It was a nearly perfect morning. The sun was up, the birds were chirping and there was a brand new box of Apple Jacks in the cupboard.
I have been eating cereal for more than fifty years, consider myself to be somewhat of an expert on the subject of Apple Jacks, Sugar Smacks, and Cocoa Puffs, and take joy in those mornings spent in a death row t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts, contemplating the world a spoonful at a time.
A death row t-shirt, by the way, is whatever t-shirt one feels most comfortable in, meaning it contains the most worn spots, holes and stains. I call these shirts death row because they are under the watchful gaze of my wife, the warden. She has seen them. She has planned their executions. They are on death row. They will soon be cut into square rags to clean, torn into long ribbons to tie tomatoes or unceremoniously sent to their end at the bottom of a plastic kitchen trash bag. I wear them, knowing that any bowl of cereal could be their last.
It was a morning that made me feel like I was seven years old. I was alone with my bowl of Apple Jacks. The only thing missing was Saturday morning cartoons. Instead, I read the comments section on my favorite website, which, frankly, was nearly as funny as Josie and the Pussycats. So, I didn’t miss the cartoons that much.
Cereal is junk food to the highest degree and I have been feeding my growing body with it for nearly my entire life. It is the first meal I learned to prepare on my own. After getting past that tricky “milk goes in second” step, I became quite a cereal chef.
I ate cereal before the boxes came with any wax paper or plastic bag or foil liner, when it was just raw Rice Krispies scraping up against non-sterilized cardboard. There were no charts or graphs on the side of the box telling you how far from the daily minimum requirement of Niacin you will be after eating one serving, according to your government. In the days before the cereal manufacturers injected their product with more chemicals than an Olympic weight room, there were only crunchy, sugar-coated pieces of glom and prizes inside. The glom came in many shapes – wagon wheels (Honey Comb), letters of the alphabet (Alpha-Bits), orange stars, green clovers, yellow moons and pink hearts (Lucky Charms) – but it was the prize inside that attracted me as a seven-year old.
The prize inside a cereal box, like the prize inside a box of Cracker Jacks, or the comic strip that came with Bazooka bubble gum, was much more than an extra added surprise. It was the reason children chose that product over another. Sure, we may have liked Count Chocula’s taste. But, really, it was the same chocolate filmy sludge we got in Cocoa Krispies, or Nestle’s Quik, or Fudgsicles. It wasn’t real chocolate, like a Hershey’s bar. It was chemically produced chocolate-like taste. Did we care? No! Why did we carry the box of Cocoa Puffs back to our Mom’s shopping cart, rather than that box of Cookie Crisp? Because Cocoa Puffs had a glider inside and all Cookie Crisp had was a ring. Who wants a stinky ring?
It was cereal that started me on my downhill slide to shoplifting. I found, at age seven or eight, that I could successfully open a box of cereal, jam my arm inside and dig out the one-thirty-second scale Ford Mustang without being noticed. It made sense to me. I hated Corn Flakes. But I really liked Mustangs.
So, there I was, sitting at the table in my death row t-shirt, eating what could have been my 12,000th bowl of cereal, reading in the paper about how "PapaBaddd126" of Ford City would run things if he was in charge of the Muslims. I reached for the box of Apple Jacks to top off my bowl.
As I poured, I noticed some writing on the inside of the box. Was it a secret message that only my Apple Jacks decoder could decipher? Was it a fun puzzle to attempt as I wolfed down another bowl of glom? Was it a rescue note from some poor Kellogg’s factory worker? No. It was advertising. Someone paid to have an advertisement for an amusement park chain printed on the inside of the box.
I pulled the bag from the box (another case of waste) and got out my rounded edge, you-can-run-with-these-if-you-like safety scissors. Cutting open the box, I found not one, but two full-sized advertisements on the inside of the box.
I went to the cupboard and looked inside the other boxes of cereal (it’s always good to have a variety on hand). Every one of them had ads printed on the inside of the box. Only one of them had a prize. It was a good prize – a Spiderman wristband that glowed in the dark – too small for my wrist, but I’ve got tools. What genius advertising executive sold the inside of a cereal box to a client? What imbecile company would be so hard-pressed for advertising space that they’d buy the inside of a box, hoping that someone would run to get the rounded edge safety scissors, just to see what it was that was printed on the inside of the box? Well. It worked. This is like a NASCAR advertiser buying space on the inside of the gas tank.
Take some advice from a long-time cereal fan. If you want your advertisement to be effective, don’t waste your money buying the inside of a box people will throw away before they read. Place your ad in a small, sealed plastic pouch and shove to the bottom of the cereal. Treat it like a prize. That way, people like me will jam our arms inside the box, right there in the cereal aisle of the I.G.A., and yank your ad out of that nest of Cheerios before our Moms notice.
Would you like a second piece of advice? Make whatever you put in there glow-in-the-dark. That’s always big.