Food History

Kellogg's Just Killed This Cereal. Did You Know It Was Even Alive?

November 16, 2016

It’s been 28 days since Kellogg’s announced the formal discontinuation of Product 19, a cereal I’d never heard of until 28 days ago. Buried in last week’s onslaught of dizzying news was this ditty from Eric Grundhauser of Atlas Obscura about the grain-and-oat cereal's slow amble towards obscurity. Before Kellogg’s hit cancel on Product 19 due to plateauing sales, Product 19 had become to cereals what General Hospital was to soaps, inspiring a charitable, damn, that shit’s still going? in American spectators.

A 1975 Product 19 ad. Photo by Nesster

“When you hear the name 'Product 19,' you’ll either flash on an experimental invention from some corporate R&D department,” Grundhauser suggests in the article. “Or, if you’re one of its fans, you might think of the health cereal, rare in the aisles of American supermarkets yet loved all the same.”

Eric, my dude—can I choose “none of the above”? I saw this news, furrowed my brow, frowned slightly, sent it to my editor, and we agreed to put it on my growing backlog of "food content" waiting to be written. Over the course of a week that was rather disorienting, I quickly forgot the name of the cereal; I knew it involved this particular number, 19. Project 19? No; that sounds like an ambitious and failed nuclear experiment. Article 19? That is a free speech organization. Hm.

A 1975 Product 19 ad. Photo by Nesster

Product 19 was, in actuality, a "healthy" cereal, the antecedent to Special K: branny and oaty, toeing the line between being pleasantly agreeable and utterly nondescript. Kellogg's began manufacturing the cereal in 1967, crafted it as a rejoinder to General Mills' populist Total, a similar mash-up of wheat and vitamins that came out earlier that decade.

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Product 19's aims were squarely nutritional and medicinal—a sprinkle of vitamins for breakfast. Yum.

Its great slog of boring advertising began in 1967 with Hollywood Squares host and affable television personality Peter Marshall, donning head-to-toe grey sweats as he jogged the perimeter of a large cereal box—that of Product 19! This commercial is fine, "neither here nor there," as some may say.

Let’s turn to 1969. This year's Product 19 commercial begins with an old American game of football, my least favorite sport, blaring on a pictured television screen and featuring a strapping young lad named Tom Harman. Harman, the narrator, has now reached old age, resorting to speaking in third person. “Remember Tom Harmon, the kid who had trouble keeping his shirt on?” he asks us. Silly. It’s you!

The camera reveals a geriatric wearing a crimson cardigan, “lovingly” entertaining his grandchildren with the aggression… of a former football player. After terrorizing these young children, he then sits in front of a bowl of Product 19, filmed at first in a long shot and then in medium that obscure an actual view of the cereal. Instead, the camera lingers on the verbose description on the box in an extreme closeup that lasts an eternity. “You get 100% of the officially established minimum adult requirements for VITAMINS and IRON in one serving (1 oz.) of Product 19,” the sign reads, suggesting we “see side panel” for more. Definitely buying this one.

I'm afraid it didn't get much better in 1972, when Harmon’s son, Mark, joined the family tradition of Product 19 commercials. After father and son enjoy a rousingly chummy game of basketball, the two retreat, along with Harmon’s wife (nice to see her given some airtime!), to their white-picketed backyard. There, Harmon pours himself some Product 19, this “high potency cereal,” before some gentle ribbing between the two men.

In 1977, Kellogg’s did away with the Harmon clan and opted for a stiff-limbed suburban husband and wife, the latter of whom slyly reveals a solution to her husband’s malady of vitamin deficiency before ending the commercial with a suggestively satanic grin. “Vitamins that taste too good to forget,” the commercial boasts. Uhhhh… sure, okay. Whatever this is, it's much more appealing than the commercial from 1980, below, wherein a box transmogrifies into a pill and back again into its original form.

In 1987, things were looking up. Please observe this teen yapping on the phone. She's a real "Chatty Cathy" over here complaining about her parents, Herbert and Jane, the latter of whom she simply refers to as "mother." She grabs for any food she can find, and her hands happen upon this svelte box of corn cereal. She eats some and quite likes it.

The following year, below, saw an iteration of this same blueprint. It featured a young woman wondering what the hell’s happened to her parent upon consumption of this cereal, this time with an equally confounded father.

