Monday, December 23, 2019

Celebrating the Season With Kraft

Back in the Comfort TV era, a familiar expression when someone didn’t enjoy a particular show was “the commercials were more entertaining.”

I’m not sure how often that was actually true, but I can think of one example that is perfect to discuss during Christmas week.

It’s not that the show was especially terrible – but its commercials provide an example of how television viewing was a different (better) experience years ago. The medium reached a much larger audience yet somehow seemed more personal, more intimate, and could make tens of millions of people feel as if they were part of one contented, like-minded community.

How I wish we still had something like that now.

Our topic today is The Christmas Toy, which aired on December 6, 1986. It was produced by Jim Henson and featured new Muppet-like characters plus Kermit the Frog, who introduces the story and returns for the sing-along conclusion. 

It’s about toys that come to life when no one’s around, and a Christmas Eve when Rugby Tiger (who sounds and acts like Sesame Street’s Grover) worries about being replaced as a favorite toy by one of the newcomers now giftwrapped under the tree.

It’s not very good, especially when compared to other Henson holiday specials like A Muppet Family Christmas and Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. Even a new song from Jeff Moss, who wrote such Sesame Street baby boomer classics as “Rubber Duckie” and “The People in Your Neighborhood,” isn’t particularly memorable.

But the commercials are absolutely wonderful.

Like many specials back then The Christmas Toy was sponsored by Kraft, with commercials featuring recipes you can make at home that helped to make every celebration special. Because nothing says holiday magic like processed cheese, described by the soothing narration of Ed Herlihy. 

If you were to create a list of the most comforting voices of the Comfort TV era, Herlihy’s would rank in the top five, along with Mr. Rogers. His association with Kraft dated back to company’s radio ads in the 1940s, and continued on TV through the 1980s. His obit in the New York Times described him as “A voice of cheer and cheese.”

He always sounds like a nice man. And there’s a story in the Times obit that confirms it: "He liked to recall a summer day in Times Square when he helped a blind man to cross at 44th Street. He took the man's arm, and the man said it was a beautiful day. "Yes," Herlihy replied, "this is the kind of day the Lord made for the good guys." The blind man replied: "I know you. You're the cheese man on TV."

If Kraft released a DVD of all the commercials he narrated, I’d buy it. 

There were four Kraft commercials during The Christmas Toy. The first extolled the virtues of giving food as a present: “The nicest gifts under the tree are those you make yourself.” Recipes include strawberry almond bars (made with Parkay Margarine), and cheddar crisps (made by baking a cheese dough mixed with crushed potato chips - these looked really good!)

The next commercial invites viewers to “Make your tree trimming a party with Kraft TV special recipes.” Highlights include chicken wings with Kraft barbecue sauce, and tangy potato rounds made with Miracle Whip.

Next, we see folks gathered around a piano singing Christmas carols, as the camera pans toward a holiday table featuring meatball sandwiches and cheesy fruit dip made with Cheez Wiz (“The marvelous microwave-in-a-minute cheese sauce”).

The final commercial offers dessert ideas for a New Year’s Eve party. Amidst an elegant setting, we see a table set with cappuccino cheesecake (made with Philadelphia Cream Cheese) and chocolate orange mousse (another choice that looked especially tasty). “Flavorful Celestial Seasonings Herb Tea makes a perfect dessert companion” Herlihy helpfully suggests.

If viewers thought anything looked good, they could get the full recipes in that week’s TV Guide magazine. 

What stands out now in comparing these ads to the relentless assault of today’s commercials is how quiet they are. No one is shouting, no frenzied music is playing, and the time is spent on describing creative uses for the products being advertised. Even if you weren’t interested in the brand, these are not commercials that beg to be muted.

They are also remarkably effective ads, because what Kraft is really selling is not just a product. Like Martha Stewart and Valerie Parr Hill on QVC, the company is marketing a positive, pleasurable lifestyle – an existence of contented happiness in a warm and comfortable home, tastefully decorated for the holidays, and filled with family and friends on special occasions.

Many of us have experienced such moments, and these commercials bring those memories back. And for those who find themselves in less heartwarming circumstances, the ads suggest you could at least enjoy some part of that life with a box of Velveeta. It’s as close as your grocer’s freezer.

Thanks to YouTube you can watch those original Kraft ads today, without having to sit through The Christmas Toy. And to all those reading these words, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Comfort TV. Now I’m off to whip up a batch of cheddar crisps. 


  1. David, very much liked what you wrote here--these commercial's audiences were much bigger, yet they felt more intimate... it very much felt that way, holiday commercials in the 70s-80s.

    It's funny, but as a kid in the early 1970s, it didn't feel Christmas to me until I saw those commercials for Andre Champagne & Andre Cold Duck--"for the holidays and all year long".

    Merry Christmas David :)

  2. "Ring in the holidays...ring out the year..." That one and Santa riding the Norelco shaver were annual traditions. Merry Christmas to you as well!

  3. Sadly, the version of "A Muppet Family Christmas" that was released on home video in North America is edited due to music-rights issues.