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Northwest Indiana Times
Northwest Indiana Times

April 3, 2004

Breakfast cereal packs a big bowl of nostalgia in every box


BY CARRIE STEINWEG
Times Correspondent

Many great discoveries have been accidental, especially when it comes to food. The Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek, Mich., accidentally discovered cereal flakes while experimenting in a laboratory in 1894. In 1921, some bran that spilled onto a hot stove in Minneapolis brought about the invention of Wheaties. Who knew that accidents could taste so good?

More than a century after its discovery, nearly half of all Americans start their day with a bowl of cereal. Countless versions of the crunchy stuff have hit store shelves over the years and the sugarcoated bits are not limited to breakfast. Cereal often makes its way to the lunch table or is pulled out of the cupboard and doused with milk for a midnight snack.

A recent poll on www.emptybowl.com of 681 individuals indicated that 86 percent of the respondents thought it was appropriate to eat cereal any time of the day. Seven percent though it should be consumed only in the morning, 6 percent preferred it as a late night snack and less than 1 percent recommended it for and afternoon snack or dinner.

The poll is one of a number of cereal-related surveys on the site, which describes itself as a "webzine devoted to serving the cereal-eating community." The site offers cereal reviews, articles, message boards, polls and merchandise.

Another poll on the site asks visitors which mascot's story should be made into a movie. The choices are Cap n' Crunch, Sugar Bear, Count Chocula, Boo Berry and Franken Berry, Snap, Crackle and Pop, Diggum, Tony the Tiger or The Honeycomb Craving.

Count Chocula, Boo Berry and Franken Berry won, with Snap, Crackle and Pop coming in a close second, followed by Cap n' Crunch. The comments suggested such actors as Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Buscemi, Christopher Walken, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Vin Diesel in the starring rolls. More than 2,600 people participated in the poll.

This survey demonstrates how attached people have become to the characters and mascots plastered on the front of cereal boxes and what the results of a good marketing plan can be.

"I believe cereal is a part of our pop culture. Kids that grew up in the 1960's and 70's especially are grasping for information and images of cereals they ate and saw on TV," said Scott "Topher" Ellis, creator of Topher's Breakfast Cereal Character Guide, an online guide to over 1,000 characters who have graced the front of cereal boxes. "Today, many folks are looking for the ‘taste' they remember as a kid."

Ellis is a North Carolina financial consultant and father of two who created his Web site in the early 1990's when he was trying to find safe sites for his son to visit. When he discovered there were none about cereal characters, he decided to start his own. He maintains his site, www.lavasurfer.com/cereal-guide.html, as a hobby, but the hobby has led to some freelance work for a major cereal manufacturer.

"We are seeing the mass merchandising of some characters," Ellis said. "For example, Froot Loops and Tony the Tiger images can now be purchased on men's briefs at Target."

The cereal industry is an example of shrewd marketing at its best. "Most of the top selling cereals have characters attached to them," he said. "If characters weren't selling the cereal, then you wouldn't see as many characters on boxes."

It's those characters that many adults associate with happy childhoods who have caused the surge in interest in cereal characters and caused cereal boxes to become a big collector's item.

"I've never performed a study, but I do not think there is any question that people who identify with characters and cereals in their childhood will look to reconnect with those cereals and characters later in life," Ellis said. "It's a nostalgic connection many search for."

While some of the most sought after collectible cereal boxes are those for Wheaties with various athletes pictured on the front, there also is a big demand for Freakies, the General Mills monster series and the Cap n' Crunch series, according to Ellis.

While the character craze hasn't died down, the presence of prizes in cereal boxes is something that seemed to vanish in the 1980's and 1990's.

"I think prizes play a very important role -- historically, culturally and nostalgically," Ellis said. "There's no question that people will buy cereal to get the prizes. Prizes definitely encourage impulse buying in the cereal aisle."

What you'll find on the breakfast table is often a sign of the times. Here are a few of the pop culture-inspired brands that have made it to store shelves, sometimes not for long:

* Batman Cereal

* Smurf Berry Crunch

* Mr. T Cereal

* Yu-Gi-Oh Cereal

* Pac-man Cereal

* Nintendo Cereal

* Bill and Ted's Excellent Cereal

* G.I. Joe Cereal

* Donkey Kong Cereal

* Cabbage Patch Cereal

* Rainbow Brite Cereal

* Strawberry Shortcake Cereal

* E.T. Cereal

* Mickey Mouse Magic Crunch

* Superman Cereal

* Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Cereal

* C3PO's

* WWF Wrestlermania VII Cereal

* Barbie Cereal

* Spiderman Cereal

* Dr. Suess' Cat in the Hat Cereal

* Looney Tunes Back in Action Cereal

* Scooby-Doo

* SpongeBob SquarePants Cereal

Cereal statistics

* Americans buy 2.7 billion packages of breakfast cereal each year. If laid end to end, the empty cereal boxes from one year's consumption would stretch to the moon and back.

* The cereal industry uses 816 million pounds of sugar per year, enough to coat each and every American with more than 3 pounds of sugar. The cereal with the highest amount of sugar per serving is Smacks, which is 53% sugar.

Americans consume about 10 pounds, or 160 bowls of cereal, per person each year. But America ranks only fourth in per capita cereal consumption. Ireland ranks first, England ranks second and Australia ranks third.

* 49% of Americans start each morning with a bowl of cereal.

* In terms of dollar value, breakfast cereals are the third most popular product sold at supermarkets, after carbonated beverages and milk.

Source: wwwveg.ca/newsletr/janfeb97/cereal_stats.html (Adapted from "Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal," by Scott Bruce and Bill Crawford)

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