March 18, 2007
The Cereal Serial, Part I: The History of Breakfast Cereal and the Trickster Icon

This is the first in a four-part serial post on cereal. This piece stems from the research presented by Thomas Green in the February 2007 edition of The Journal of Popular Culture. Green's article, entitled "Tricksters and the Marketing of Breakfast Cereals", provides a fascinating primer on the history of cereal brands in America and how they were developed based on the philosophies of Sylvester Graham and the work of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and their Battle Creek Sanitarium.

In short, moral reformers believed that the American diet needed to be changed. Problems from sexual aggression and masturbation to whiskey consumption were linked to a diet high in American meats, and the pork-heavy breakfast rituals of Americans was one of the targets. Enter Graham (whose legacy stays with us through the cracker which bears his name) and later Sister Ellen G. White with the church, whose call for a dietary reform led to the work of John Harvey Kellogg and C.W. Post, whose names persist as two of the most well known cereal companies (Kellogg's brother Will is actually the founder of Kellogg's). This really interesting history that Green summarizes quickly helps set the stage for his essay, which focuses on the history of the trickster character in marketing campaigns and how that legacy coincides and conflicts with the earlier, spiritual health-based campaigns around cereal.

Green looks at the origins and various types of trickster tales and then applies them to the icons of breakfast cereals, from the Trix Rabbit to Barney Rubble's relationship with Fred in the commercials to Lucky of Lucky Charms fame. He writes, "Cereal tricksters always either compete for the cereal, or bestow it on the consumer. Motifs of disguise, transformation, defiance of authority, taboo violation, and uncontrolled hunger/enthusiasm are common" (61). Green finds that the main ways in which the modern trickster tales of cereal icons are linked to the Battle Creek marketing backgrounds is through "the manic enthusiasm for the mysticized qualities of the specific brand in question" (61).

I found a response to Green's work on Integral Options Cafe by William Harryman, who writes that the motif may be changing due to an increasing consumer savvy on the part of children.

By the way, you may remember back to my January post about fans of the quotidian, in which I wrote about fans of Pringles, Pillsbury, and Windex, as well as a Web site, now defunct, that was dedicated to cereal brands and products.

At the time, I wrote of "The Empty Bowl," that:

The Empty Bowl was an online forum (now replaced by an online casino directory) dedicated to discussions for fans of specific cereal brands. While the cartoon icons created for a variety of cereals are certainly meant to appeal to children, it was still surprising to see adults form fan communities around these various cereals. This Web site actually featured articles which detail the latest cereal releases, branding changes for cereals, a considerable depth of sales information and any other kind of data you could imagine dedicated to American cereal brands. Kellogg's, Post, and General Mills fans all gather here (across the great cereal brand divide) to debate the foods which obviously mean more than mere sustenance to them. Actually, The Empty Bowl had official membership, staff writers, and scores of polls and ratings systems for cereal products. One of the most popular features are "cereal reviews" of upcoming cereal brands or the reformulation of various classic cereals, as well as variations on a theme. When I first looked at the site, there was a story on Berry Burst Cheerios. (By the way, I saw yesterday at the grocery that Cheerios has now launched a Fruit Loops competitor.) Too bad The Empty Bowl is no longer around, but the site was featured other places as well.

I think that cereal marketing provides an interesting angle to view changes in American culture, since diet is at the root of human existence. Over the course of the next three installments, I'll present my own research into the marketing of Kellogg's cereals.