Breakfast Cereal's Last Gasp

Better-informed consumers are ditching the bowls of sugar that were once a triumph of 20th-century marketing.

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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 favorable. The cereal, Huffington Post reported, tasted mostly like regular Cheerios, although “it seemed like they were sweetened and flavored 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 C.W. 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.

Today, thanks to the shrewd marketing of companies like Post and Kellogg, breakfast cereal still has a nostalgic hold on many. It’s what’s inspired a Cereality Café franchise with stores in places like Texas and Virginia. It’s also what spurred Scott Bruce, the author of Cerealizing America, to try to open a cereal museum called FlakeWorld on the Las Vegas strip. And yet most of these efforts have failed: Bruce raised a few million in funding before the dot-com bubble burst and investors abandoned the project, and most shops in the Cereality Café franchise have shuttered, deemed to be too gimmicky.

Perhaps more importantly, residual nostalgia for cereal hasn’t translated into sales. Cold-cereal consumption has decreased by at least one percent a year over the last decade, according to a report by the market-research firm Stealing Share. Likewise, America’s focus on cutting out sugar has led to declining consumption of full-calorie soda (with a decrease of seven percent between 2010 to 2013 alone), while sales of bottled water and diet sodas have increased. Meanwhile yogurt, especially Greek yogurt in recent years, has gained favor among Millennials and older consumers, in part because of its ability to diversify with no added sugar, probiotic, and on-the-go options.

Research has shown that cereal consumption decreases with age, and Millennial birth rates are declining. According to Mike Van Ausdeln, a senior brand strategist at Stealing Share, kids today don’t identify with cereal as much as the older generations once did. This has led cereal companies to target older demographics, including Baby Boomers and their now-adult children, by making dubious health claims regarding protein. Last year, Kellogg even started running an ad showing an adult couple eating Fruit Loops and playing the original Nintendo—as transparent an effort as any to tap into fond cereal memories.

It isn’t the very end for cereal: Sales of hot cereals like oatmeal, which need to be prepared, have increased in recent years as health-conscious consumers conclude that the less-processed grains are high in fiber and protein and therefore worth the time. (Hot cereal is also set to increase sales globally as it targets Asian markets where starting the day with a hot breakfast is the norm.) So what’s the solution for companies looking to make cold breakfast cereal a part of American food culture once again? Cereal companies clearly know what increasingly health-conscious consumers are looking for. The way forward, then, may be actually filling the box with what it claims.