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JOEL STEIN

Seeing past the sugarcoating

July 20, 2007|JOEL STEIN

THEY WANT TO help the kids, I get that. We have a childhood obesity epidemic in America. But Kellogg's decision last month to stop advertising sugar cereals to kids under 12 is a disastrous mistake. I learned everything I needed to navigate our consumer culture from my close parsing of TV commercials for sugar cereals. If it weren't for those commercials, I'd have a garage full of HeadOn right now.

In a world where I had no control over where I lived, when I went to sleep or if I played soccer -- even though it was clear to everyone, even when I wasn't in the vicinity of a soccer ball, that I definitely should not play soccer -- Kellogg's empowered me. It wooed me. It cared what I thought.

Each year -- as a respite from my life of Rice Krispies -- I got to choose one sugar cereal to eat during our one-week family vacation on the Jersey shore. I spent the previous 11 3/4 months parsing data I collected from the marketing campaigns of each brand. I was only 8, but I'm pretty sure I could have put together a case study worthy of an MBA at Harvard Business School.

Even in third grade, I knew that as lyricists, the Honeycomb team was no competition for Bob Dylan: "Honeycomb's big. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's not small. No, no, no." Still, once I recovered from the insult to my intellect, I could tell I was being peddled value, which was not what I was looking for in a once-a-year purchase.

I liked the anti-authoritarian feel of the Trix rabbit, but the fact that he was told, in a cruel, apartheid-like way, that he couldn't enjoy a bowl because "Trix are for kids" clashed with my aspiring aims toward adulthood.

Lucky Charms claimed to have some kind of magic that made things delicious, but clearly relied on the cheap prestidigitation of repackaging dehydrated hot chocolate marshmallows in different shapes and colors. Tony the Tiger relied far more on intimidation than persuasion -- his arms folded, he bellowed that Frosted Flakes were "Grrrrrreat!" and then, Tony Soprano-style, left it at that. Plus, he seemed to have some creepy deal on the side with Big Oil.

While I appreciated the honesty of Sugar Pops (bran, wheat, rice, corn -- who cares? It's got sugar in the name!), it seemed too desperate and bland. The Froot Loops mascot baffles me to this day. It seems like an ad campaign created by a wine snob: "You see, guys, this toucan with an enormous nose, kind of a supertaster bird, is going to fly around pointing out notes of strawberry, lemon and dark cherries in the cereal. Kids will love it!"

An entire industry -- with serious names like Post and General Mills -- was desperate to win me over, and I took that responsibility seriously. Sure, my base desires screamed Cookie Crisp -- the genius of tricking adults into letting you eat cookies for breakfast -- but I wanted to be more sophisticated, smart, subtle. I briefly considered the maturity of Golden Grahams. The kids eating them in the sun as they took a break from volleyball looked happy, but the ads also informed me that everyone in L.A. was an idiot. Even the jingle writer's brain was so sun-damaged that he only knew a few words and had no idea how to structure a sentence: "Golden honey, just a touch, with graham's golden wheat." Plus, weren't graham crackers just cookies for hippies?

What I wanted was something that would simply "tempt your tummy with a taste of nuts and honey." I got my parents to buy me Honey Nut Cheerios.

All my product research didn't go to waste. I used it to size up other kids when I went to their houses, the elementary school equivalent of looking through someone's medicine cabinet. And it proved invaluable years later when I finally discovered those variety packs of single-serving boxes. Forced to share them with my sister, I mastered how to trade and connive and follow the NBA draft. Sure, Lisa was 7 1/2 years younger, but there was still a certain satisfaction to using reverse psychology to get a 4-year-old to waste her No. 3 pick on Frosted Mini-Wheats. You can spread a quart of butter cream on those nuggets of cardboard; they're still going to rip through your lower intestines.

Protecting kids is a natural instinct, but as soon as they learn to type, they're going to be exposed to more temptations -- edible and otherwise -- than their parents can control. I'd rather risk some fat kids than a whole generation so naive about marketing that by middle age they can still be manipulated by a dancing leprechaun.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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