Cereal du jour: Fruity Pebbles, the cereal of creationists and brand marketers.
History: This week, I'd planned to make up an entire false history of Fruity Pebbles, linking it to creationists and the Christian church, claiming that it existed solely as a guerrilla-marketing experiment and an attempt to subtly sway the opinions of America's children in the direction of their ridiculous (but fun!) anti-science agenda. But then I read a little about the real history of the stuff, and decided that this was one of those moments where the truth really was stranger and more interesting than anything I could make up because Fruity Pebbles actually stands as the first example of multi-platform media branding in breakfast cereals. In Fruity Pebbles is the history of every box of Urkel-O's and Bill & Ted's Excellent Cereal ever sold.
You see, back in 1969, Post Cereals was suffering. For reasons that mystify cereal historians, Post just seemed categorically incapable of selling sugar to children for breakfast. One possible cause might have been the fact that they couldn't name a cereal to save their lives. What would eventually become Fruity Pebbles was originally marketed as "Sugar Rice Krinkles," and that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
Enter Larry Weiss, Post's embattled Product Group Manager. He had this crazy idea that to bump up sales of Sugar Rice Krinkles he would license the use of The Flintstones from Hanna-Barbera and slap images from the popular prime-time cartoon all over the box. Until then, some clever cereal executives had used licensed characters for promotional purposes, but no one had ever thought of building an entire brand around a licensed property. At the time, it seemed crazy. Internally, a lot of cereal executives thought Weiss was crazy--that if he was lucky, he'd get a year out of his cartoony cereal experiment before it fell off the radar and left the Post children's-cereal division in even worse straits.
Then there was also the problem of the name. Obviously, no one was buying Sugar Rice Krinkles. But the tie-in names developed for the newly licensed cereal were Flint Chips (for what would soon become Fruity Pebbles) and Rubble Stones (for Cocoa Pebbles--because, you know, what kid wouldn't love to eat rocks for breakfast?
These names were if possible even worse than Sugar Rice Krinkles, and the task of coming up with a name that someone, somewhere might think was actually appetizing was handed to the creative types in advertising who came up with Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles. Again, these weren't perfect, but they were an improvement. The product inside the box was essentially the same Sugar Rice Krinkles that had been such an abysmal failure, just jacked up with more sugar, brighter colors, and "fruity" flavors, but when the "new and improved" cereal launched on the West Coast in 1969, it was an instant hit. A national roll-out followed. Consumers went crazy for it. And Fruity Pebbles has been among the most consistently best-selling breakfast cereals ever since--a 42-year run that laid the groundwork for every crappy cartoon-based cereal and TV-and-movie tie-in that followed. Mr. T cereal? Wouldn't have existed without Fruity Pebbles, The Flintstones, and Larry Weiss. And if there isn't already, there should be a shrine to Mr. Weiss somewhere in Battle Creek, before which newly minted ad execs and product developers could bow and give thanks.
The Box: Even though most kids (and some adults) eating this cereal have probably never seen the Flintstones anywhere else, every single box of Fruity Pebbles still features Fred and/or Barney and probably a dinosaur or two. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The Product: So sweet, so sugary, so many colors . . . The formula for Fruity and Cocoa Pebbles has remained essentially unchanged for decades. It eats like shards of shattered sugar, tastes like drinking a home chemistry set, and looks like a rainbow exploded in the bowl. Leave the stuff too long, and it will change your milk color to a disgusting purply shade that subconsciously screams "Poison!" But straight from the box, while still crisp, two bowls of this stuff can give you a sugar rush like shotgunning a bottle of high-fructose corn syrup. Despite the fact that I know how bad it is for me, I sometimes can't help but eat it. And no one can eat just one bowl at a time.
Best Feature: It's like eating a hundred back issues of Advertising Age magazine. Also, it tastes like being shot in the mouth with a blunderbuss packed with rock sugar and chemically derived fruit flavinoids.
Worst Feature: If it turns milk that color, imagine what it's doing to your insides. Or better yet, don't.
Is It Better or Worse Than Apple Jacks?: Worse. WAY worse. But still, Fruity Pebbles have their time and place, and when I get a hunger for their particular crunch and over-the-top flavor of polydextrose and blue dye #4, nothing else on the shelves can compare.
Yeah, you know you want more... For all the food news of the day, 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter @Jason_Sheehan