October 13, 2012

Snap, Crackle, Pop Culture!?

Modern-day breakfast cereals are, to a large extent, an American creation. Sure, Britain has what they call Wheetabix, and the Swiss invented Müesli, but we Americans were arguably the first to industrialize the manufacture of breakfast cereals and mass-merchandise the concept of them to large segments of the population. Indeed, cereal marketers have demonstrated considerable skill in branding their products, creating brand mascots like Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Count Chocula, and of course Snap, Crackle and Pop.

A few years ago, credit card giant MasterCard ran one of the more memorable recent TV spots featuring the iconic mascots for a number of consumer products (sure, the Vlasic Pickle Stork isn’t associated with breakfast cereal, but there certainly was at least one cereal mascot included). Have a look at the YouTube clip below, or by visiting http://youtu.be/xtRBpu-OjF4:

We've since taken the concept of breakfast cereals and exported it around the world, to places ranging from Brazil to Russia to China, although the concept has been met with varying degrees of success.

The forefathers of these products were undoubtedly the Kellogg brothers (William Keith Kellogg and John Harvey Kellogg) of Michigan, as well as some others, notably Charles William "C.W." Post of New York, although Mr. Post was really more a packaged-foods guy who got his start in the cereal biz, but would go on to morph his company into General Foods, with a string of mergers and acquisitions ranging from Minute Tapioca, Bird's Eye frozen vegetables to Maxwell House Coffee and Jell-O. General Foods would later be merged with Kraft Foods, although Kraft kind of lost interest in breakfast cereals and sold the Post cereals business Ralcorp in 2007, and that business was subsequently spun off as a standalone company in 2011, more details follow). But the corporatization of breakfast cereals didn't stop with those guys, others included General Mills, Ralston Purina (that company split itself into two in 1994 and that company sold it's branded products such as Chex and Cookie Crisp to General Mills; Ralcorp which was better known for making private label cereals for retailers, marketed Post's Fruity Pebbles and Alpha Bits which were acquired from Kraft, but spun the unit off as a separate company fending off a hostile acquisition from ConAgra in 2011, see http://nyti.ms/2sbWi8R for details, hence today Post once again exists as a stand-alone cereal company ... for now), Quaker Oats (which today belongs to PepsiCo), Nabisco (now also a part of Kraft, see the prior note on how Kraft lost interest in cereal) and a few other big agri-businesses.

Aside from Post whose origins were in New York (although his cereal business was, ironically enough, based in Battle Creek, Michigan, also home to Kellogg), most of the other breakfast-food giants began in America's breadbasket. But present-day ownership and company headquarters' aside, the concept of packaging commodity crops like wheat, oats and corn, and then marketing them breakfast cereals really began in earnest following the Great Depression. The product enabled consumers to have a filling breakfast that didn't require lengthy preparation, hence it really took off in the 1950s through the 1970s.

Working parents loved it, but getting the kids to eat cereal wasn't as easy. Kids are notoriously fussy eaters anyway, so the manufacturers did what they always do: add sugar which made the product more palatable to finicky children. Combine that with TV advertising (which really became prevalent in the 1950s, this was also before the days when scrutiny over marketing to kids emerged) and a recipe for cereal success was created.  Today's post is about those sugary breakfast concoctions we call cereal which are indeed part of American pop culture.

The Great American Cereal Book

While every company operating in the cereal market has it's own unique history, how many really chronicle how these products, and their iconic mascots (including Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, Count Chocula/ Frankenberry/ Boo-Berry, Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Post Sugar Bear, Lucky the Leprechaun and various others) and look at how the products, the marketing and the packages have evolved over time? There is a really great book on this subject called "The Great American Cereal Book: How Breakfast Got Its Crunch" by Martin Gitlin and Topher Ellis.

You cannot get a Kindle version for this particular book, so don't ask. But, if you're interested in buying the print version of this book, visit http://amzn.to/QSnoMb or http://bit.ly/QSnyDn to buy the book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, respectively. As a point of reference, whenever I buy old-fashioned, books printed on paper (not eBooks), I use a handy search engine called AddAll.com which compares prices for a given book at like 40-50 different bookstores (including some used booksellers), and enables you to choose the retailer that has the lowest price. I find using the ISBN number (which in this case is: 0810997991) is fast, and voilà, the site searches bookstores all over the country.

