Yikes! You Call That a Pencil?

How a pencil made out of compressed particle boards became a schoolyard fad—and what that pencil line has to do with olestra.

By Andrew Egan

Today in Tedium: The mergers and acquisitions aspect of 1980s corporate culture made some strange bedfellows among companies. While this era gave us some now commonly known hyphenated companies, like Time Warner and Bristol-Myers-Squibb, it also saw electronics manufacturers buy steel companies and almost everyone buying or attempting to buy a movie studio. This was also when corporate executives realized company loyalty wouldn’t be rewarded if they ended up on the losing side of a hostile takeover. As an endless series of maneuvers breached public consciousness through news coverage and eventually films like Wall Street and Working Girl, critics and the public debated the impact of a high octane corporate culture that was always going to be defined in retrospect. Some of it was good. A lot of it was bad. And from time to time it led to something awesome. Today’s Tedium is looking at Yikes! pencils, one the 1990s most iconic school supplies, and how a notorious fat substitute indirectly helped its creation. — Andrew @ Tedium

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The predicted annual sales of olestra products circa 1987, according to one industry analyst. They would go on to say that olestra is “the single most important development in the history of the food industry.” Things didn’t quite work out that way.

Wow Chips Olestra

Wow! Chips, the big product that had a side of olestra baked in. (via Snacks Wiki)

How Olestra led to more than digestive issues

The resume of John G. Smale reads like a boomer ideal. Start at one company, work your way up to CEO, and quit after nearly three decades of work. So it was quite the surprise in October 1989 when the long-time head of Procter and Gamble, one of the largest consumer products companies in the world, announced he was leaving. Not for retirement, but to take over as CEO of General Motors.

Selling cars instead of toothpaste isn’t as much of a stretch as it might seem. Both products are developed and manufactured by hired experts but the marketing can be done by anyone with a knack for marketing. Smale certainly had a knack for marketing, convincing the American Dental Association to endorse the then-new Crest toothpaste as a promoter of oral health. Today, Crest is still one of the largest dental brands, but has fallen to second against Colgate.

As Smale rose through the ranks of Procter and Gamble, he acquired a cadre of trusted deputies that absorbed his lessons and applied them to the company’s growing list of products. This roster is actually kind of impressive as many are responsible for establishing well known brands that continue to make money more than 30 years later, like Vidal Sassoon shampoo. Later, these same executives would take leadership roles at Coca-Cola and Nabisco, among others. One of these executives had the fortune/misfortune of taking over as P&G’s vice president for edible oils. Or as the Cincinnati Enquirer dubbed him, the vice president of olestra.


A warning about olestra on a can of Pringles from the late ’90s. (Roadsidepictures/Flickr)

For those of you too young to remember, the commercial launch of olestra was a big deal in the mid to late 1990s. Health fads had led to the fat free boom and diet versions of snacks and drinks. The only problem was that most diet versions were objectively worse than the original. Olestra was going to change that. Originally discovered by P&G scientists in 1968, olestra is a fat substitute oil used in the manufacturing of otherwise high fat foods. Think potato chips as the main example but olestra could be used in a wide range of snack foods without adding calories.

Clearing a new food additive for commercial use is a long and arduous process. Among concerns by regulators, principally the FDA, were that consumers would indulge in snack foods under the belief they were healthier options. Though other side effects, principally diarrhea, was also a cause for caution. With olestra’s patent window closing in 1995 (though P&G pushed for and received a few extensions) the company released olestra products in 1998 under the WOW Frito Lay brand.

Almost immediately, Olean (the name olestra was marketed under) became a punchline for late night hosts and sketch comedy shows, such as Mad TV.

Family Guy even made the joke sometime in the last 5 years.

But Charles Lieppe, who had led the olestra division through various rounds of development and regulatory setbacks in the 1980s, had long departed the company. He left with his boss, Smale, in 1989 perhaps out of loyalty or just maybe because he knew the likely end game for olestra. In any case, by 1991 Lippe (a consumer foods executive who would later go on to Nabisco) had taken a job as president and CEO of Empire Berol USA of Nashville, Tennessee, a pencil company.


The percentage of kids who saw a commercial for Yikes! pencils in 1993 or were aware of the brand, which had launched just a year earlier. While millennials have numerous nostalgic touchstones, Yikes! pencils are best known to those of a certain age. Primarily those born between 1984 and 1989.

