Things are heating up on the cereal aisle at the grocery store, and I don’t mean that literally, except in the case of instant oatmeal and I guess Pop-Tarts, which can be eaten warm but are fine without being heated, too. But the heating up I refer to is the fiery pace at which the major brands are introducing variations on their established products, everyone trying to destroy the competition and become the dominant force in the cutthroat cereal industry.
The sugar cereals are the most popular, of course, partly because children like sugar and partly because children like commercials that feature cartoon characters. I really think that’s half the battle right there. You get an animated spokesperson, the kids will want whatever you’re selling. Little packs of sugar-sweetened goat hair? Those things will fly off the shelves once kids see commercials starring Butty the Hairless Goat!
So because sugar cereals are the most popular, the more ordinary cereals have to find ways to compete. Cheerios, in particular, has gone just insane with the new varieties. I tolerated Honey Nut Cheerios when it came out in 1979, largely because I don’t like honey or nuts and hence had no interest in trying Honey Nut Cheerios. I was a little envious that the Honey Nut variety had an animated spokesperson while the original, superior version did not, but what could I do? I was 5 years old, for crying out loud. Cut me some slack.
In 1988, the next variety came out: Apple Cinnamon Cheerios. Everyone liked them better the first time, when they were called Apple Jacks. Next!
In 1995 the people at General Mills decided that they should take the one good thing Cheerios had going for them — a very low sugar content — and ruin it, just completely poop all over it. Hence, Frosted Cheerios, which are ordinary healthy Cheerios smothered in sugar. In 2003 we got four different incarnations of Berry Burst Cheerios (strawberry, strawberry banana, cherry vanilla and triple berry, and I’m sure I don’t need to point out that bananas and vanilla are not berries); 2005 brought Yogurt Burst Cheerios (vanilla or strawberry “yogurt” slathered onto the O’s); and now the very latest, Fruity Cheerios.
Fruity Cheerios are little rings in several different colors. They look suspiciously familiar. The front of the box makes this declarative statement: “25% less sugar than the leading fruity cereal.” And I’m thinking: Oh, SNAP, Froot Loops! They totally just called you out! What a passive-aggressive slogan! It’s like, “We’re not naming any names here, but, um, we have 25 percent less sugar than a certain other fruity cereal we could mention. We’re just sayin’.” And the people at Kellogg’s are like, “B****es did NOT just diss us!” And General Mills is all, “Don’t be hatin’, we just keepin’ it real,” and Kellogg’s is like, “Whateva. Maybe if you put MORE sugar if yo nasty-a** fruity cereal, people might be BUYIN’ it,” and then Post is totally on the floor laughing, and General Mills is like, “Whatchoo laughin’ at, Fruity Pebbles? Ain’t you got some Flintstones to go be watchin’?,” and then Quaker Oats pulls out a gun.
And thus the battle escalates. Because the non-sugar cereals are getting better at competing with the sugar cereals, the sugar cereals have to amp up their own products, too. Take Cookie Crisp, for example. This is already a joke of a cereal, made exclusively for unhealthful adults and unsupervised children. It has the word “cookie” RIGHT THERE IN THE NAME. No mother buys this for her children unless she likes seeing them bounce off the walls on a sugar high. (Fathers, on the other hand, probably buy it when they get sent to do the grocery shopping. “Cookies!” they say. “For breakfast!”)
Now, when your breakfast cereal consists of nothing more than tiny chocolate chip cookies, I would think you’ve gone about as far as you can go in the field of delivering unhealthy food to children. But that’s why I am not a cereal manufacturer. Because now General Mills has unveiled Double Chocolate Cookie Crisp, with twice as much artificial chocolate flavor as before! On the box is a cartoon drawing of a wolf who is licking his lips at the prospect of enjoying some Double Chocolate Cookie Crisp. Considering most children’s knowledge of wolves is that they are sinister creatures who try to devour red-hooded girls in fairy tales, I’d say this is a pretty accurate cartoon spokesperson for this particular cereal.
The cereals that really amuse me are the generic brands that try to compete with the real ones. It’s like they figured out how to duplicate the good cereals, and then figured out a way to do it so it would be cheaper and not taste as good. You have the generic store brands, there on the shelves next to the real brands, hoping to lure you away with the lower prices; and then you also have the REALLY generic cereals, the ones that are so cheap they can’t even afford to put them in boxes. They just dump them into big plastic bags, slap a label on them, and pray somebody buys them.
The funny part is the names they come up with. It’s always something that suggests the cereal it’s an imitation of, without being so close as to be trademark infringement. For example, one of the Apple Jacks rip-offs is called Apple Dapples, and a Cheerios knock-off is Tasteeos.
I say, Why stop there? Why not get as close to the real cereal’s name as you possibly can? The Apple Jacks rip-off shouldn’t be called Apple Dapples. It should be called Shmapple Shmacks. The imitation Cheerios should be called Shmeerios. The Cocoa Puffs rip-off? Mocoa Muffs. That’s right, Mocoa Muffs. Part of this malanced meakfast. Thank you and good night.
The Double Chocolate Cookie Crisp is DELICIOUS, by the way. I always liked regular Cookie Crisp OK but never thought it actually tasted like cookies. The Double Chocolate version does taste like cookies. I can't imagine anything worse to eat for breakfast, but hey, my mom's not here to stop me.
I hope someone will draw a prototype of Butty the Hairless Goat for us all to enjoy.
For more information on the history of Cheerios, I recommend the Wikipedia entry. That's where I got some of the background information mentioned in this column -- and now that I've gotten the information, feel free to randomly change the entry to say false things. That's what Wikipedia is for.