Consuming ads: food marketing

At several points, I’ve suggested that seemingly modern advertising and marketing strategies – including those that generate concern among present-day campaigners – were quite evident in this much earlier period. In this section, I’d like to illustrate this by discussing the marketing for two ranges of food products, as they developed over the 1950s. The first of these relates specifically to popsicles (flavoured ice-cream snacks, mainly served on a stick); while the second looks more broadly at breakfast cereal. Alongside some other sources, I’m particularly drawing on archival material from the Hartman Center at Duke University: the collection contains examples of ads themselves, as well as promotional material, research reports, memos and correspondence aimed at sales agents, distributors and retailers.


Case study 1: Popsicles

Popsicles were invented in 1905 by an 11-year-old Californian boy named Frank Epperson. He launched the products on the market in the early 1920s, receiving a patent in 1924; and the name was apparently changed from ‘Epsicle’ to ‘Popsicle’ at the insistence of his own children. Epperson did not own the company for long, however: finding himself broke, he sold it in 1925 to the Joe Lowe Company of New York, who owned the rights for more than sixty years.

Many of the marketing strategies used by the Lowe company during the 1950s were far from new: in fact, they were very similar to those described by Evalyne Grumbine in the late 1930s. Straightforward advertising obviously played a key role. Full-colour spreads aimed at the family audience were run in Sunday newspapers, and in mass-circulation magazines like Life (whose sales at this time were around five million). Children were targeted more specifically through ads in prestigious magazines like American Girl and Boys’ Life, and in comic books – although in the wake of the campaigns against so-called ‘horror comics’ earlier in the decade[i], this was confined to those that were considered ‘clean’ or ‘parent-approved’. Billboards, posters and point-of-sale displays (including decals for shop windows) were also part of the advertising mix; as was television, which I’ll come to shortly.

However, the marketing strategies became more diverse and elaborate as the decade progressed. Advertising in the early 1950s largely focused on the qualities of the products themselves (most obviously claims about taste). However, children were shown enjoying the product in an increasing range of settings – ads with a summer beach theme were joined by others featuring snow scenes, and in 1958 (in the wake of Sputnik) by a ‘space travel’ theme. Promotion also focused increasingly on extraneous strategies such as premium offers (inexpensive ‘free’ gifts like pens and plastic jewellery) and children’s competitions. Some of the thousands of prizes apparently on offer here were far from trivial: by 1957 and 1958, successful contestants and their families were being offered all-expense-paid one week vacations in Hollywood or New York, alongside a wide range of high-tech appliances and gadgets. These offers and competitions were also reinforced by direct-mail marketing: one 1958 memo boasts that prize lists had reached twenty million children.

In its efforts to increase sales, the company also diversified its product range, enabling it to make repeated claims about the advent of ‘new’ products and flavours. Simple popsicles were joined by ‘dreamsicles’, ‘fudgesicles’, ‘creamsicles’ and so on, as well as ‘niftees’, ‘sidewalk sundaes’ and ‘cho-cho’ malted milk drinks. In stores, customers were offered small free samples of new flavours and products, which were actually mixed and frozen on the spot using special equipment provided by the company.

Some of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of this can be glimpsed in the publicity materials targeting retailers – who were unashamedly told how advertising was being used to ‘sell your young customers right on their living room floor’, and how it could ‘pre-sell the entire family on your brands’. Retailers were urged to renew their sales displays regularly, and take advantage of new flavours and product lines appearing. A ‘Blue Chip Plan’ of incentives was offered to retailers and to distributors – that is, the delivery drivers – who would earn bonuses and ‘merit coupons’ for good sales, and could go on to choose from a very extensive catalogue featuring over 1500 gifts.

One seemingly modern aspect here is what might today be called ‘participatory marketing’. This included, but often went beyond, straightforward approaches like getting consumers to send in wrappers and complete advertising jingles. In 1957, for example, the company was running ‘Popsi-Doodle’ contests, in which consumers were invited to cut out the red ‘sicle’ emblem from the product wrappers and then utilize them in creating doodles or drawings – again in the hope of winning significant prizes. Consumers are undoubtedly ‘active’ here, although their activity is effectively focused around the brand name and logo.

Another seemingly modern strategy was the use of trans-media ‘tie-ins’ – an approach that has a long history, but which only began to generate much concern among campaigners in the 1970s and 1980s. This took several forms. The Lowe company sponsored a ‘Popsicle Comedy Party’ TV show (a half hour broadcast on late Saturday afternoons, especially during the peak summer sales months), which appeared on 120 stations nationwide. It also bought into sponsorship of existing shows, including Lone Ranger, Sir Lancelot and American Bandstand; and here again, the memos to retailers emphasise the numbers of stations involved, and the potential audience size (American Bandstand apparently delivered ’49 million home messages’). Other early partners in this period included Ringling Brothers, owners of the Barnum and Bailey travelling circus (famously billed as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’): popsicle products were endorsed by circus performers, advertised in the Barnum and Bailey magazine, and marketed at the circus itself (in a form of ‘event marketing’); while circus characters and themes were featured in advertising, in-store displays and product packaging.

