Way back when, at a time when sugar highs came from Baby Bottle Pops and wearing oversized flannel was considered making a statement, breakfast cereal was the morning staple of the American household.
While cold cereal is still among the most popular breakfast foods eaten at home, the food's popularity has been declining since the mid-90s, the Star Tribune reported. There are several explanations for cereal's drop — cereal-based breakfasts eaten at home dropped from 31% in 2008 to 26.8% in 2015 — but millennials' disinterest is one that marketers are most worried about.
"Millennials consume cold cereal less often compared to other generations when they were that age, and they choose eggs and fresh pancakes more often," a 2015 prediction report from market researcher NPD Group reads. Recent research from market intelligence agency Mintel exposes millennials as a critical group: 43% of millennials "agree they do not trust large food manufacturers compared to just 18[%] of non-Millennials," Mintel reported.
Millennials have also been identified as a health-conscious bunch: They're willing to spend more time and money on wellness activities and healthier foods, and this is really where their cereal sensibilities (or lack thereof) come into play.
"Many of us have realized that the bowl of milk and cereal causes us to be hungry an hour later — maybe we're even cranky," Sophie Egan, a program director at The Culinary Institute of America and author of Devoured, said in an interview. "For so long it was just what everyone ate, it was just what kids food was, what breakfast food was." But the breakfast table has evidently turned.
So what's a food marketer to do when one of the country's largest generations starts dissing their clients' products?
Make hoverboards, of course. Cereal promoters have evolved to become the cheesy club promoters of the decade, flaunting silly gimmicks and nostalgia-grounded gags to gain back the allegiance of a group who allegedly responds well to that kind of stuff.
Exhibit A: Cinnamon Toast Crunch launches a "Cruiser" that you can't actually ride
This purple vehicle is "part board, part cereal bowl," according to General Mills' blog. "It features a self-leveling bowl that holds one serving of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, plus spill-shield technology to prevent a mess while riding." Oh, goody.
Mark Chu, associate marketing manager at General Mills — and self-identified millennial — said the cruiser concept was "love at first sight" when the ad agency presented it.
"We thought it would be a fun opportunity to latch on the popularity of hoverboards," Chu said over the phone back in May 2016. "We're making fun of the millennial culture ... it's obviously not serious, it's just a unique spin on the hoverboard."
The "millennial culture" Chu spoke of refers to the rise of interest in convenience foods. Convenience is a top priority for the generation, NPD Group reported. "Items that are quick to order, prepare, and consume with easy portability and little mess satisfy this need," the group wrote.
While cereal is certainly not a fussy food, Chu said there's a "perception of inconvenience." It doesn't help that several media outlets took liberties with research that highlighted Gen Y's preference for convenience food, publishing headlines like "Millennials Think Eating Cereal Is Way Too Difficult" and "Millennials are too lazy to pour cereal into a bowl, then clean up after themselves." Still, granola bars and individual yogurts are more efficient ways to get one's morning sustenance than washing a bowl.
So ... where does the hoverboard come in? "Never skip breakfast," the vehicle's promo video reads. "Never be late. Welcome to breakfast in the fast lane."
Get it? The Cinnamon Toast Cruiser is not actually a product for sale; only five were manufactured and Chu said he doesn't know if any more will be produced.
So if you can't ride the Cruiser and you can't eat cereal out of it while on the go, what's the point? "For us it was fun and interesting," Chu said. "So much of the advertising you see now is more of an interruption to the entertainment millennials want to see. A lot of the reactions we've garnered are 'wow are you serious?' but that's the response we are anticipating. We're trying to show that we don't take ourselves very seriously."
Will the hoverboard incite millennials to eat more Cinnamon Toast Crunch? "I certainly hope so," Chu said.
Exhibit B: Kellogg's pretends cereal is a vegetable
In July 2016, Kellogg's somehow convinced Meijer, a midwestern grocery store chain, to move boxes of Frosted Flakes, Honey Smacks and Mini Wheats to the produce aisle. Seem inconsequential? The switch-up was an attempt to reap the cash benefits from the "halo effect," Food Dive reported, a psychological phenomena that causes consumers to believe a product is more healthful due to, in this case, their perceptions of more nutritious foods like fruits and veggies. The health halo effect can boost purchases.
Froot Loops are so totally not fruit, but that's not what cereal hawkers want you to believe. "Fresh, healthy, wholesome — those are the words that come to mind," Craig Bahner, the president of Kellogg's morning foods division said about the supermarket migration, Quartz reported.
For years, nutrition experts have recommended health-conscious consumers to shop only the perimeter of the grocery store: It's where fresh produce, yogurts and lean meats tend to live. The tempting crap — sugar-laden cereal, nutritionally void snacks and sweets — tends to be sandwiched in the middle aisles. It's no wonder Kellogg's sought out real estate in a location typically reserved for kale — it's where everyone goes.
Cereal boxes are specifically designed to be eye-catching: Product mascots are positioned to literally make eye-contact with children. Beyond Cap'n Crunch's loving glances, cereal boxes proclaim the foods' nutritional benefits with intent.
"Front of package labeling is a very crafty business," Egan said. While a product may boast its vitamin C and fiber content, extracted from whole grains, it often fails to explicitly divulge that the majority of the food is made from refined grains and "more sugar than a piece of cheesecake," Egan said.
Exhibit C: Cereal attempts to hop on the protein trend — without changing much
It's no secret that protein is the *it* nutrient of the 2000s. In 2015, Cheerios tried to get into the market, launching Cheerios Protein.
The product's front package labeling boldly boasts 11 grams of protein, but in less defined print reveals that the impressive nutritional stat is aided by the addition of milk. What you can't see on the front of the box: Cheerios Protein has a bigger serving size than standard Cheerios: 55-grams vs. 27 grams, respectively. What that means is that consumers have to eat more to get more protein. This was all a matter of marketing. As the Center for Science in the Public Interest reported, "Two ounces of each cereal have just about the same amount of protein."
Even worse, Protein Cheerios contains 17 times more sugar than the standard kind. You don't see any of that printed on the glossy box. Fail.
Exhibit D: Everything about the marketing behind Tiny Toast
In June 2016, General Mill's unleashed its first new cereal product in 15 years. "Tiny Toast is designed to appeal to younger, health-conscious consumers because it's one of the few breakfast cereals on the market flavored with real fruit and has no high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors or colors," MSN reported.
Since millennials are hyper-focused on real ingredients over artificial ones, creating an entirely new product enabled the cereal company to sell a something that started off clean, as it continues to remove artificial ingredients from its pre-existing brands (General Mills pledged to remove artificial flavors and colors from all of its cereals by 2017).
While an artificial-free cereal like Tiny Toast gives off some sense of maturity — grown-ups don't need their cereal to be blue to eat it — its marketing is positively juvenile. The cereal's landing page is certainly by no accident hosted on Tumblr, a social media platform predominantly used by younger millennials and teens. On it you'll find a selection of memes, gifs and just plain nonsense to represent the brand:
Even the word "tiny" gives the brand an unsophisticated vibe.
The collection of "internet-y" images is painfully transparent: The brand is closing its eyes and crossing its fingers for engagement, hoping that the memes that reek of millennial counterfeit resonate with actual millennials.