Food History

In 1970, Heinz Made a Woman Tap Dance on an 8-Foot Can of Soup

October  7, 2016

I love a great soup rivalry, and the year 1970 saw the budding of a particularly fervent one between Heinz and Campbell's. In November of 1970, Heinz sought to gain a toehold on a soup domain dominated by Campbell's, and theirs wasn't just any soup—Heinz marketed this soup as the Great American Soup.

Yet the Heinz Great American Soup met an unfortunate demise at the whims of a market who just didn't understand its appeal, falling as swiftly into the annals of its oeuvre as did its purple ketchup within years of its debut. It was still in production in 1972, but it petered out by later that decade.

And yet the commercial for this product, with a famously high production cost of $154,000, lives on as one of the hallmarks of the soup commercial genre.

"Boy, am I hungry," a working American man tells his wife as he shuffles into the kitchen, laying his files on the table, plainly exhausted from a day's work. He is character actor Dave Willock, who'd frequent background roles in Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies. She is named Emily. Emily is played by Ann Miller, the veteran triple threat (singer, dancer, actress) who'd risen to prominence three decades prior in such American musical films as Kiss Me Kate (1953). Miller, playing a housewife, is wearing a frilly revealing cerulean dress, her black hair neatly coiffed and seemingly buttressed by a Bumpit.

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"What kind of soup is that?" he asks.

"The Great American Soup," she drawls, walking to the counter.

Shift to a medium close-up of the man. "Can you give me that again?"

Emily perceives this question as a challenge. And she doesn't hesitate for a second to meet it. Emily busts open her dress, revealing a studded, crimson costume to rival Betty Boop's. (This costume sits in The National Museum of American History.) The counter shape-shifts, splitting in two like an amoeba, giving way to a stage. It is filled with a gaggle of chorus girls—by my count, roughly 20—all scantily clad. Jets spout red, white, and blue-hued water behind them.

The stage is deliberately fashioned like something you'd see in an old Busby Berkeley production—a symmetrically-organized sea of people who, when zoomed out to a long shot, just seem like an army of ants. But Miller stays front and center, commanding the stage, singing and dancing. "Let's face the chicken gumbo and dance!" she yells, tapping for dear life. Tap, tap, tap.

She's dancing, swiveling her hips and moving her hands with precision, until—what's that? Yes, the platform is a soup can! Imagine the terror of standing on what you believe to be a flat-topped, static surface, only for it to morph into an eight-foot can of soup that suddenly begins to rise like bread. Miller is game, though; this is not terror for her, but pleasure. It's as if she has been waiting to find herself atop a can of soup for her whole life.

But the magic ends seconds later. "Emily, why do you have to make a production out of everything?" Willock's unnamed character crows. Enough, his face reads. I have had enough of your song and dance! Ugh, men—they never understand.

There's a truncated thirty-second version of this commercial, too, also featuring Ms. Tappy Toes Miller but cloaking the familiar frames in greyscale. It's narrated by the director, Stan Freberg. "It's the toe-tapping(est?), vegetable-packed entertainment of the year when girl meets soup!" The commercial is a dizzying ride. Though it doesn't carry the charge of the original, the point comes across: We're dealing with some very important soup here, and it's unlike any we've encountered before.

Both versions of this commercial would riff on Miller's career. Miller was 47 at the time of filming, and she preceded this commercial with a storied career in Broadway and Hollywood's golden age of musicals in the 1930s and 40s. She brought the baggage of this screen presence, and her career, to this endeavor. When she'd die of lung cancer in 2004, obituaries would make mention of this commercial as one of her towering achievements.

The commercial's director, Stan Freberg, was no slouch either. Freberg would have a storied career as a satirist, and his wry, droll sensibility would permeate postwar consumer advertising like no one before him. He would find most commercials terribly silly, too soft and limp, and seek to jolt some sense into them. And so he took matters into his own hands, making these ads himself. He'd orchestrate commercials for Sunsweet pitted prunes and butternut coffee that were sarcastic and pointed. Lookit:

Choreographer Hermes Pan would recall how rehearsals for the Great American Soup commercial took a week, followed by a three-day shoot in November—all for sixty seconds of capitalist frivolity! Both Miller and Freberg were perfectionists, demanding more and more takes until they realized their collective vision accordingly.

The greatness of these two heavyweights, I guess, eclipsed the supposed "greatness" of this product, which is curiously missing from the ad. Notice how the ad doesn't make much mention of the fact that Heinz made this warm broth, nor what it tastes like. There is a rumor, floating around online that some consumers were even persuaded to buy Campbell's soup instead of Heinz after seeing this commercial, so terrifically did this campaign backfire. Yikes!

But so great is the import of this commercial that it is now bandied about as the gold standard for this very genre of soup commercials—even for Campbell's! In 2005, Campbell's attempted a similar string of commercials starring John Lithgow, intended to endear consumers to Campbell's Select soups, a riff on musicals of high production value.

There is so much obvious visual rhyming between this and Freberg's commercial, yet Ed Maslow, then the senior vice president and senior creative director at BBDO New York, the ad agency responsible for the new Campbell's ads, fiercely denied they'd borrowed from this the Great American Soup ad.

"Someone told me about it," he told The New York Times of the Heinz commercial. "In no way did it influence what we did here. What Great American Soup did had nothing to do with this whatsoever."

Uh, whatever you say, man. Maslow could not be reached for comment, so I don't know how he feels about it now. What I can extrapolate from his 11-year-old statement is that the the embers of this soup battle between Campbell's and Heinz have not been tamed; they rage on, quietly, like the tapping of shoes against an eight-foot metal canister filled with warm juice.

Do you remember the Heinz Great American Soup? What did it taste like? Please, let us know in the comments!

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


StormFiber December 28, 2018
I do remember 1970 - probably not many around here can say that! I was very young, but I do vaguely recall this commercial, but not because of the soup:
ChefJune October 10, 2016
I don't remember the soup at all, but I sure do remember the commercial! Ann Miller tap dancing on a soup can. ROTFLMAO at the memory.
tmmiran October 8, 2016
What a well-written beautiful piece of writing!
amysarah October 7, 2016
We're dealing with some very important soup here, and it's unlike any we've encountered before.

Don Draper would be proud. But no, I don't recall the soup, but I do remember 1970 - probably not many around here can say that! I was very young, but I do vaguely recall this commercial, but not because of the soup; rather, I remember being amazed that Ann Miller could dance that way, in that showgirl costume no less, when she was so old (ha!)
Moshee October 7, 2016
I love a great soup rivalry :)
I had no idea pizza rolls were so old-fashioned. No wonder my son doesn't like them!