Perhaps the most notable of the company’s media partnerships in this respect was with Disney. Like Mattel’s toys, popsicles were being advertised on Disney’s TV shows from their inception in 1955; and the connection was reinforced by packaging and in-store displays featuring Disney characters. Customers were offered Donald Duck-themed ‘Ducky Dubble’ or ‘Kreami-Frost’ ices, alongside others featuring Dumbo, Pinocchio, and Goofy. (Disney, meanwhile, boasted of its impressive reach, claiming 4000 million monthly ‘impressions’ – 30 for every American.) Children were also invited to join the ‘Ducky Dubble Club of America’, which boasted several local chapters and an official charter, along with badges, membership cards and prizes for members.

All these activities were planned in line with insights from market research. Memos and briefing reports for sales agents and retailers repeatedly emphasise how ‘research’ has demonstrated the effectiveness of particular strategies such as free samples, new flavours, and regularly updated point-of-sale advertising. One striking example of this in the Hartman Center collection is a map of the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which is presumably one of many: it shows the quantities of traffic circulation on the city’s primary thoroughfares in order to identify the most favourable locations for billboards and illuminated posters. The level of detail, and hence financial investment, is remarkable.

What we can see in this one example, therefore, is a combination of several familiar promotional strategies: straightforward advertising, across a range of media; packaging; in-store activities and displays; competitions, clubs and other participatory activities; media sponsorship and merchandising; and the diversification of the product range itself. As I’ve suggested, very few of these strategies were especially innovative: even the television-related activities had their precedents in radio. Yet the scale of the marketing, and the integration between the various components, does represent a kind of step change. It could well be compared to approaches that would today be called ‘integrated’ or ‘360-degree’ marketing: the aim is to create a kind of synergy between the different forms of promotion that makes the brand much more difficult to avoid.


Case study 2: breakfast cereal

Like popsicles, breakfast cereal is obviously not just a children’s product: indeed, it is mostly purchased by adults, even if they may do so partly in response to children’s ‘pester power’. Today, amid concerns about child obesity and the advertising of ‘HFSS’ (high in fat, salt and sugar) foods, it has become a somewhat controversial product. In this respect, it’s ironic to recall that the origins of ready-to-eat cold breakfast cereal were as a health food. Its leading pioneer was John Harvey Kellogg (1851-1943), a Seventh Day Adventist who directed a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, originally known as the Western Health Reform Institute. An advocate of temperance and sexual abstinence, and a campaigner against masturbation, Kellogg began to develop ‘anaphrodisiac’ vegetarian foods that would discourage sexual stimulation; and he went on to invent breakfast cereals like Granola and Toasted Corn Flakes.

By the 1950s, breakfast cereals had become a highly lucrative, but also very competitive, business. The market was dominated by an oligopoly of three companies – Kellogg’s, General Foods (Post) and General Mills – which represented 85% of the industry between them.[ii] The concentrated targeting of children began at this time, with the development of an ever-broadening range of pre-sweetened products: fibre was reduced and sugar added, in some cases constituting more than 50% by weight. When compared with other areas of the food industry, profit margins were potentially high, but so was the expenditure on advertising. One later estimate suggested that almost two-thirds of advertising directed at children was for food products, most of which were high in sugar and fat, and low in fibre.[iii]

Much of this advertising and promotion was targeted at a general family audience. Ads typically focused on the qualities of the product – convenience and texture (or ‘crispness’) were as vital as taste – but within this, the appeals to adults and children were rather different.[iv] Advertising specifically for adults tended to focus on health benefits, via claims about the importance of protein and fibre. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, for example, were advertised as fortified with Vitamin D (‘more sun than ever’), while even Rice Krispies were apparently ‘loaded with all the food values of rice’. One 1957 TV ad showed scientists creating ‘Kellogg’s new food discovery’, the apparently protein-rich Special K.

In some cases, these appeals were addressed to the dietary concerns of adult consumers (about constipation and weight control, for example), but they also related to children. Here again, assertions about nutritional value sat alongside claims about convenience. Post oatmeal, for example, was described as ‘the best cereal for growing children’; while Corn Flakes were advertised as ‘body-building’, and Rice Krispies provided ‘nourishment without weight’. Cereal was marketed not just as a breakfast staple, but also as a daytime snack food and as part of children’s evening meals. A set of British TV ads for Kellogg’s featured ‘real’ mothers in relatively unglamorous circumstances, claiming that eating cereal (for both breakfast and dinner) helped to keep their children’s hunger at bay.

