Inconspicuous Consumption

Frosted Cheerios

14.25-oz. box

General Mills, Inc.

It's pretty amusing to see how General Mills is working both sides of the consumer street with its Cheerios product line. Original Cheerios, which date back to 1941, are now promoted as one of the more harmless mass-market cereals -- simple, basic, only one gram of sugar per serving, rarely any free toy inside the box, no cartoon animal mascot, plenty of oat bran, no bells or whistles. It's worth remembering, however, that when we were all growing up a few decades ago, before the whole health-consciousness thing kicked in, Cheerios weren't admirable or respectable or back-to-basics--they were just boring. But by playing up the low-sugar angle and then reaping an unexpected windfall when the oat bran craze fell into their laps, the General Mills folks have been able to reinvent Cheerios as a cereal parents across America can serve to their kids without too much guilt.

General Mills made a token attempt to reposition Cheerios among the larger community of junk-food cereals in 1979, when they launched Honey Nut Cheerios (sugar up the wazoo, plus a little animated bee for a mascot). With the oat bran fad providing a wholesome cachet in the early '80s, General Mills was free to expand Cheerios' parameters a bit, especially in terms of the sucrose factor. This marketing pitch became apparent with the 1988 debut of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios (current print ads for which depict a big jar of brown sugar) and continued with the 1991 appearance of Multi-Grain Cheerios (which in spite of their healthful-sounding name actually have six times the sugar of regular Cheerios). By trading on the consumer goodwill generated by traditional Cheerios, General Mills was able to create a product line that could be virtually all things to all cereal eaters -- a way to not have your sugar and eat it too.

The latest and presumably final step in this sequence is Frosted Cheerios, which arrived on supermarket shelves a few months ago. I'm sure this product was in development for years, so it's surprising to see the package look like such a rush job. The graphics on the front and back panels are remarkably lackluster, with the super-enlarged images of the frosted Os themselves looking more like ruins from a decaying industrial park than a breakfast cereal. Even worse, the General Mills copywriting staff appears to have been on vacation -- one bit of failed hype suggests that Frosted Cheerios offer "one great taste after another, and another, and another..." while a blurb on the side panel says they're "crunchy, sweet, and so good, so good, so good." Welcome to the scratched-record school of marketing.

Finally, in the midst of all this analysis, I suppose a few lonely souls out there actually want to know how Frosted Cheerios taste, an issue that has been hotly debated of late on the Usenet's alt.cereal newsgroup. Among the flurry of opinions that have been expressed, my friend Tom summed it up best: "This cereal sucks. It tastes just like Alpha-Bits -- only every letter is an 'O'." (General Mills, Inc., General Offices, Minneapolis, MN 55440)

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