Not to be confused by the British new wave/sophisti-pop band, The Blow Monkeys, who had a string of hits in the 1980s, Sea Monkeys is the brand name of a popular children’s product that sold brine shrimp in the form of a novelty pet aquarium.
The brainchild of one Harold von Braunhut, who launched the product in the USA in 1957, it enjoyed phenomenal success in the 1960s and 1970s.
However despite offering a ‘bowl full of happiness’ to kids across the land Harold von Braunhut had rather nefarious associations which would eventually lead to the decline of the product.
That lightbulb moment!
Legend has it that one day Harold walked into a local pet store, whereupon his attention was captured by a bucket filled with brine shrimp.
He was not aware of it at the time, but that species of brine shrimp was Artemia salina, which was found in salt lakes. With his interest piqued he soon discovered that the little crustaceans possessed some incredible biological traits.
This included being able to exist in a cryptobiosis state, essentially a period of suspended animation, where in the absence of water, they shut down their metabolic processes.
Learning that they could survive for many years within this protective casing, for example in the event of a lake drying up, he found out that as soon as you did provide them with water something incredible would happen.
Not only would their protective shells begin to hatch, but out would emerge a translucent creature that possessed one eye. As matured they would develop two more, as well as the ability to breathe out of gills on their feet. Furthermore, the males would sprout tiny whiskers under their chin and the females could self-fertilize their eggs.
To most people brine shrimp was just fish food, but to von Braunhut, they represented a way to capture the imagination of children, whilst himself getting very rich indeed.
The Launch of the Sea Monkeys
At a time when children were fascinated by ant farms, von Braunhut reasoned that children would love to rear the brine shrimp from their cryptobiosis state.
Furthermore he posited that if you could send the dehydrated eggs to customers in the mail, then have them reenergise in water using, what he would market as his secret nutrient formula, he was certain he had on his hands the next big thing.
And he was right.
In the coming years he worked furiously in a barn at his property to perfect a mail-order package offering. This eventually consisted of three packets. One to condition tap water, another full of nutrients that included yeast and algae, and one with the shrimp eggs.
Once this package was ready for sale in the early 1960s he approached a number of toy companies, who unfortunately did not share his enthusiasm for the product. Hitting a brick wall, he decided his best course of action was to market directly to children. Which proved to be a masterstroke.
Marketing to Kids through comics
Failing to make headway with company executives, von Braunhut began a series of advertising campaigns that showcased to children the delights of his Sea Monkeys product, which he initially called ‘Instant Life’.
Recognising that taking out an advertisement in a comic book was a much cheaper way of promoting his product than television commercials, which was what the major toy companies were doing, he started a concerted campaign in 1962. Targeting a range of publications that included the likes of Batman and Archie.
Some of his advertising claims were a bit of a stretch, with von Braunhut, who wrote all the copy for the Sea-Monkey ads, claiming the brine shrimp could be hypnotised with light, obey commands and even dance!
Other claims he made bordered on the ridiculous, including that they could play baseball and race on a speedway kit. Both of which involved spending more money to buy associated products.
According to Von Braunhut, Sea-Monkey ads appeared in over 303 million copies of comics every year. Whilst this is probably an exaggeration, he did put his product in front of the eyes of plenty of prospective buyers, to the point where he received upwards of five sacks a day of mail from customers who were forking out $1 each for the Sea Monkeys package.
In no time at all he became a millionaire.
His Nefarious Side
Von Braunhut was actually born Harold Nathan Braunhut, to Jewish parents. Both of whom were buried in a Jewish cemetery, which Braunhut helped pay the maintenance fees on after they died.
His father died in 1957, the same year he discovered the Sea Monkeys, and his mother died in 1960. At some point around this time, according to the Daily Telegraph, he apparently added the ‘von’ to his name to make it sound more Germanic.
During the hey day of the Sea Monkeys in the late 1960s, von Braunhut also began a side project. Inventing a self-defense weapon call the Kiyoga Agent M5, which took the form of a collapsible baton with coils, that he marketed as a tool for people who were unable to secure a license to carry a firearm.
This was a significant project as the Kiyoga was to play an important role in the subsequent demise of the Sea-Monkeys.
Ties with the Ku Klux Klan
During 1988, both the Spokane Spokesman Review and The Washington Post ran stories that revealed the Kiyoga Agent M5 was being sold as part of a fundraising initiative to raise money for the legal fund of Richard Butler. The head of the Aryan Nations who was fighting the charge of sedition.
It was said that for each Kiyoga that was purchased by his followers, the manufacturer, in other words von Braunhut, would pledge $25 to Butler’s legal fund.
In their articles they also purported that von Braunhut regularly attended Aryan Nations gatherings, often as a guest speaker, and even on occasion had the ‘honour’ of lighting a burning cross.
He was also believed to be the head of the Imperial Order of the Black Eagle, an organization that was affiliated with Aryan Nations, and at one point lent Dale Reusch, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan around $12,000 to buy illegal guns.
When quizzed about the articles, Von Braunhut refused to comment on them, other to say to the Seattle Times, ‘You know what side I’m on. I don’t make any bones about it’.
Unfortunately for him the damage was done though. Most of his suppliers were at pains to disassociate themselves with him and his company, and sales steadily declined over the coming years.
In 2003, Von Braunhut died aged 77, following an accidental fall at his home in Indian Head, Maryland.