Darrin # 1 (Dick York) or Darrin # 2 (Dick Sargent)?
These are three of the great television debates of the 1960’s, and thanks to the magic of reruns, they have waged on for two generations.* But there was another great debate of that long-gone TV era. It’s largely forgotten now, consigned to some dusty corner in baby-boomer memories. But, if you’re of a certain age, and you find yourself strolling down the cereal aisle at your local supermarket, you might have a flicker of memory, recalling the tumultuous on-going battle of . . .
In 1965, the Quaker Oats Company, fresh off its success with Cap’n Crunch, unleashed two new breakfast cereals on consumers. Quisp was a “crunchy corn” cereal that came in small “saucer-shaped” pieces, and was advertised as “sugary sweet and vitamin charged . . . for QUAZY energy!” Its opposite number was Quake, touted as “wonderful wheelies of corn and oats . . . buzzin’ with honey and bustin’ with earthquake power!”
Since the two new cereals were going to compete with each other on the shelves anyway, Quaker Oats decided to promote their rivalry as a marketing strategy. To make the contest come alive on screen, the company turned to Jay Ward and Bill Scott, the creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle, to develop mascots for the two cereals. Ward and Scott had made their bones with Quaker after their popular series of Cap’n Crunch animated commercials. The ads showcased the good Cap’n and his crew in various sea adventures, which somehow always succeeded thanks to a heaping bowl of Cap’n Crunch cereal, that oh-so-necessary “part of a nutritious breakfast.” The kids ate it up---both the commercials and the cereal.
Ward and Scott were up to the challenge, coming up with two characters, each reflecting the individual qualities of their respective cereals, and each named after it.
Quisp’s Quisp was a pint-sized,hyperkinetic alien from the planet “Q”. Pink-skinned and crazy-eyed, with a propeller sticking out of the top of his head, Quisp flitted around in madcap fashion. He may have been from the planet Q, but he spoke in a screechy Brooklynese accent, provided by vocal veteran Daws Butler, which added to the character’s frenticism.
Quake’s Quake was of the more standard super-hero mould, but exaggerated, with a jutting jaw and massive chest, shoulders, and biceps. He wore a cape, a miner’s helmet, and logging boots, reflecting his home at the centre of the earth. Quake was strong enough to punch his way through solid bedrock. Personality-wise, he was a less stodgy version of Dudley Do-Right, and voiced in Stentorian tones by actor William Conrad, clearly having a grand time hamming it up behind the mike.
That first cartoon commercial, in 1965, was a simple one, with a spokesman simply introducing Quisp and Quake---both the cereals and the characters---to the viewers. It didn’t say so much about the cereals themselves as it did their mascots, establishing their differences immediately. Quisp was agile and clever and something of a smartass. Quake was powerful and resolute and . . . well, not stupid, but slightly obtuse.
At the end, the animated host threw down the gauntlet: “Kids . . . take sides with either Quake or Quisp!”
Subsequent commercials placed Quisp and Quake in rôles as super-heroes. Every bit began with the opening line: “Quaker presents the adventures of Quake versus Quisp!” The earliest ones threw the feuding pair into the middle of a cliffhanger situation---“Last time, you’ll remember,” says the narrator, “Little Nell was trapped in a forest clearing by ravening wolves!” “Help! The ravening wolves!” cries Little Nell, and that sort of thing. Quisp and Quake would both rush to the rescue. But instead of saving the day, they’d begin squabbling over which one was the better hero (and, by extension, which was the better cereal).
And they closed with the narrator melodramatically asking, “Quisp or Quake? Which would you choose?”
After a while, the producers realised that their two new heroes should actually, you know, do something heroic. So the tenor of the ad scripts changed. When disaster struck, either Quisp or Quake would handle the emergency while the other stood by and made commentary, as sort of a one-character Greek chorus. Fittingly, the “star’s” cereal would be highlighted, while the other would get a quick mention like “Don’t forget about Quake/Quisp!”
Quisp’s adventures generally took place in outer space, with the zany alien using speed and cunning to outmanœuvre the threat, underscoring the “quaaaaaaazy energy” that you would get from eating a bowl of Quisp cereal. Quake’s outings were Earthbound, dealing with bank robbers, flash floods, and vicious “rock crocs”. The Mighty Spelunker handled these problems with brute force, all the while assuring the kids watching at home that they, too, could get “earthquake power” from eating Quake cereal.
If you sat down in front of your television set on just as one of the spots was airing, it was easy to make the mistake of thinking you had turned it on in the middle of an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle. They were pure Ward and Scott, right down to the animation style, with all their usual dry wit, punnish humour, and ironic sub-titles. The voices were familiar, too. Besides Butler and Conrad, other Ward and Scott regulars such as June Foray and Paul Frees were heard.
As they had with their Cap’n Crunch commercials, the pair of animators turned out an entertaining series. While the visual action played to the kids, the dialogue, as in Rocky and Bullwinkle, could be funny on an adult level, as well as to the youngsters. That is, when it wasn’t making a sales pitch.
Eventually, they refined the material a bit more, making each commercial a solo outing for either Quake or Quisp, with the other hero being reduced to a cameo, popping in for two or three seconds to shout “Quisp/Quake is better!” Since that meant the stars needed someone to talk to, each was given a supporting character. Quisp would pal around with an elderly fellow from planet Q named “Qwunchy”, while Quake found himself often at the beck and call of his “mama”, Mother Lode.
And so it went, for two years. On screen, the battle between Quisp and Quake was evenly balanced, with both getting an equal number of star turns. But, over at the Quaker Oaks accounting offices, the numbers were showing something else.
