Wheaties is a breakfast cereal first produced for the American marketplace in the 1920s. Over the years, Wheaties has used the figures of celebrity athletes and other prominent people on their cereal boxes to help to sell their cereal since 1934. Basketball superstar Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls has been on the Wheaties box a record 18 separate times, with golfer Tiger Woods in hot pursuit with 14 appearances as of 2009.
Wheaties was actually an accidental discovery, made when some bran that was being cooked for sickly patients in a Minnesota clinic was spilled onto a stove in 1922; the mixture turned into cooked hard flakes. The ides of Wheaties quickly took off with many refinements being made to the product until it resembled its present day form. Wheaties went on the market in 1924, sold in boxes. The association with athlete’s pictures on the sides of the boxes would not occur until 1934.
A marketing executive named Sam Gale came up with the thought of placing an athlete’s picture on the side of the Wheaties box to increase sales of the product after realizing how important sports such as baseball were to the average person in the US. Advertising executive Knox Reeves came up with the “Breakfast of Champions” slogan in 1933. In the early 1930s, the invented characters of Jack Armstrong and Betty Fairfield were on the Wheaties box, shown engaging in sporting activities such as playing golf and tennis. They would be replaced by real life athletes famous for their achievements who endorsed the cereal.
The initial athlete to grace the recognizable orange Wheaties box was New York Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig in 1934. Other baseball stars soon followed, with greats like Hank Greenburg, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, and Bob feller depicted on the box. These players, however, were always on the side of the box. It was not until 1958 that an athlete–in this case, Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards–was placed on the front of the box with the slogan next to him.
In the early 1950s, Wheaties began to place more emphasis on getting kids to try their product. General Mills, the company that made Wheaties, decided to place well known television icons such as the Lone Ranger and the members of the Mickey Mouse Club on the box. While the number of children eating Wheaties went up, the number of adults went down. However, in 1956, the company returned to the athletic theme of its box to appeal to older customers once more.
Over the years, there have been many firsts involving who appeared on the Wheaties box. The initial time a woman made the box was in 1934, with famous female test pilot Elinor Smith having the honors. Babe Zaharias in 1935 was the first woman athlete on a Wheaties box, as she was a standout in the Los Angeles Olympics in track and field. Jesse Owens, in 1936, became the first black athlete on the box after his astounding display at the Berlin Olympics. The first woman athlete to find herself on the front of the Wheaties box was Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton in 1984. The 1987 Minnesota Twins baseball team, the World Series winner that year, were the first entire team to make a Wheaties box, which became common practice in the ensuing years with champions from sports such as basketball and hockey also depicted.