Fear and Loathing in the Cereal Aisle


Under capitalism, the value of a product or service is weighted by the suffering caused by its absence. Often, this suffering is inflicted by the same people trying to sell you their thing; Uber and Lyft have been fairly blatant in their aims to eliminate public transit and unionized taxis [1] [2] [3].

Other times, this requires some dreaming of dreams, the conjuring of glib and gladsome miseries. Marketing is like, 70% this, and maybe 30% people sitting around on a conference call going “aw gee, we really missed the window of virality for that content”.

An example of this dreaming you’re probably familiar with: people struggling with simple tasks in infomercials. These products are made with people who have accessibility needs in mind. But they aren’t considered a “profitable” demographic, so instead, advertising teams conceive cautionary tales to warn us of the agony that awaits those of us who in our arrogance pour soda from a 2-liter or try to pan-fry a fish filet.

These exaggerated accidents (and maybe the culture of comedic appreciation that’s sprung from it) creates a wide enough audience for the product that it makes it available for the people that will actually benefit from it. Our own terror at indignity is utilized to afford dignity for others. This is, effectively, capitalism as charity, which I’m sure Slavoj Zizek has 400 shirtless rants about on Youtube.

Food marketing takes this tendency to the extreme. There’s a Tombstone Pizza commercial from 1999, where a couple of cishet teen normies are having a study break, and then they start making out, but then Dad comes home!

The boy hides in the closet, but his empty stomach gives him away, and he’s discovered by the dad. In his last moments, the boy reflects on the meal he shunned.

It’s a tale of doomed teenage lust for the whole family. Mama, don’t let your sons grow up to be horny dinguses who won’t eat their cardboard pizza.

To prove that they have the power and mercy to give life as well as to take it, in 2001 they aired a commercial where Aaron Paul is able to talk his own father out of murdering him by suggesting they all get a Chicken Fajita Tombstone.

Society says “we need food” and brands corrects them: “You need our food.” In 1984, Wendy’s unveiled it’s “Where’s the beef?” campaign. A sassy senior lady screams at restaurant managers, franchise owners, and at drive-thru operators in search of an answer to her epicurean Sphinx’s riddle.

It’s funny, but it also creates a sense of urgency. Like, imagine if they got Larry Holmes, the reigning International Boxing Federation champion in 1984, to do the campaign. He’s a world champion (and one of five men to ever beat Ali), and better yet, a World Champion™. You could make a commercial where his manager brings him back a burger before the big fight, and he looks at the tiny burger and he’s like “How am I supposed to win the big fight tonight without the beef, coach?”

Paraphrasing here. I’ve never actually seen a World Title boxing match. I just like wrestling-ness of it.

But still. World champion. World-class hamburger. The math does itself. But it doesn’t have quite the same impact. You look at Holmes and think “eh, whatever, this guy can just go and find a random cow and punch a burger out of it”.

And fuck all the teenagers Burger King’s hiring. They’re young, they’re spry, they can form a gang of dirty-cheeked youths and prowl the streets, singing songs about their raging hormones and mugging passersby.

Paraphrasing here. I’ve never actually seen Newsies. I just like the hats.

But this old woman! She’s vulnerable! How is she supposed to survive a fall if she doesn’t get her beef?  McDonald’s and Burger King want to kill your grandmother. Wendy’s is her only hope.

Sometimes this robble-robble-rousing (this article was originally going to be about the Hamburglar) preys on our psychological and systemic terrors, instead of outright relying on the fear of starvation.

Most of us are familiar with, if not the televised hi-jinx of the Trix Rabbit, then his eternal suffering. He lives in a society that has criminalized the consumption of Trix by non-children.

“Silly Rabbit, Trix is for kids”, isn’t just a slogan, it is a legal mandate upheld by other non-children, as demonstrated in this 1991 commercial campaign where the rabbit wins a bicycle race to legitimately earn a bowl of Trix, and he is denied the prize because of his species by the adult judges. They turn to the power of the breakfast proletariat, asking children to send in their box tops to vote on whether or not the Trix Rabbit’s suffering will be allayed just this once.

Rather than a cutesy colloquialism, the children’s godless, repetitious taunt of the Trix Rabbit reflects that almost cheerful bigotry of children yell slurs and throw rocks because they know it makes their parents happy and don’t interrogate their motives until they’re at a rally and standing under a flag with a swastika on it and go “this sewing circle really got out of hand”.

The children don’t know why the Rabbit can’t have Trix. But denying it to him feels good. It makes them feel a part of something, something good and abiding and worth preserving. And the Rabbit’s lamentations and longing for justice affirm that what they are withholding from him have value, and others want it for themselves, and it is better for the “right people” to have it.

Trix are for kids, and that’s why you, Youth of America, must tell your parents to buy you some Trix. Because you are a kid and eating this cereal is your right and others want to take it away from you. You must take a stand for your kidness; what better way to express your pride in being a kid than eating this food that has, for generations, been exclusively been for kids?

The greatest Trix capitalism ever played was convincing us it wasn’t actually just white supremacy in a mask running around going “hee hee, you fandangled anti-racists are gonna get it now”.

Paraphrasing here. I’ve never actually watched Scooby Doo. I just want to date Velma.

Author: Jetta Rae

Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae

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