Will Ferrell’s appearance March 18 on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” was initially “seven of the longest minutes of my life,” laughs Mike Gloekler, corporate communications and public relations manager for Tennessee-based McKee Foods, Little Debbie's parent company. “I had no idea this was coming.”
Ferrell, promoting his latest comedy, “Get Hard,” made his entrance decked out in the signature cowboy hat and blue and white dress of Little Debbie, the iconic face of the popular snack cakes. Little Debbie was inspired by a photograph of McKee Foods co-founder O.D. McKee’s then four-year-old granddaughter. The snack cakes, introduced in 1960, were named after her.
The company was unaware that Farrell would don Little Debbie garb, but it was characteristic Ferrell whimsy. He had appeared on “The Late Show with David Letterman” the previous night dressed as a leprechaun.
Gloekler, who went to bed early that night awoke to a torrent of text messages from company employees. “My text messages were blowing up before my alarm went off,” he told Millionaire Corner in a phone interview. “That’s how I found out about it, and it set the tone and pace for my day.”
The messages were variations on a theme: “Did you see this?” “You’ve got to look at this.”
In the segment,Ferrell did not break character. As “the new face” of Little Debbie snack cakes, he sang the product's praises and absurdly boasted (and demonstrated) that he could taste the difference between a Little Debbie snack cake and a baked potato. Throughout the segment, a box of Little Debbie Swiss Rolls was prominently displayed on Fallon’s desk. Ferrell also teased the audience, who were poised to accept free samples from Ferrell, Oprah-style. But he pulled a switch, telling them that they all had “the opportunity” to go out and but the cakes for themselves (at the commercial break, he did go into the audience handing out samples from his basket). Later, he had Fallon read faux Little Debbie ad copy that Ferrell had written.
The response to the segment from employees was positive and enthusiastic, but Gloekler still braced himself as he watched. “I was waiting for something negative to happen, but it didn’t,” he said. “Given the opportunity to write some of the script, we may have, but overall it was nice to see our products displayed nicely and to see the audience eager to get their hands on them.”
As the old saying goes, you can’t buy this type of publicity. Consider the Red Solo Cup Company, a near 80-year-old company based in Lake Forest, IL. In 2012, the company was blindsided by “Red Solo Cup,’ a novelty song recorded by Toby Keith for his “Clancy’s Tavern” album. To date, the music video has received more than 26.5 million views and the song is a staple of Keith concerts. The company CEO found out about it only after an employee happened to see the video when it was first posted. “The video circulated through the building pretty fast,” Bob Korzenski told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We didn’t know if it was real or a joke.”
On a typical day, Gloekler said, he gets “zero (media) calls” about Little Debbie snack cakes. On the morning after, he fielded inquiries from four local media outlets, NBC News and the Associated Press, among others.
Gloekler calculates the ad equivalency value of Ferrell’s "Tonight Show" appearance to be about $828,000. Organic Facebook “likes” more than tripped in the 24-hour period following the broadcast.
This is not the first time a McKee Foods product gained pop culture immorality. The company also produces Drakes Coffee Cakes, which were prominently featured in a classic third-season episode of “Seinfeld.” But that was a pre-social media 1992.
Outside of contact from retailers saying how great they thought Ferrell’s appearance was, it is still too soon to gauge whether the Little Debbie brand will benefit sales-wise. McKee’s annual sales are $1.4 billion, Gloekler said. “Little Debbie is our flagship brand, and would account for a vast majority of that.”
For now, the company is basking in their product’s viral trajectory. The video of the appearance on YouTube has already garnered almost three million views. “There is no way to really capitalize on this without forming formal agreements, signing contracts and handing over dollars,” Gloekler said. “We just decided to take it for what it’s worth.”
The company did acknowledge the bit on Twitter, confirming, “We didn’t arrange Little Debbie’s appearance last night on late night comedy, but we thought it was hilarious.”
They later issued another tweet with the image of a mocked-up carton image of a proposed Ferrell-inspired snack item, Little Debbie Crème-Filled Baked Potatoes.
“That was our shot to acknowledge that we took it in good spirit,” Gloekler said.
But that will probably be it as far as capitalizing goes. “We’re happy with were it is right now,” Gloekler said.
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.