Cereal Ad Ban: Are Count Chocula's Days Numbered?

Tony the Tiger was wrong: Some of them aren't so gr-r-reat. The folks at Kellogg have conceded so.

The Kellogg Company took a responsible step forward last week with its announcement that it will voluntarily phase out marketing its more nutritionally deficient breakfast cereals to children under 12. Even better news is that Kellogg plans to reformulate some cereals to make them healthier.

The ban, which affects nearly half of Kellogg's product line for children, is based on the company's own set of nutritional guidelines for salt, sugar and fat. Television ads for such favorites as Froot Loops and Apple Jacks, with their 13 grams of sugar (or over three sugar packets) per one-cup serving, will soon disappear from Saturday morning cartoon programming, where the audience is primary children, save for a few teenagers without a life.

Many adult cereals such as Rice Krispies are out, too. Too much salt. It is safe to say that the cereals that do make the cut, such as All Bran, are unlikely to be advertised during Fox's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Once healthy

Ironically, cold breakfast cereal was originally developed in the late 19th century as a health elixir. Kellogg brothers, John Harvey and Will Keith, developed corn flakes, wheat flakes and a product they called Granola to provide fiber for those suffering from digestive problems. C.W. Post, inspired by a visit to the Kellogg sanitarium, invented Grape Nuts, which contains neither grapes nor nuts and would better be described as tan-colored gravel, but is healthy nonetheless.

Fast-forward to the 1970s and the devolution of breakfast cereal with the dawn of Cookie Crisp and Count Chocula. Perhaps it's not surprising that cereals with names along the lines of "sugar-frosted chocolate sugar balls with marshmallow sugar swirls" have a lot of sugar. For every healthy cereal—corn flakes, Cheerios, rice puffs—there seems to be an evil-twin sugar variety: Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, Golden Crisp.

Some cereal manufacturers go to extremes to squeeze more sugar into their products. Lucky Charms seems to add a new kind of marshmallow every year and have just about reached a limit on colors and charms, save for mauve voodoo dolls.

None of this was so bad back when kids used to play real sports instead of virtual sports to burn calories. Those days are long gone. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids in the United States spend about four hours day watching television, twice the viewing time compared to 1970, plus more time playing video games. And during those four hours they are blasted with junk-food commercials.

Death by cereal

Cereal advertisements on television have always been over the top, a portal into the violent life-and-death struggle among hoarders, thieves and earnest searchers of food in a 30-second melodrama combining Greek tragedy with Tolkien fantasy.

There's an emaciated rabbit forever denied Trix for reasons undisclosed; a caveman in a similar predicament denied Fruity Pebbles; a gaunt chocolate-junkie vampire resorting to scaring innocent children just to steal their Count Chocula cereal; a leprechaun who can't eat a bowl of cereal in peace; and a navy captain with perhaps the worse assignment out of Annapolis, sailing the seven seas with three kids and a dog, pursued by a bare-footed pirate desperate for the map to the elusive cruchberry bush.

Why the tension? It's just breakfast.

Corporate responsibility

Kellogg's change of heart was perhaps partially motivated by a lawsuit threat over marketing to children, raised by two advocacy groups, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The two organizations are happy with Kellogg's voluntary ad ban and have already agreed not to proceed with their lawsuit.

Regardless of the motivation, several companies have made sincere efforts to market their products more responsibly. Kraft Foods announced a voluntary advertising ban similar to Kellogg's over a year ago. Kraft, which owns Post, has also radically reformulated some of its products to make them healthier. Its Alpha-Bits cereal now, remarkably, contains no added sugar.

Walt Disney said that it would not allow its characters to be used in food advertising unless the products complied with nutritional standards. This is a very positive move, because children, upon seeing certain animated characters on the big screen, inexplicably desire to eat them in a sugarcoated form. McDonald's now carefully lists the nutritional facts on its food, so you can at least see how bad this stuff is for you.

These are all productive steps. Wouldn't it be nice if the alcohol industry showed some responsibility as well? Why, for example, is there so much alcohol advertising on MTV when nearly its entire audience is under 21? Have beer companies goofed, mistakenly spending millions of dollars for advertising to what they thought was an adult audience? Or do they know exactly what they are doing?

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.