that there were other gifts for the lucky pair of Grand Prize Winners: Elgin watches, Waterman fountain pens, route charts and autographed pictures of Howie Wing and his best gal, Donna Cavendish! Who wouldn’t want all that?
After such an extravagant contest, I’m not sure what one would do to top it, and apparently Kellogg’s didn’t either. Instead, they continue on a proven path, with well known pilots endorsing the health benefits of Corn Flakes, while recommending that kids join the Cadet Aviation Corps so they can be part of the action and rub elbows with real flyers. That’s not to say Kellogg’s didn’t keep new things coming. For a series that ran only two seasons, there was a surprising number of Howie Wing related items produced.
With the help of eBay and the generous assistance of an archivist at the Kellogg's Museum in Battle Creek Michigan, those of us involved in researching this show, have managed to either obtain, or, at least, see samples of some of the show premiums and Howie Wing giveaways.
There is a Howie Wing Secret Message Decoder; a punch out and build your own Howie Wing Rubber Band Shooter gun, various Wings Over America box backs (on Corn Flakes, of course) which feature drawings of ‘hot’ planes of the day, a map of the Canadian Lakes which allowed listeners to track the adventures of Howie and friends (as they chased the bad guys), a cardboard Ventriloquist’s Dummy, and a Howie Wing Moving Picture Machine, to name a handful. Of course these, and all the items, included the easily recognized red Kellogg’s logo prominently displayed.
The Ventriloquist’s Dummy and the Moving Picture Machine, along with the Howie Wing Rubber Band Shooter, were part of a ‘chose-your-own-prize’ give away that was billed as a first anniversary listener appreciation premium. These were available at your local market to anyone who bought three boxes of Corn Flakes. The items were cardboard punch-outs that required some assembly…. Or, in the case of the Moving Picture Machine, quite a lot of assembly. The Moving Picture Machine resembled a projector, and when fully assembled, had a series of postage-stamp sized images mounted inside on a wheel. By rapidly turning an external crank, the little pictures, created a simulated movie, much like a flip book does. The pictures were double-sided, so, in effect, there were two ‘movies’. One was of a parachutist jumping from an airplane; the other showed a small bi-wing doing a loop stunt.
These gifts with purchase ensured brisk sales for retailers, and even the ads announcing the gifts gave not so subtle notice to parents that they’d probably end up buying 9 boxes of Corn Flakes before the special was over.
…get your mother to buy three packages of delicious, crispy Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Then you have your choice of one of the three gifts. When you’ve had one, of course, you’ll want the other two. So you just gobble up those golden, crunchy Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Get your family to eat them up, too. In no time mother will be off to buy three more packages – and you’ll get another free gift!
(From an Ad in the Lethbridge Herald, February 10, 1939)
Aside from the giveaways and premiums, Kellogg’s also arranged local events around air shows in different areas of the country. In another unusual promotion, Kellogg’s arranged for card carrying Cadet Aviation Corps members to get a discounted rate (10 cents) on the showing of a new movie, Test Pilot, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. And, if you weren’t already a member, you could sign up at the theatre as long as you remembered to bring a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box top with you.
By the 1930s, promoting clubs, running contests and offering prizes for box tops was a proven and popular sales strategy for Kellogg’s and just about anyone else with cereal, motor oil or dish soap to sell. By the time I came around in 1950, cereal premiums were an established fact of life and, like most youngsters, I plagued my mom to send off a dime and some box tops so I could get one of the premiums offered on the back of the box.
Once Mom actually did it. For the few days it lasted, my prized possession was a set of Minnie Mouse ears… a flimsy little black felt cap with the mouse ears precariously attached, with a pink sponge bow between. (Quite fetching!)
When I became a mom, my own kids nagged me to send off box tops or to buy the cereals that had the cool toys inside and I expect my grandchildren to be similarly fascinated by whatever little plastic or paper gadget will be offered in the future. Then and now, whether on radio, TV, internet or advertised on the box, the little giveaways and send-for trinkets are an effective way to market to kids… and works pretty well with us big kids, too.
(Read more about Howie Wing in Kathy's series from 2005.)