US: Breakfast cereal’s last gasp
Better-informed consumers are ditching the bowls of sugar that were once a triumph of 20th-century marketing.
LAST YEAR, General Mills launched a new product aimed at health-conscious customers: Cheerios Protein, a version of its popular cereal made with whole-grain oats and lentils. Early reviews were favourable. The cereal, Huffington Post reported, tasted mostly like regular Cheerios, although “it seemed like they were sweetened and flavoured a little more aggressively.” Meanwhile, ads boasted that the cereal would offer “long-lasting energy” as opposed to a sugar crash.
But earlier this month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued General Mills, saying that there’s very little extra protein in Cheerios Protein compared to the original brand and an awful lot more sugar — 17 times as much, in fact. So why would General Mills try to market a product as containing protein when it’s really a box fill of carbs and refined sugar?
The easiest answer: Because history has shown it works.
For more than a century, brands have successfully used health-related claims and gimmicky marketing to sell sugar as a breakfast product. The earliest cereal products were indeed intended as a better alternative to heavy morning meals.
Around the 1930s, companies started marketing cereal to children, and they found that younger consumers infinitely preferred a sweeter product, while also being swayed by lovable mascots in advertising campaigns. (A 2014 study even found that these characters are designed and placed on the shelf to make eye contact with kids, establishing a sense of trust and connection.)
But brands are now finding it more difficult to convince better-informed and rightly skeptical consumers of the health benefits of sugary cereal, which looks to be falling from the perch it enjoyed in American food culture for a century.
John Harvey Kellogg, a doctor and Seventh Day Adventist who ran a wellness retreat called the Battle Creek Sanitarium, is credited with inventing ready-to-eat cereal in 1878. Granula, as it was originally called, was designed to help treat illnesses such as dyspepsia.
“The Sanitarium wanted something to give its patients instead of breakfasts with sausages and eggs and bacon,” says Martin Gitlin, the author of The Great American Cereal Book. Kellogg’s brother went on to found what would become the Kellogg Company, still one of the biggest purveyors of breakfast cereal today.
The success of granula (or corn flakes) inspired Grape Nuts, which contain neither grapes nor nuts and were invented by CW Post after a stay in Kellogg’s sanitarium. Early ads claimed Grape Nuts could do everything from cure the desire for liquor to prevent malaria. A senior brand manager for the product in the 1980s told The Wall Street Journal that Grape Nuts was “people eating advertising”.
But cereal as an example of the power of marketing largely took place in the 1950s onward. Companies began to take advantage of the new full-scale commercial broadcasting that began in 1947 to advertise to young Baby Boomers via their television sets. By this time, Kellogg’s and Post’s dreams of cereal as a kind of medicine had already begun to fade.
According to Gitlin, a salesman from Philadelphia named Jim Rex saw his kids adding sugar to their cereal and invented the first pre-sweetened cereal, Wheat Honnies, in 1939. Along with the cereal came a mascot to help market it — Ranger Joe Honnies. From then on, these friendly characters became a crucial part of selling cereal.
“TV advertisements were absolutely huge and had tie-ins in the ’50s and ’60s with cartoons and Westerns,” Gitlin says. The phenomenon went on to include iconic characters like Tony the Tiger (Frosted Flakes) and Snap, Crackle, and Pop (Rice Krispies).
But starting in the ’60s and ’70s, sugar became slightly less of a selling point. Accordingly, the word itself began vanishing from ads and boxes, only to be replaced by subtler terms like “honey” and “golden.” Products that didn’t adapt quickly enough, like Sugaroos, suffered as parents caught up with new science. But, as new products like Cheerios Protein indicate, the products themselves didn’t get any less sweet…..
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