Quisp was selling off the store shelves better than Quake. It’s been said that Quaker Oats had played sneaky, by simply offering the same cereal, but in different shapes. As someone who consumed quite a few bowls of each back in the day, I can affirm that there were some noticeable distinctions. While both cereals had the same highly sugared sweetness, Quisp was air-puffed, making it lighter, and it absorbed milk better, without getting soggy. Quake’s pieces were almost twice the size of Quisp, and more solid. They didn’t draw in milk as well, which made them harder to bite down on.
Quake’s slipping sales sent everybody back to their respective drawing boards.
In 1967, Quaker unveiled a “new and improved” Quake. It was still just as sweet, but the size of the pieces had been reduced and they were slightly less rock-like in texture. To signal this change, the character Quake got a makeover, too. That was Jay Ward and Bill Scott’s department.
The idea they came up with was seen in a commercial airing that summer. It started off with the usual “Quake versus Quisp” line, then showed the usual sort of dilemma. In this case, a two-seater aeroplane with iced-over wings headed straight for a mountain. Spotting the danger from a monitor in his earth’s-core headquarters, Quake springs into action. Quisp points out that the bulky hero is too slow to reach the plane in time. “You’ll never make it,” he taunts.
“Sure I will, Quisp,” retorts Quake. “I’ll use my new-and-improver machine!” The earthquake-powered hero then yanks the lever on a huge contraption that bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and jumps into the hopper. Inside, we see huge gears and giant boxing gloves push and prod Quake into a new shape until, shooting out the other end, he’s now slim and trim, and garbed in a sleeker super-hero outfit. In one of the final touches, a mechanical hand replaces his miner’s helmet with an Australian bush hat.
After a quick pitch for his redesigned cereal, the lighter Quake zooms to the rescue, arriving in time to punch the mountain top out of the path of the stricken aircraft. “Thanks, old boy!” shouts the grateful pilot.
“Old? I’m new!” replies Quake. “And improved, too!”
The feud between Quisp and the new Quake continued in the same vein as it had with the old Quake. But after about a year, viewers began to notice that the Quisp-oriented commercials showed up a lot more often than the Quake ones. That was because Quaker Oats was following the money; Quisp was still outselling even the improved Quake. Significantly.
“The Breakfast Cereal Hall of Fame”, a website maintained by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford, supplies comments straight from the Quaker’s mouth, so to speak. They point to the popularity of the cereals' mascots for the difference in sales. “Quisp had a lot of better things going for him,” said Mike Barna, a Quaker Oats package designer at the time. “He was light and happy and joyful and such. Kids liked him better than Quake.”
Max Lomont, a former Quaker Oats art director, probably put his finger on it when he said, “It’s fairly difficult to make somebody who comes out of the earth appealing.”
Quake continued to limp along, perpetually trailing Quisp, until 1972, when Quaker Oats decided to face facts. It asked the consumers to vote on which cereal they liked better while running a couple of commercials showing the mascots campaigning for their respective products. To no-one’s surprise, when the results were in, Quisp won handily, with 203,112 votes to Quake’s 157,316. Within a year, Quake disappeared from the grocery-store shelves.
Quake, the cereal, was no more. But Quake, the character, still had some life left in him.
In 1974, viewers were surprised to see a Quaker commercial open in Quake’s old cavern home and Mother Lode bemoaning the fact that the public had rejected her son’s cereal. “Not to worry, mama," announces Quake, arriving with a crate on his shoulder. “I have a secret weapon!”
The crate is opened to reveal Simon the Quangaroo---an orange, polka-dotted kangaroo wearing a bush hat. Simon, says Quake, is here to help him introduce his new breakfast cereal, Quake’s Orange Quangaroos---“bright orange colour, bright orange flavor, sweet and crunchy, too! And there’s a whole day’s worth of Vitamin C in every bowlful!” Even Quisp is impressed.
While the commercial insisted that Simon was there to help Quake introduce his new cereal, it soon became evident that the square-sided super-hero was nothing more than a shill. The next Quangaroos commercial took place in Simon’s homeland of “Orangania”, and he was getting all the tag-lines---“Simon says they’re yummy!”
Quake got pushed further into the background when Quaker Oats revived the feuding-cereals concept. Only, instead of Quisp versus Quake, the plotlines centered on Quisp versus the Quangaroo. The most humiliating moment of all came in a commercial depicting the zany Quisp and the bouncing Simon in a cross-country race, with Quake on hand at the finish line. Quisp wins, and Quake graciously hands the trophy to his former rival.
Simon the Quangaroo was everything that Quake wasn’t; he was light and witty and mischievous, the same qualities which Quaker felt had made the Quisp character so popular. But for some reason, it didn’t translate into sales. Orange Quangaroos fell behind Quisp as fast as Quake had before.
The problem was most folks just didn’t like it. They complained about a metallic aftertaste. Here again, I have to weigh in. I loved it. You’re probably thinking oranges and milk---yecch! But it didn’t have the tartness of an orange. Adding milk gave it a flavour very much like a creamsicle. To this day, it remains the best cereal I ever ate, and I was disappointed when Quaker Oats discontinued Orange Quangaroos in 1976.
But, then, I was in the minority.
As for Quisp, the same popularity that enabled it to trounce two rivals has kept it and its mascot alive over the decades.
Quaker Oats discontinued Quisp in 1979, but public demand resurrected it in the mid-1980’s and again in the 1990’s. After being taken off the shelves once more, the cereal was made available in 2001, for on-line purchase from the Quaker Oats website, and remained so through to 2009. The cereal is currently listed as “temporarily out of stock”, but a new Quisp cartoon is available for viewing.
* For the record, it’s: