The General Mills Monster Cereals mean certain things to certain people; to some of us, I'm afraid they mean nothing at all. I remember my first experience eating a Monster Cereal quite vividly, because it happened two days ago. I am 24, and I have lived in the States my whole life without once digesting these pre-sweetened clusters of oats and corn. Growing up, my mother had imposed a categorical ban on any sugar cereals, restricting my breakfast diet to cereals of beige pallor.
Three boxes of the Monster Cereals currently in General Mills’ repertoire—Count Chocula, Boo Berry, and Franken Berry—arrived at the Food52 offices early this week thanks to the emotional charity of a General Mills-affiliated Senior Account Executive. Each promises a distinct flavor profile that consumers clamor for year-round but only get to experience during the fall season, beginning in late August in anticipation of Halloween.
"Mayukh," the missive accompanying the box of cereal read. "This election year, your favorite more-friendly-than-frightening Monsters are vying against each other in hopes of being elected to the position of America's favorite cereal Monster." The letter goes on to detail the three offerings, commenting that Count Chocula is currently leading the polls. Any resident of the United States above the age of thirteen can cast a vote on an official site for the chance to win "sweet election prizes" including a $5,000 grand prize or DJ wireless headphones.
It's a shame that I read this letter and felt mostly unmoved. Had I grown up in a different America? Biting into these cereals, I found it it all but impossible to eat my way toward an understanding of this brand's decades-strong appeal, the cereal's sweetness dizzying.
Initially, these cereals had been offered year-round until General Mills realized that the highest volume of sales occurred during the Halloween season. In 2009, they decided that Count Chocula, Franken Berry, and Boo Berry would retire to seasonal cereals. As of late, General Mills has gotten quite crafty about infusing energy into these proceedings each year, and they've got a committee of people dedicated to mounting and executing a campaign for the cereals each year. In 2014, for example, General Mills partnered with DC Comics to create new renderings of each of its flagship characters for the boxes. The year after, General Mills partnered with augmented reality app Blippar to "bring the Monsters’ personalities to life through augmented reality on both the front and back of the cereal box." (Hot diggity dog.) This year, General Mills has mounted this election campaign on the assumption that the Monster Cereal flavors can spark the kind of fierce, impassioned tribalism that parrots our current political atmosphere.
First, a bit of history: The first two of the Monster Cereals, Count Chocula and Franken Berry, were originally introduced in March of 1971 to rapturous praise. In fact, I'm told they had even shattered some cereal glass ceilings, with Count Chocula being the “first chocolate-flavored cereal with chocolate flavored marshmallow bits” and Franken Berry “the only strawberry-flavored cereal on the market” at the time. The two characters had been modeled after cinema’s greatest vampires, and General Mills decided to crib on the successes of Lucky Charms, another cereal peppered with marshmallow bits that the company had introduced in 1964. The characters had been drawn by veteran artist George Carn, who also created the Trix Rabbit.
But the characters, as advertised, were different in make and spirit from their cinematic antecedents. Where, say, Bela Lugosi would be imposing and intimidating, Count Chocula and Franken Berry two would appear fragile, eager to please. In early commercials, the two characters would jostle for dominance, arguing over which one was better.
The two characters were followed by Boo Berry—a pale, portly bowtied ghost with azure eyelids—in October 1972, attached to a blueberry cereal. It was around this same time when the epidemic of pink-hued stool careened into a national health crisis for our nation’s children in 1972, due to Boo Berry's deployment of Red Dye No. 2, which would be outlawed in 1976 for its apparent carcinogenic effects upon rodents.
General Mills had remarkable persistence: It began to add to its canon of Monster Cereals. In 1974, the company introduced Fruit Brute—a gruff, hooting werewolf attached to a frosted fruit-flavored cereal with lime marshmallows—only to pull it from shelves in 1982. (If the cereal still exists in the public memory, it's largely due to the presence of Fruit Brute boxes in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction). In 1987, General Mills created Fruity Yummy Mummy, a mummy ensconced in rolls of rainbow tape, selling fruit-flavored cereal with vanilla marshmallows. The flavor was taken off American shelves 1992.
