Rewind: When Deion Sanders Pitched Wheaties in Super Bowl Ad

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As Ad Age reported this week, General Mills has purchased a Super Bowl ad for the first time in 17 years with a spot for Cheerios that is expected to continue the brand's emotional, family-themed messaging. That approach would be markedly different from the company's celebrity-laden 1996 Super Bowl spot for Wheaties, which is the subject of this week's Rewind.

The ad starred then-NFL players Steve Young and Deion Sanders, along with a cameo by "breakfast of champions" pitchman Michael Jordan, who had been plugging Wheaties for years, beginning with this 1988 ad:

According to a Chicago Tribune article in January 1996 that quoted "insiders," General Mills developed "second thoughts" about airing the Super Bowl spot with Mr. Young and Mr. Sanders in the run-up to the game. Super Bowl ads cost a reported $1.1 million for 30 seconds that year (compared with the estimated $4 million for the 2014 game) but the Tribune story couldn't say whether it was the cost or something else troubling General Mills.

The ad ran in the game after all, but didn't make Ad Age's annual Super Bowl review, which gave top-billing that year to ads by Oscar Mayer, Pepsi and Budweiser, which featured its iconic croaking frogs.

Wheaties at the time was handled by DDB Needham Chicago. (Today it is at Saatchi & Saatchi, which also has Cheerios.)

Referring to Mr. Sanders, who played in that year's game as a member of the Dallas Cowboys against the Pittsburg Steelers, the Associated Press wrote: "Not only was 'Prime Time' chasing receivers and catching passes, but he was selling Wheaties with Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan and playing the roadrunner in a Pepsi ad that mixed live action with animation."

Here is that Pepsi ad, which Ad Age gave 3.5 stars out of 4:

The Wheaties spot plugged two new line extensions, Honey Frosted Wheaties and Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, which were discontinued a few years later in 2001. Indeed, Wheaties only offers its regular version in stores today. (Wheaties Fuel, which debuted in late 2009 and was backed by a bevy of sports stars, was subsequently discontinued.)

The brand is General Mills' oldest ready-to-eat cereal, introduced in 1924 by General Mills predecessor Washburn Crosby. Wheaties benefited from years of significant spending and associations with sports stars. In 1939 the cereal sponsored the first televised baseball game "to the estimated 500 owners of television sets in New York City," according a General Mills web site. Several years later the cereal ran this ad starring "Wheaties man" and then-baseball star Ralph Kiner:

But in recent years, General Mills has cut back spending on Wheaties, allotting a mere $10,100 in measured media to the brand in 2012, according to Kantar Media. The brand's most recent effort is a digital execution starring Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson.

Wheaties sales fell 15% in the 52 weeks ending Nov. 3 to $39.4 million, giving the brand just 0.42% share in the cereal category, according to IRI. Kellogg's Corn Flakes, meanwhile, has crowded in on Wheaties' long-time sports positioning, including scoring a prized endorsement last year from U.S. Olympic star Gabrielle Douglas.

General Mills' various Cheerios lines combined for nearly $1.2 billion in U.S. sales in the 52 weeks ending Nov.3, according to IRI, and Honey Nut Cheerios alone, the largest cereal brand in the U.S., had 6.07% share. But the regular yellow-box Cheerios, the focus of the coming Super Bowl spot, could perhaps use the boost: The cereal ranks fourth with a share of 3.82% share, but lost 0.17 share points in the 52 weeks ending Nov. 3, as sales sagged by 6.75%, according to IRI.

For more Wheaties trivia, check out this article on, which notes, among other things that "the first character to be featured wasn't an athlete or even a real person. It was Jack Armstrong, the 'All American boy' and star of a fictional radio show sponsored by Wheaties that began in 1933."

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