After writing about so-called trivial culture and commercialized society, I can’t hold back any more. I need to write about the truly important stuff in the world. I’ve written and published about breakfast cereal and its fans before in an article for the Journal of Customer Behavior with Stephen Brown and John Sherry about Quisp consumers/fans. It’s time to write about breakfast cereal again.
Now, yesterday I was commenting about consumer society and its penchant for collecting and merchandising just about everything. I mentioned the Onion’s wonderful article about how everything in the world is now collectible. The lead photo in that article is a picture of the limited-edition box of PowerPuff Girls cereal. From the Onion article:
With everything on the planet officially collectible, collectors have more items to choose from than ever. Objects such as plastic twist ties from speaker-wire packaging, the tin-foil lining of chewing-gum wrappers, and the little rubbery residue left in magazines when attachments are removed have all jumped sharply in value–and investors see no signs of a slowdown.
Manufacturers have caught on to the trend, releasing mundane products such as cigarettes, beer, and snack chips in special collector’s “platinum” editions at marked-up prices. As collector mania spreads, even items like floor polish, paper plates, and rubber bands are becoming prohibitively expensive for many Americans.
What makes the article funny is that we recognize the behavior and we recognize the marketing response. The Onion even asked, in an earlier article, whether the government should get involved in curbing the supply of what they subtly term “Incredibly Stupid Shit?”
But what is behind the story? Why do people want Jar-Jar lollipops and musical Austin Power sun visors? I think that we need to turn to breakfast cereal for answers. Yes, breakfast cereal. Kids’ sweetened breakfast cereals are fascinating to me because they are a product that is also tightly tied into the entertainment industry. They are inevitably constructed of equal parts food and character. The commercials are highly entertaining, they make an impression upon kids, and then the entertainment continues with the packaging, promotions, and even the cereal product itself. When successful, they all tie into one another: myth becomes matter. Mmmm…matter.
When I was younger, Lucky Charms was pretty much about the Leprechaun bestowing gifts, or getting caught and chased. Catch those Lucky Charms, they’re magically delicious. He was kind of an easy mark. Well, Lucky Charms has come a long way, baby. I’m sitting in front of the box of Chocolate Lucky Charms I bought for my kids and I can tell you, this thing is so packed full of symbolic references that Dan Brown would have a party interpreting it.
What is most intriguing to me is the side panel that invites us to “discover the magic of each charm.” The marshmallows of course, are the treats of the cereal, but they are also magical talisman, each conferring a particular power. The blue moon is “Invisibility.” The orange star gives the power of “Flight.” The purple horseshoe gives “Speed,” while the red balloon gives the power to “Float.” Similarly, the pink heart grants “Life” and the yellow crowned oval gives “Illumination” (oh, Illumination, is it?). The green shamrock is of course “Luck” and finally the rainbow offers “Travel.” Well, if that isn’t mystical fodder for young imaginations, I don’t know what is. Write a book or a story about the charms and their mythic power? Easy. A movie? A theme park? Multiple spin off collectibles? Why not!
I’ve been asserting for a while that commercial culture weaves its spell through mythical associations. Commercial culture offers us a variety of rich, deep stories that have immediate material manifestations. And I believe that humans, as a species, are constantly thirsting for stories, for meaning, for mythical connection. We crave it. How else can we understand the universal penchant for drama and entertainment, and the content of those dramatic forms? Drama and story telling are our religion at base, our fount of meaning and source of inspiration. And that story-telling task, once held almost solely by institutions like religion, has been seriously taken up by commercial culture in the mass mediated years since the last World War.
In the Journal of Marketing article that Stephen Brown, John Sherry and IU wrote, we argued that the key to retro beanding was story-telling. I’ll expand that and state, along with a number of contemporary writers who have caught on like Lawrence Vincent, MArk Gobe, and Scott Atkins, that story-telling is the key to all sorts of branding, and that the elements of branding and story-telling intersect:
- Attractive Characters
- Interesting Plots
- Arresting Conflicts
- Meaningful Themes
- Involving Settings
How hard is it to tease out these elements for successful brands like Apple? My colleagues Russ Belk and Gulnur Tumbat did exactly that in their wonderful film/article on “The Cult of Mac.”
Back to the story in the cereal bowl. So you’ve got the Leprechaun and the Kids involved in some sort of quest (what is it? we don’t really know yet? are they searching for Horcruckzes?). Where is the conflict, the villain, the challenge? What’s the theme? Is the Leprechaun trying to save the power of Childlike Imagination from the adult-like Dweebs? Does it involve a quest through many places, such as the ancient, powerful, and mysterious “Charmhenge”? We can see that this Lucky Charms tale is not just idle myth-making, either, but it siphons a sort of universal resonance. It has mystical ambition as well. With a generation raised on high technology miracles, videogames, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, the lingua franca of the New Consumption Age is a variety of Mystical Materialism.
General Mills and their Luck Charms cereal are a wonderful example. If you go to the Lucky Charms web-site you can see how they have built out the charms into a variety of exciting and entertaining games. Every aspect of the cereal is on its way to meaningful status. Below, I provide a screenshot from the videogame that I took today, of a place called “Charmhenge.”
Is it witchcraft, black magic, or just good marketing? Maybe those activities are more connected than we usually think.