Yikes Pencils

Yikes! Pencils. (via Reddit)

The funky pencils that were everywhere—until they weren’t

A write up in the Rock Hill Herald in August 1993 introduced Yikes! pencils to parents with a lead that could have been provided by a copywriter, “The pencil has orange wood, fat finger grooves and a guarantee that your parents won’t steal it. Yikes! That’s a pencil.”

The article does go onto to offer a little bit of insight by the actual creator of the Yikes! brand, Ken Cooper, who was in charge of new product development for Empire Berol USA in the early 1990s. “I’m the guy who developed the product,” he told the Herald. He noticed that kids like to customize their pencils with stickers or even their own inscriptions applied via thumbnail. From that realization, Cooper suspected wooden pencils that didn’t look like wood might have an appeal. He continued, “It was just an observation. Why did wood have to look like wood? And how can we make it look like something else?”

Compressed particle board was the answer and allowed Berol to offer Yikes! pencils in a range of inventive colors though they were limited to black, orange, and pink at launch. The company also included a range of similarly themed erasers and a see through pencil sharpener so you could see the crazy pencil shavings.

The Yikes! line was perfect for an executive like Lieppe with extensive consumer product experience. He even knew the exact Cincinnati-based ad agency to help launch the product nationally. Lieppe hired Northlich Stolley LaWarre in December 1991 shortly after taking over Berol. The ad agency had long worked with the Cincinnati-based P&G on it’s Whirl, Frymax, and Professional Crisco brands. Two years later, both Empire Berol and Northlich Stolley LaWarre were the focus of a Cincinnati Enquirer profile detailing the smash success of the Yikes! television advertisement. “...the impact of the commercial has been significant, with a 50 percent in sales from last season to this year,” according to a Berol marketing VP.

The advertisement was incredibly effective, with the company claiming it led to a 90 percent recognition rate among kids, though no age group was specified. Though one hallmark of success are op-eds that complain about your tactics, like the one that appeared in the Asheville Citizen Times in 1994 that lamented, “Instead of ‘Yikes pencils now have colorful, attractive art that adds to the visual pleasure while improving work prowess,’ it’s ’Hey man, buy a pencil or be a social outcast.’”

Ultimately, thanks to the brief ubiquity that Yikes! pencils achieved—Yikes! was a meme before memes were memes—Berol became attractive enough to be taken over by a competitor, Newell Corp., a holding company for brands, by 1996. Later that year, Lieppe secured a position as the head of the international division for Nabisco. Less than four years later, Yikes! had been discontinued, as it did not fit the new parent company’s direction.


The amount of money that Berol claimed was worked into its Eagle Greenbacks pencils, which gained their distinctive green look by literally recycling out-of-circulation money into the mix. Another strange pencil Berol was associated with was the Eagle Jeans Pencil, which—you guessed it—was built out of old blue jeans.

At this point, I should probably mention what it was like to write with a Yikes! pencil. It was objectively terrible. The graphite smeared with a touch and the nifty polyurethane erasers didn’t erase. They just spread the graphite into a black blob. Yikes! pencils were a nightmare for homework worksheets in an era before digital copies.

Eagle Greenbacks

A sampling of a pack of Eagle Greenbacks, which can still be purchased today. (via Walmart)

Pretty soon after launch, the Herald noted that kids didn’t seem too keen on Yikes! pencils and even Empire Berol products as a whole:

Jeremy Grant, a rising seventh grader at Sullivan Middle School in Rock Hill isn’t into fun pencils either. He prefers mechanical pencils and yellow pencils—but only the best yellow pencils. He is down on a couple of Empire Berol brands claiming their [sic] break when he presses down too hard. ‘I don’t mean the lead—the whole pencil will break,’ Jeremy says.

A 2006 blog post describing Empire Berol’s Eagle Greenback pencils on the website Pencil Revolution also does a spectacular job of describing the value proposition of Yikes! and other novelty pencils: “Wise people say to beware the wine that comes in a fancy, colorful, bright and shiny bottle: they are selling the bottle—the wine is junk. And so it goes with pencils.”

So yeah, don’t buy these novelty pencils expecting them to be your old standbys.

But if you want to relive some childhood nostalgia, you can buy packs of old Yikes! pencils on eBay for as little as $75. (And if you want something more modern, the BIC Extra Fun pencils target the same niche.)


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Andrew Egan

Your time was just wasted by Andrew Egan

Andrew Egan is yet another writer living in New York City. He’s previously written for Forbes Magazine and ABC News. You can find his terrible website at CrimesInProgress.com.

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