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Food & The Flexi-Disc: A Deliciously Aural & Equally Ephemeral Timeline

There is something deeply satisfying about out-nerding a record nerd. And that’s just what I did after I was able to track down the owner of just about the rarest flexi-disc in the world — one in 80 million — on assignment for KCRW’s Lost Notes.

“There was a level of deep flexi nerd connective-ism that I would have loved to have found myself,” Michael Cumella, aka MAC, a WFMU DJ and host of Centennial Songs / The Antique Phonograph Music Program, said of my story when we talked by phone just hours after I first wrote to him about it.

I wanted MAC’s help finding more food-related flexi-discs — flexis being those thin, disposable promotional records that were once mailed as postcards, attached to the spines of magazines, and, in 1988 and 1989, were the centerpiece of a massive McDonald’s marketing campaign and contest that was the starting point for my story. Over the course of a year in the ’80s, McDonald’s printed 80 million flexis and inserted them into newspapers around the country — with one of the 80 million discs playing a slightly different track than the others. That flexi entitled whoever found it to a $1 million prize.

The relationship between food and flexis seems to have peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, with flexis on the back of cereal boxes, a series of Burger King discs (made by Alf!) released via kids meals, and then there was the ante-upping McDonald’s “Menu Song” campaign. Eighty million flexis! That number makes the “Menu Song” the most widely distributed record of the decade, besting Michael Jackson’s Thriller (the best-selling album of ALL TIME) by a cool 14 million.

The “Menu Song” is basically ubiquitous in collector circles, but, in the three decades since its release, nobody had followed up on the story of Charlene Price — the Galax, VA resident who won the $1 million contest in 1989 — and her son Scotty, who saved the record from being burned up in the family’s wood stove. What I found in Galax answered, for the first time, what became of this supposedly lucky family, and the one-in-80-million flexi that changed their lives. (I don’t want to give too much away here but there are many turns in the story, like deaths and estrangements and a grifting lover.)

But there’s so much more to the relationship between food and flexis — or “ephemeral records,” as MAC prefers to call them. It’s a rich history that speaks to trends in advertising, graphic design, musical tastes, and records that are all the more seductive due to their highly disposable nature. Like a good meal, these things were never meant to last — but incredibly, some have. These are some of the more deliciously rare and otherwise notable food-related flexis and ephemeral records, along with an abbreviated/incomplete timeline I assembled on this esoteric tradition, with MAC’s generous help.

EARLY AUGHTS (1900s): THE FIRST FOOD-RELATED EPHEMERAL RECORD WAS MADE OF CHOCOLATE

In the first decade of the 20th century, Stollwerk, a German chocolate company, produced a run of tiny phonographs (with three-inch diameter turntables) custom made to play records made of chocolate. “When a song no longer pleases, oh well,” wrote the French magazine La Nature of the campaign, “just savor the disc like you would a simple snack, and eat it.” Naturally, most of the phonographs and records were destroyed within days of release by the target demographic: children. While I couldn’t find any of the original Stollwerk records, the phonographs still exist, and it’s nice to see that the tradition of chocolate records persisted in Germany beyond this early campaign, as shown in this YouTube video. (You should watch the whole thing, but you can skip to 0:57 to see a chocolate record played.)

1948: CHIQUITA BANANA-KELLOGG’S CORNFLAKES RECORD

While it became more commonplace in the 1970s, the use of disposable marketing records with cereal dates back at least to the middle of the last century and the immediate post-war era. This familiar tune — a variation on the iconic “Banana Song” — has updated lyrics describing a national cross-promotion tie-in pushing Chiquita and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. “Selling corn flakes with bananas, a treat everyone will try…” The campaign also ran in print, on radio, and on television, in ads like this one.

1955: BING CROSBY’S COMPANY MAKES A SPECIAL LID THAT PLAYS A RECORD FOR BORDEN’S COTTAGE CHEESE

“Bing Crosby was a big believer in the promotional disc,” MAC tells me. And by the 1950s, ephemeral records were such a big business in marketing and ads that the crooner and hit-maker started a company making them, Bing Crosby Phonocards, Inc. This one, fitted into the lid of Borden’s Creamed Country Style Cottage Cheese, played two pastoral-themed tunes appropriate for a dairy brand — “Farmer In The Dell” and “Three Blind Mice” — at 78 RPM.

1962: BETTY CROCKER’S TALKING RECIPES FOR THE BLIND

A Braille-embossed series of records made by General Mills targeted at the blind and instructing on “cooking safely, accurately, and conveniently”: Betty Crocker herself voiced the records (in 1962 a set of six records cost 25¢), which tied back to the use of other General Mills products (gravy and batter bread with Gold Medal flour, biscuits and shortcake from Bisquick, cakes and frosting mixes) and were accompanied by recipes in large print and Braille. The vinyl grooves of each track were separated by a smooth “band of silence” for the unsighted cook. “But always make sure your hands are thoroughly dry before you touch the machine,” Betty warned.

1965: JOHNNY CASH & SHORTENIN’

Continuing in the vein of lid-records, Columbia cut a custom-sized 33 1/3 edition of Johnny Cash’s “Orange Blossom Special,” from the album of the same name. Ostensibly to tie back to Johnny’s country branding, this record came on top of a can of Snowdrift shortening.

1969: SUGAR SUGAR CRISP’S THE ARCHIE SHOW PROMOTION

Presaging a long decade of cereal box records, a series of records came on the back of Super Sugar Crisp starting in 1969 promoting the popular animated series The Archie Show.

1970s: CEREALBOX RECORD BONANZA

Post cereals released records by the Jackson Five and the Monkees on the backs of cereal boxes like Alpha Bits, Honey-Comb, and Frosted Rice Krinkles. Count Chocula, Frankenberry, and Boo Berry cereals all came with records.

1980s: SWEEPSTAKES AND FAST FOOD FLEXI LOVE

A least two brands built contests around flexi giveaways before McDonald’s 80-million-strong “Menu Song” majorly upped the ante in 1988 and 1989. Quaker Oats Granola Dipps’ “Great Moments In Rock ‘N’ Roll” was a series of five flexis that, if you played them until the end, would tell the listener whether they’d won a prize or not. The records featured Bon Jovi, the Alarm, the Bangles, the Psychedelic Furs, and John Lennon. The grand prize in the John Lennon flexi was a 14-day trip for four people to New York, London, and LA, plus a recording studio visit, and $5,000.

Taylor California Cellars released a pizza recipe via flexi (with groovy musical underscore) in 1988 that awarded the lucky consumer “a home entertainment system or hundreds of other prizes.”

And then there was fast food’s love of the flexi. At one point in the 1980s, every Burger King Kids Meal came with Alf swag — hand puppets, and flexis, recorded by Alf himself. “Take Me, ALF, To The Ballgame” and “Melmac Girls,” a send-up of an early Beach Boys tune, are favorites.

And finally, not to be outdone, there was McDonald’s and its “Menu Song” campaign that’s the centerpiece of my story. Eighty million! By comparison, Thriller sold 66 million — and the Eagles’ Greatest Hits sold a paltry 29 mil. And as I like to say, if you’re the type that finds “Peaceful Easy Feeling” a little cloying, well, then you’ve just got to hear the McDonald’s “Menu Song.”

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Richard Parks III is a filmmaker, food writer, and podcast guy living in Los Angeles. Listen to Richard’s story “A Million Dollars Worth Of Plastic” on Apple Podcasts, via KCRW’s Lost Notes, or wherever you pod.