Warning: this year’s beef prices may be shocking to some shoppers as suppliers struggle to meet labor and supply chain demands. The sticker price on cuts has inflated more than 20% over the past twelve months, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Bloomberg noted roasts priced at nearly $100 in early November.
An ode to Hamburger Helper
These increases are the largest in decades, matched only by the rate of inflation in the 1970s, when rollercoaster costs spiked as much as 27% within the ten-year span. Amidst the ‘70s beef crisis, General Mills brand Betty Crocker hit the bullseye with the introduction of Hamburger Helper, the cost-efficient meal kit that promised to transform just a pound of hamburger meat into a full family dinner.
As news of General Mills’ potential sale of Hamburger Helper (since rebranded Helper) looms, Ad Age looks back at the history of the brand, which turned 50 this year.
Delicious ways to fight inflation
In the late 1960s, Betty Crocker put out a collection of meal kits under its own name, but the boxes required ingredients like hamburger and noodles to be cooked separately, then later combined. It failed and the line was quickly discontinued. That’s why the brand unveiled Hamburger Helper in 1971, which focused on one-pan cooking and, as the 1975 ad above declares, “delicious ways to fight inflation.”
Originally launched with six recipes—beef noodle, chili tomato, potato stroganoff, hash, cheeseburger macaroni and rice oriental—the brand quickly spawned beef-less offerings like Chicken Helper, Tuna Helper and international cuisine kits. Today, the Helper website lists 57 varieties of the packaged food.
The early days of Hamburger Helper may have offered a popular economic resource for families, with marketing from agency Knox Reeves. But the brand wouldn’t be the fixture of pop culture that it’s become without the help of Lefty, the four-fingered magical glove—originally named Helping Hand—that looks like a severed appendage of Mickey Mouse. The mascot debuted in a 1977 television ad, led by Needham Harper & Steers (now DDB Worldwide), that depicts an exhausted wife and mother, “pooped” after a terrible day. To top it off, she still has to make dinner!
“Boy do I need help,” she dramatically wonders aloud.
The pudgy white glove magically appears and declares to be the personification of help provided by Hamburger Helper meal boxes. The woman, delighted, is magically granted a skillet meal “in a snap” and a catchy jingle.
Helped her hamburger
Musical numbers bent on brain domination became a thread through Helper’s marketing. The above ad, scored by jingle-makers Paul Libman and Paul Iams and featuring Len Dresslar, the original voice of the Jolly Green Giant, weaponizes a joyous, gospel-style tune sure to keep listeners trying to remember tongue-twister lyrics “Hamburger Helper helped her hamburger help her make a great meal” for hours afterward.
Libman recalls composing demos for multiple lyricists competing for the project, also from agency DDB Worldwide. The “Helped Her Hamburger” lyrics “created by a writer named Larry Cohen, was the clear winner,” he told Ad Age this month.
“In my opinion, it was both because of the repeating ‘h’ alliteration,” said Libman, “and the memorability of the ascending melody lines that the lyric suggested to me.”
Libman and Iams created many Hamburger Helper songs as the product’s line expanded.
“A big part of the fun was working with Joel Cory, the wonderful voice of the Helping Hand. A true pro (and a great sport), he really brought the character to life.”
In Love with the Glove
A more contemporary example is Helper’s viral 2016 “Watch the Stove” mixtape, from agency Ketchum. What started as a joke tweet soon became reality when Helper recruited hiphop artists Retro Spectro, Bobby Raps, DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip and students from local colleges near General Mills’ Minneapolis headquarters. The mixtape includes tracks “In Love with the Glove,” “Feed the Streets,” “Hamburger Helper,” “Food for your Soul” and “Crazy.”
Billboard called the mixtape “shockingly great.” Vice declared it “nothing to be mad about.” Over its first weekend, the album received over 400 million social impressions and over 4 million plays on SoundCloud.
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But Lefty’s bizarre combination of Doughboy cuteness and eerie body-less-ness hasn’t only been the subject of public adoration and music artistry. In 1979, only two years after Lefty’s debut, the parodies began. “Attack of the Helping Hand!” is a horror short film created by “Evil Dead II” writer Scott Spiegel, starring Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, creator and star of the Evil Dead franchise, respectively.
In the short, a Lefty-esque glove (this one has five fingers) attacks a woman innocently hoping to cook a family meal. Similar to the brand’s actual advertisements, the Helping Hand knockoff magically manifests to provide assistance but instead attacks the woman. A milkman, performed by Raimi, happens by the scene and ends up with a knife in his back. In the six-minute film’s finale, the woman traps the glove in a blender and destroys it. “Now for dinner,” she sighs and pulls a tube of frozen biscuits out of her freezer, summoning a menacing Pillsbury Doughboy.
The brand has been spoofed many times, like this Jay Leno faux-commercial and a similar NSFW MadTV segment. Helper even became an early entrant in the irreverent Twitter brand craze but has been mostly silent on the platform since early 2020.
Over the years, Hamburger Helper has woven in and out of fashion and General Mills has, each time, responded in its marketing, like Lefty’s invention in the ‘70s or reports from the early ‘00s of increased ad spending after falls in sales.
General Mills declined to respond to inquiries concerning the rumored deal or which agency or agencies currently help Helper. The Helpful Hand has been M.I.A. as of late and insiders said earlier this month that the company hopes to raise $3 billion by selling off Hamburger Helper and other legacy brands.