Sugary Cereal and the Youth Market

When we stand in the cereal aisle and look at a cereal box we can discern immediately the intended market of the product. Clues are found in the design of the cereal box itself, which can serve to indicate the larger marketing strategies of the brand. This becomes even more evident if we look at television commercials for cereal. Children are one of the most the sought after demographics by the ad agencies marketing cereal. Children are a valuable part of consumer society and their being targeted would not be problematic if not for the types of cereals they are being marketed. I will look at three breakfast cereal commercials that advertise to children despite their product being nutritionally problematic. Rather than using their commercials to highlight basic facts about their product, these cereal commercials use a variety of advertising tactics to distract the audience from how unhealthy these cereals are.

The first ad is an Apple Jacks commercial from the 1980s that features children participating in and playing with characters from a circus. The children sing Apple Jacks’ famous slogan from the 80s and 90s “A is for apple, J is for jacks, cinnamon toasty Apple Jacks”. Advertisers have implemented slogans since the beginning of the 20th century in an attempt to give a product and a brand an identity. In this case we see the slogan is used as a tool to draw and maintain the attention of the audience. Like a real circus would, the music and bright colors draw the eye of any consumer, but those of children in particular. In Goldman and Papson’s “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning”, the authors discuss the way advertisements attach brand names to “images that possess social and cultural value” (81). The Apple Jacks commercial is able to produce a commodity sign by associating the Apple Jacks name with the idea of a circus, an event that has come to signify pure entertainment and joy. The commercial ends with a short clip of a young boy and girl playing with a toy and the narrator saying that one comes in every box of Apple Jacks. This reiterates the message that this cereal is synonymous with fun. Troubling, however, is the fact that the commercial declares Apple Jacks cereal is “packed with 10 vitamins and minerals” despite Apple Jacks being one of the top 10 most sugary cereals on the market. In this ad, and many others like it, we can see advertisers weighing the transformational function of advertising as more important than the informational function of advertising. Rather than truthfully telling us about the product and its effects, the commercial creates an experience surrounding the product that the audience would want to be a part of, thus impacting their attitudes towards Apple Jacks. This ad uses fun and games to appeal to the young consumer and overlooks the lack of nutritional value in the product.

The Froot Loops commercial relies on animation to captivate its audience, which is a common feature of many commercials for children’s cereal brands. Reminiscent of a cartoon the viewers would watch on a Sunday morning, the ad follows Froot Loops’ mascot Toucan Sam and his friends’ search for treasure. Toucan Sam has been used by Froot Loops since the 1960s and thus his image is synonymous with the brand. In Goldman and Papson’s article they also discuss media self-referentiality and the way brands often allude to previous campaigns and other media representations. This is critical in the advertisement of cereal brands in that they rely on consumers to recognize the brand’s spokesman and slogans from prior campaigns and depictions. By remaining consistent in their advertising the brand can assume most consumers will immediately know what product is being marketed. In Schudson’s “Historical Roots of Consumer Culture” he says that “some brand names like ‘Yves Saint Laurent,’ offer identity and status, but others, like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola or Kentucky Fried Chicken do not. Their promise is not identity but familiarity and reliability of product. Where consumers do not make their own goods and do not buy at neighborhood stores where they know and are known to the merchant, brand names become a form of consumer protection” (158). This is invaluable in advertising where the pleasures of familiarity can work to offset the uncertainty associated with a new product. While Froot Loops Treasures is a new type of Froot Loops cereal, consumers still recognize the Froot Loops brand and the mascot selling their product. Looking at this ad from a semiotic perspective we see that by filling a treasure chest with Froot Loops and calling the cereal “Froot Loops Treasures”, advertisers encourage the consumer to regard the cereal as something valuable, special and desirable. Relying on a sense of familiarity and semiotic clues, Froot Loops is able to make the sugary and artificially dyed cereal desirable to the young market.

Finally, the Reese’s Puffs’ commercial uses a musical track produced with various noises one might hear at the breakfast table (i.e. a cereal box shaking and a spoon hitting a bowl). In her article “Alt.Everything”, Klein discusses the youth market and the marketing of “cool”. Since the 1990s, advertisers have recognized the importance of targeting the youth demographic and portraying a brand as “hip”. The Reese’s commercial uses rap and hip-hop music to reinforce an image of cool the same way brands like Nike and Adidas did in the 1990s. We can see in this ad the way advertising serves as a cultural intermediary telling consumers that eating Reese’s Puffs means being hip and fashionable. Social Advertising and Communication’s chapter “Negotiated Messaging for Generation X” discusses the way younger markets read advertising. Conversations with that market yield the conclusion that “personal identification produces a …positive affect. When readers are able to find themselves in commercial representations a powerful affirmation and values match is created” (508). Portraying teenage boys eating and enjoying the product, the brand hopes the youth market will identify with the characters and conclude that they too would enjoy Reese’s Puffs cereal. Today we are constantly bombarded with advertsing. In order to fight through this clutter, advertisers reel the consumer in by creating thirty seconds of amusement. The three ads share the desire to produce an entertaining commercial-watching experience rather than an information-heavy hard sell.

If we step back and look at this genre of ads as a whole we recognize the way advertising carries ideology through culture. In the case of children’s cereal commercials, advertisers use entertaining advertising tactics to disguise the flaws in their product. They declare that the product contains essential vitamins and minerals but refrain from mentioning the product’s detrimental ingredients. The goal is to sell their cereal, but advertisers know that if they were to explicitly voice the nutritional information of their product they would steer consumers away.

My “Target” video would begin like many cereal commercials. A fun, charismatic, and colorful character like Toucan Sam would relieve children from a boring breakfast by appearing with an exciting new Froot Loops cereal. As the children start to dig in the screen would cut to black and a chyron would read “1 hour later”. The children would be out of control and screaming until ultimately crashing when their sugar high is gone. My video would serve to exhibit the real consequences of eating a cereal so packed with sugar.

In his chapter on culture jamming Kalle Lasn says, “The culture jammer is seized by a…sense of urgency to do something, anything, to escape the consumerist script” (420). By employing this element of surprise in my video the hope would be viewers recognize that cereal commercials targeted at children are only telling half of the story. These advertisements need to be looked at closely because what is most important about them is what they are not saying. Furthermore, when the targeted market is young people we should all be more concerned with the way a product is marketed, as children do not yet necessarily have the awareness that advertising is biased by nature. Advertising skews towards the exaggerated and sensational to be memorable, but this is dangerous when some of the audience may not yet have the capacity to comprehend this. These ads are characterized by mixed messaging that young audiences cannot necessarily see through and understand. Ultimately culture jamming is about telling the truth and achieving transparency in consumer culture so my intention is to reveal the truth about children’s cereals and why the commercials that market them are so problematic. We must make sure advertising is held accountable when it plays a negative role in society by encouraging children to eat unhealthy cereal.

– Megan G.

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