By contrast, appeals specifically for children tended to focus on sweetness and ‘fun’. They frequently involved premiums (‘free’ gifts, mail-ins), competitions and media tie-ins. The cereal companies had developed distinctive child-friendly mascots and characters as early as the 1930s: the Rice Krispies elves date back to 1933, although Tony the Tiger (of Kellogg’s Frosties) did not make his debut until 1952. These characters subsequently appeared in animated form in TV commercials, but by the end of the 1950s, companies were also making use of licensed cartoon characters, such as Hanna-Barbera’s Yogi Bear and the Flintstones, and (in the UK) Enid Blyton’s Noddy.

Children were also targeted with premium offers, sometimes in the form of toys included in the packaging, but also via mail-ins (generally of box tops together with 25 cents). Smaller toys, cards and packet cut-outs – from zoo animals and nursery rhyme books to Wild West guns and military aircraft – were offered as collectables; and children were urged to ‘ask your mother to get Kellogg’s’ (an incitement to pester power that would not be permitted today). Several of these premiums also involved media tie-ins. A collection of such gifts from 1955 included ‘magic goggles’, model cars and a rocket glider, as well as membership of a Rin-Tin-Tin Club, a Dragnet detective kit, a Roy Rogers ranch set and Lone Ranger masks. Continuing the Western theme, Quaker cereals even offered a deed of ownership of one square inch of land in ‘Yukon Gold Rush Country’. Here again, space travel became a recurring motif towards the end of the decade: Kellogg’s Pep, a ‘build-up wheat cereal’, offered potential space cadets the opportunity to ‘step into another world’ at breakfast time.

These techniques extended to the family market as well. Alongside Yogi Bear, adult-oriented performers like Groucho Marx were also hawking breakfast cereal; and in 1964, even the Rolling Stones featured in a Rice Krispies commercial. Significantly larger sweepstake prizes were also on offer, mostly targeted at families: for example, in its 1960 campaign General Mills was promising 72 Chevrolet Corvairs, $30,000 of dividend shares and cash prizes of $1 million (equivalent to $8 million today).

By the beginning of the 1960s, however, the market leader Kellogg’s appears to have decided to step back from this approach.[v] A 1959 report by its agency, J. Walter Thompson, found little evidence of the sustained effectiveness of premium offers, and even some indications that consumers resented ‘gimmicks’ of this kind. It also suggested that children only accounted for around one third of the actual consumption of breakfast cereal.[vi] While media tie-ins were still apparent in products targeted primarily at children, Kellogg’s appeared to shift its emphasis towards the family market. Its magazine campaigns from the early 1960s used full-colour photographs (as distinct from the ‘classic’ Norman Rockwell illustrations of the mid-1950s): the images began to dominate, occupying as much as 80% of the page. While some were posed scenes of white suburban family life, many featured adults – even enjoying pre-sugared cereal – without children being present at all. Corn Flakes were shown alongside fresh fruit and milk, amid claims about their health-giving qualities (the ‘best to you each morning’ slogan first appeared in 1959, and some packs also offered coupons for milk or fruit purchases).

These two case studies of food marketing point to a combination of change and continuity in marketing to children during this period. For the most part, the techniques that are being used are not especially novel: with the exception of television, there is little that would have surprised Evalyne Grumbine. At the same time, the scale of the enterprise is significantly greater: the products themselves have diversified; expenditure on marketing has significantly increased; and marketers are making increasing use of research. Marketing has become an integrated phenomenon, which makes increasing use of characters, themes and appeals drawn from other media: consumers are not only consuming products themselves (in this case, quite literally), but also the media that surround and define them.


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[i] These campaigns in the US are described by David Hajdu (2008).

[ii] See Scanlon (1969). There was increasing pressure by the end of the 1960s to ‘deconcentrate’ the industry.

[iii] Gamble and Cotugna (1999): this is based on figures from the 1970s-1990s, although there’s little reason to doubt that this was also the case in the period I’m considering here.

[iv] The ads I’m referring to in this section come mainly from the J. Walter Thompson collection at Duke University. I have also made use of Ira Gallen’s video collections of TV ads; and the British TV ads come from the History of Advertising Trust online collection.

[v] Over the 1950s, Kellogg’s market share had increased from around 40% to 55%.

[vi] ‘Premiums and the ready-to-eat cereal market’, report by J. Walter Thompson agency, October 1959; also ‘Report of a consumer survey: pre-sweetened cereals’, conducted for Kellogg’s by the British Market Research Bureau, both in the Hartman Center collection.