The introduction of Sailor Jack, the boy saluting us on the side of a Cracker Jack box, was no accident in 1918. The Chicago-based company that produced the famous snack was mired in multiple controversies in the late 1910s: Its co-founder, German immigrant Frederick Rueckheim, allegedly blocked U.S. recruitment officers from entering his factory during World War I.
He did so, apparently, while displaying a photo of Paul von Hindenburg, the heroic German field marshal, on his desk. The founder’s family then made headlines with a brawl that involved an impertinent chauffeur, two stepchildren and a wrench. All of this was on top of repeated allegations that Rueckheim employed child labor at his Cracker Jack plant in the Windy City.
“There was no getting around it now,” noted the Made-in-Chicago Museum. “Frederick Rueckheim was in desperate need of a total public relations reset – for the good of his family, his company and future generations.”
Enter Sailor Jack, the patriotic boy, and his loyal dog, Bingo. The company apparently revamped the color scheme of the Cracker Jack box, too: It was now red, white and blue. Military, flag, childhood and mutts. Rueckheim had checked off some of America’s favorite boxes in the name of company survival.
More than a century later, Frito-Lay North America, the multibillion-dollar owner of Cracker Jack, is again revamping the snack’s image. The company announced last week that it is introducing a new character, Cracker Jill, “to celebrate the women who break down barriers in sports.” Five representations of Cracker Jill will debut on special-edition bags available at ballparks across the nation, as MLB opened its 2022 season last Thursday.
Fans can also get their hands on the special-edition bags by making a $5 donation to the Women’s Sports Foundation, which is dedicated to gender equality on and off the field. The Cracker Jills were created by artist Monica Ahanonu, who, according to Frito-Lay, modeled the characters after “the most represented ethnicities in the U.S. per data from the U.S. Census Bureau.”
“We are constantly inspired by the many women who are making history by breaking the mold, and we want to celebrate their achievements while supporting the progress,” said Tina Mahal, vice president of marketing at Frito-Lay North America, in a statement.
Frito-Lay singles out a few pioneers in a promotional video, including Heaven Fitch, the first girl to win an individual high school wrestling title in North Carolina. But the company, in a larger sense, is also riding on the shoulders of countless other barrier-breaking women, past and present.
They include the 12 women serving as coaches in the NFL; Sarah Fuller, who became the first woman to play in a Power Five college football game; and going further back in time, Janet Guthrie, who was the first woman to compete in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series in 1976.
Of course, the snack company is also taking part in a larger marketing trend to diversify the mascots that represent a brand, or just to make them more inclusive. Four years ago, Johnnie Walker added a female foil, Jane Walker, to go toe-to-toe with the company’s strutting dandy.
Earlier this year, Mars Inc. decided to give a makeover to the cast of candy-colored characters who hawk M&M’s. They became “more inclusive,” a personality transformation that launched a thousand think pieces, including one on whether Mars was “slut-shaming” the green M&M’s mascot.
Part of Frito-Lay’s Cracker Jill campaign includes a reworking of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” the 1908 tune that became the best free advertising for Cracker Jack, especially during baseball season where it’s regularly sung during the seventh-inning stretch.
Former Fifth Harmony member Normani released a video of the revamped stadium anthem, which includes these new lyrics: “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jill / No one can stop you, if you have the will.” Normani ends the song not with the standard line “… at the old ball game,” but with a more hopeful message about female empowerment: “It’s a new ball game.”
The same sentiment, you could argue, underscores Frito-Lay’s Cracker Jill refresh. The campaign is the company’s latest attempt to make Cracker Jack, a snack that dates back to the dead-ball era of America’s pastime, more appealing to modern eaters.
A decade ago, Frito-Lay first rolled out Cracker Jack’D, a line of snacks jacked up with caffeine and, later, more flavors. Then about six years ago, the company replaced the prizes tucked into its boxes with QR codes and mobile games.
It’s worth noting that Cracker Jill is not the first female character created by the company that owns Cracker Jack. The Made-in-Chicago Museum mentions that Rueckheim and crew, at some point, introduced a mascot named Miss Angelus, who is apparently Jack’s sister. She pitched a marshmallow confection made by the company. She didn’t stick around long.
Cracker Jill apparently won’t suffer the same fate. A spokeswoman emailed the Washington Post to say “the intention is for all five Jills to continue to join Sailor Jack as a member of the team roster and part of the brand ethos.”