Okay. I’m starting to get bored now. I’m very happy I didn’t find any other commercials on YouTube because, man, can you imagine having to do this more? (Slash, just kidding: I did find this from 1989, and it is too inconsequential to embed, because it involves charisma-devoid men speaking with studied ennui about their extravagant meal of meat and vegetables when all they long for is a bowl of Product 19. Yeah, give me a break.)

I’d keep going, but do you spot a trend? Here’s one that I found. These commercials, each of which last thirty seconds, share the unifying salient trait of "being boring." They double as cures for insomnia; I do not want to eat Product 19 after watching these. Maybe I would rather have actual corn kernels doused in milk.

In writing this column each week, I’ve come to observe that some commercials can buoy between two poles—they’re either so batshit that the quality of the product at hand doesn’t quite matter (see: the Pudding Roll-Up, a collection of words I hope to never type again), or so crudely effective that they endear one to a taste we’ve never known (for example, the Nestle Alpine White bar). The Product 19 commercials are the nothingburgers of discontinued food commercials, as if tacitly speaking the product's very own corporate death march.

Do you remember—or miss—Product 19? Let us know in the comments!

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


okmosa November 17, 2016
The whole 'didn't even know this product has been around for generations and now it's discontinued' theme is worn out, and this only the second post I've read. (Last one was the Whatchamacallit candy bar, right?) I get it, you're young, you didn't get out much as a kid, maybe your parents are young. It does not diminish the mere existence of this cultural ephemera. The tone and quality is not what I've come to expect from Food52.
jlg84 November 18, 2016
You beat me to it; I was going to say virtually the same thing. It's a real shame that Food52 has gone down this path.
Rowan D. November 17, 2016

Bluejade November 17, 2016
I agree with amysarah and feel even more annoyed. Your column is filled with mean, snide jabs at people who eat cereal and watch television. That's a lot of people to hate. Many of these ads reflect a different time period, but that doesn't mean you have to bash them with your writer's block. I was thinking seriously of buying a product from the Food 52 store, but I have decided I will not now because your team has become the voice of Brooklyn snobbery. You and your editor enjoy putting people down who are not like you. I really don't need to give my money to people like that. Look, sharp commentary can be entertaining, but you've gone so beyond that into gutter sniping.
amysarah November 17, 2016
Yes, I recall Product 19, though haven't been aware of it for at least that many years. But something jumped out at me - I also vaguely recall the Harmon clan. I wasn't a football fan, they were just 'around' on TV, etc. in the '60's/70's. Describing Tom Harmon as "a geriatric", "in old age" struck me oddly (beyond the whiff of dismissive ageism,) so I Googled him: born in 1919. When this commercial was made, he was...50. (I know F52's staff is quite young, but come on.)
w November 16, 2016
your writer just used 'batshit,' incorrectly. and your writer typed, 'batshit.'
very informative content.
Ann S. November 16, 2016
Product 19 is still my favorite cereal. I have found it here and there on store shelves, and I've always bought it when I see it (and I do actively search it out). It's perfect with milk, it combines nicely with corn chex (when I'm feeling like I need something different), and it's my favorite go-to snack food.
This is breaking my heart that it's going away. It seems like all the cereals out there need to either have sugar, or be some sort of granola mix, or muesli, or whatever is popular (except for the stalwarts of Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes, and Cheerios). There's room in the market for Product 19. What's next? Is General Mills going to discontinue Basic 4 (which I love as well, but it's got more stuff than I want in a cereal that I snack on)
Doug R. November 16, 2016
I fall into the "You mean that's still around???" school on this. I remember it being out, remember many of the commercials, never tried it tho.
Heather November 16, 2016
Huh. I don't eat cereal anymore (it's expensive, often too sweet for my taste, and I don't really like milk), but it seems that my favorite cereals as a kid have been under-popular: Product 19 (which I loved with a drizzle of honey), and Quaker Oats Corn Bran - which last time I tried to buy I had to order a case on line as it wasn't stocked near me .... One of the nice things about Product 19 is that it seemed to take a lot longer to get soggy than other cereals.
SoupLady November 16, 2016
Heather - I, too don't eat cereal anymore but Product 19 with honey! and Quaker Oats Corn Bran were my favorites when I was a teenager. Prior to that, Golden Grahams (what child would eat Product 19 willingly?)