Nevertheless, the three original flavors of the cereal stayed in yearlong rotation throughout the American market, their sales remaining consistent enough to justify this, until 2009, when General Mills retired them to a three month-long autumnal lifespan each year.
All five of the Monster Cereals have only existed in concert once in American history—in August of 2013, Frute Brute and Fruity Yummy Mummy returned to American shelves for a truncated period, joining their three sibling cereals for a brief resurgence, only to return to their graves at the end of the year.
That year, their flavor profiles had deviated drastically from their original makeups, Fruit Brute now cherry-flavored, Yummy Mummy now orange cream. Around this same time, General Mills tinkered with the ingredients of the other three cereals, too, making them purely corn-based as opposed to a mashup of oats and corn, perhaps explaining the wanting taste I encountered. This has left a number of its longtime fans dissatisfied: look to the comments section of this misty-eyed post looking back on the history of the Monster Cereals. No one has many kind words to say about the way these cereals taste nowadays.
I had originally approached General Mills for comment given my fascination with the forensics of the process of reenergizing, every year, this brand—the Monster Cereals brand has been alive for over four and a half decades now, unbeknownst to my oblivious American soul. I wanted to know more about what it took to continually reinvigorate this brand and to endear it to a new consumer base who grew up outside its golden age—or, like me, blissfully unaware that they were living through it.
And I found the answers of General Mills to my basic queries circumspect and guarded: The reasoning behind Fruit Brute and Yummy Mummy being taken off shelves once again? “It was a business decision to no longer offer those products," I was told by an unnamed General Mills representative. Uh, yes.
When asked which channels they assess consumer preferences through—surveys, social media, focus groups, or social media comments—the company responded that “[o]ur Monster Cereals have a very dedicated fan base who are active on social media. We’ve taken into account their social media comments and other research when assessing consumer preferences.” Okay. Does this provocation hold water? Well, somewhat; glance at the few tweets and occasional Instagram posts the topic inspires, not to mention the dedicated fan page for the Monster Cereals on Facebook that's been deemed enough for General Mills to even link to on their official site.
Sigh. This corporate legalese left me a touch frustrated. In the taxonomy of American cereals that have included Mr. T and will soon include Girl Scout Cookies, where does the General Mills Monster Cereal line stand? It's all but impossible to know; we're not working with much here from General Mills. By evidence of my harried trip to five grocery stores in Manhattan in search of these cereals (I know—the hard work of a journalist), I found them in one. The rest didn't carry the Monster Cereals at all.
Extrapolate your own conclusions from this. "Love and passion for the Monsters continues to grow each Halloween season," the company told me. "We have been very pleased with the sales of our Monsters cereals since they have been a seasonal item." General Mills tells me they're satisfied, and I've chosen to believe it—with a dose of skepticism. It's hard out there for breakfast cereals, considering their sales have atrophied nationwide as of late. Read between the lines of these curt answers and it’s easy to detect that it takes a lot to keep this brand alive after years of recycling it, and there's something of a disconnect between consumer desire and corporate aims—especially when the cereal's basic taste has fallen victim to age.
General Mills seems, somehow, determined to keep this product alive no matter the surrounding market conditions. But perhaps there was a reason I hadn't eaten them before, and my quest for answers effectively affirmed my suspicions. Nostalgia is the only artery that brings a lot of people to this cereal. The old commercials for the cereals are sweet and funny, but that doesn't necessarily matter once you open a box and pour it into a bowl. Any symbolic charge of the characters disappears in that moment, and your focus falls squarely upon the cereal's flavor, and something seems to be missing. Without the taste or a memory attached to it, what's left?
Have a memory of Monster Cereals that I don't have? Let me know in the comments!