This is really more of a coffee-table book, being a hardcover, full-color book that could just as easily fit on the shelf in your cabinet or pantry where you store your boxes of cereal as it does on your bookshelf in terms of the book's size. But it's a high-quality publication, and the authors received a lot of help from the cereal manufacturers in assembling what could best be described as an encyclopedia of photos and background information on all of the cereal brands you're likely to know about as well as more than a few that were around for a limited period of time. I highly recommend getting a copy for yourself, but it also makes for a great gift for a person who has everything yet might appreciate having a piece of pop-culture history on their coffee table. Barnes & Noble featured a really nice review of "The Great American Cereal Book" which I highly recommended reading at http://bit.ly/QdbhYr.

Cereal Bits Website

Cereal Bits' Logo Animation
For those who don't have the financial resources to buy this particular book, the good news is there's presently an online resource (which was done with no affiliation from the book's authors, by the way) that's almost as comprehensive in terms of pictures (just don't expect to see the same level of research on this subject at the site, as there is little if any history on the website).

That particular website is (was, I include the archive in the links that follow) "Cereal Bits" (https://web.archive.org/web/20151230022335/http://www.cerealbits.com/) which is (or rather WAS) an awesome website that adds online color to this walk through our junk-food breakfast obsession known as breakfast cereal. Included there are many photos of the limited-duration sugary breakfast cereals everyone knew would only be on the shelves for a limited time, including Star Wars, Mr. T, Pac Man and various others. And perhaps you recall some of the other cereals, like Quaker's King Vitamin or General Mills' Big G Body Buddies from back in the day? Rest assured, both the book and the website have lots of photos you can see and relive those breakfasts of your youth.

For those who like choices, there's also Mr. Breakfast's "Cereal Project" at http://www.mrbreakfast.com/cereal_home.asp which has a lot of very similar content on breakfast cereals, and a variety of other breakfast foods, too.

Closing Thoughts

In truth, I do think the book provides more interesting context to this discussion because it contains the history of how those brands (and their mascots) were created, including when they were born and more. Sure, I could include some YouTube videos of some old cereal TV commercials, but you could just as easily search those for yourself. 

A few years ago (in 2009), Advertising Age wrote about how General Mills, one of the largest purveyors of sugary cereals in existence, relaunched, for a limited time, retro packaging for some of it's kids' cereals and sold them in Target stores. The target market for those retro-packages was clearly Gen Xers, though I never heard of any follow-up on how well (or poorly) the retro packaging did for General Mills. In any event, that article may be viewed at http://adage.com/u/aHwSTb, so be sure to check it out.

Finally, Amazon.com had a note from the book's authors which is relevant so I'm including that below:

From the Author 

My passion for cereal inspired me to launch this project, but you don't have to be a cereal lover to enjoy The Great American Cereal Book. I was thrilled to find a publisher that shared my vision. Cereal is fun. Eating cereal is fun. Reading cereal boxes is fun. Cereal spokescharacters are fun. Not too many morose thoughts run through one's mind when Sonny the Cuckoo Bird is proclaiming, "I'm Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!" I tried to express that sense of fun on every page and Harry Abrams followed suit. The 350 images of cereal boxes, ads and memorabilia that pepper the pages of this book make it colorful and, of course, fun. But if not for co-author Topher Ellis and heaps of information provided by the cereal companies, this book would never have become a reality.

Thanks to everyone! And to everyone out there ... enjoy!

About the Author

Marty Gitlin is a freelance writer and the author of more than 40 books. He has won many awards for his writing, including first place for General Excellence in Journalism from the Associated Press. Gitlin lives with his wife and three children in Cleveland, Ohio. Topher Ellis is a cereal expert and editor of the cereal newsletter the Boxtop, the longest continuously running publication dedicated to breakfast cereal. He lives in Matthews, North Carolina.

Author P.S., October 20, 2013: NPR reported on October 20, 2013 that General Mills' line of "Monster Cereals" (Count Chocula, Boo Berry and Franken Berry) which originally hit the market in the early '70s although the company decided in 2010 these would only be available during the Halloween season, which created an artificial scarcity which has kind of galvanized a kind of cult following around this time of year for these retro-sugary cereals.  Catch "Unleashed On Halloween, Monster Cereals Haunt Hoarders" for more details at http://n.pr/H8Cj3O.

Author P.S., February 27, 2014:  Bloomberg Business Week reported (see http://bloom.bg/182eh7b) that Kellogg as well as its competitors have seen sales declines, with Kellogg suffering more than General Mills and Post Holdings.  The real issue is that today, cereal isn't as convenient as it once was compared to other foods.  Today, people eat on the run, so a family eating breakfast together is also an anachronism to parents toting their kids in the car to daycare or to school.  That means Kellogg has its work cut out for it.  Stay tuned for the continued evolution of American breakfasts!

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