The Promises On Cereal Packets
To stare at the back of a cereal packet when I was a kid was like having a portal to other worlds where my imagination could run wild. Whilst munching my Cheerios, Post Toasties or Rice Crispies, I would gaze endlessly at some full colour landscape of tremendous beauty to my seven year old sensibility. It might be a prehistoric jungle scene with mossy vines and giant ferns or the majestic rock formations of Monument Valley.
There was a Superman feature on the back of a Kellogg’s cereal box described as ‘3-Dimensional Panoramic Pictures.’ At the top was a full colour illustration of Superman holding back a huge truck as it flew off a cliff road. This was the cut-out with white tabs like those on a paper doll attached to the truck as well as to Superman. These tabs were to be inserted into the slits to be cut in the colour picture below which was the background of the perilous mountain road. The tabs were labelled A, B and C to correspond to the straight dotted lines in the background picture which was where you were meant to cut. The trouble was that all a seven year old had to cut with was a pair of very clunky little scissors and they were simply not up to the job.
These illustrations were highly polished, designed by professional artists. Much later in my life when I was working as a graphic designer I would have then been capable of dealing with those instructions but it would involve using a scalpel to first carefully cut the figures out and then make the necessary incisions on the background. Also the cardboard of the cereal box was pretty thick so my seven year old attempt to cut the figures out with any accuracy, using the clunky scissors, was doomed to fail. In addition getting the scissors into the cardboard to cut the straight lines was simply impossible. You’d have to bend the picture which pretty much destroyed it.
So in order for this wonderful 3-D picture to work at all you had to be a professional graphic artist, not a wide eyed seven year old with clunky scissors. These failures, and there were many, in no way diminished my passion for the next project to come along be it a cut-out of Robby the Robot from the movie Forbidden Planet or Roy Rogers lassoing a steer.
There were beautiful western landscapes which the Lone Ranger and Tonto would be magically inserted into but the combination of the clunky scissors and the thick cardboard sabotaged each effort. The only way I could have realised these magical pictures was to have had a commercial artist for a dad who would have done them for me.
Could it be that the adults who designed these very desirable activities built the probable failure of most kids into their plans? After all I kept coming back for more and don’t remember ever succeeding at making the damn things the way they were supposed to be.
1954 was the year that I fell under the spell of the Navy Frogmen. Not real Navy Frogmen, mind you, but little plastic ones in three bright colours.
The fact that the Myers household had no television didn’t stop my siblings and I from seeing programmes, it simply meant that we had to fall on the generosity of our friends who had sets.
The first neighbour we got to know when we moved to 10 Seymour Avenue was Dennis Brogan whose house was down the steps across Molino at the end of our road. Dennis, who lived with his mother and sister, didn’t have a TV either but his grandfather, old Jim Brogan, did.
Grandfather Jim lived with his wife in an impressive large house which sat on the corner of Molino and Janes behind a high hedge opposite our local playground. It was there we would see Walt Disney’s Disneyland on ABC. It was on this show that we first saw Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. We also used to watch the annual broadcast of Mary Martin playing Peter Pan in what seemed to be a stage production which was televised. Mister Brogan’s set was big and the reception in black and white was pretty good.
There were also after school programs which we would join Dennis to watch and somewhere along the way, possibly while watching The Howdy Doody Show, I saw the ads featuring the Navy Frogmen.
The commercial began with a shot of a miniature toy gunboat plunging through the water. We next saw three Navy Frogmen fall effortlessly overboard in formation and descend to put explosive devices on the bottoms of enemy ships. The voiceover told us how they “work swiftly and secretly! Look how real these Navy Frogmen are!” Dramatic closeups demonstrated the frogmen’s dexterity as they ascended through the water past large nets. “These miniature navy frogmen swim, dive and surface by themselves.” As the first of the frogmen reached the water’s surface, a young boy’s hand lifted it gently out of the water. We then saw two of the frogmen lying on a clean surface while the boy’s hands, unscrewed the chamber at the base of the frogman’s feet. He began to shake in some powder. “Look! Here’s where your free supply of high performance propellant goes. Ordinary baking powder will work too.”
To get these amazing frogmen all we had to do was cut out a coupon from a box of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes or Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops and send it along with 25 cents to an address in Battle Creek, Michigan. What could possibly be easier?
My soul burned with a passionate desire to own these wonderful toys but the obstacles to getting them were formidable. If I were to go to my father Blackie and make a straight forward request for them he almost certainly would laugh out loud at my falling for such an obviously commercial bit of trickery. Also there was the problem that neither of the cereals were ones I regularly ate. I was, by the age of seven, a committed consumer of Cheerios and it looked like the only way I could get the frogmen was to convince my father that I wanted this new brand of cereal.
The battleground for this operation was the Saturday morning shopping trip to Safeway. All four of us Myers kids would usually accompany Blackie to the Safeway for the week’s shop and, as we approached the cereal shelves, I began enthusing about the virtues of Sugar Corn Pops. Blackie examined the box and, shooting me a penetrating glance, asked if I’d eat them all up. ‘Of course’ was my disingenuous reply. I doubt he was actually convinced but he decided to get them for me and stage one of the operation was a success. The coupon was in my possession.
When it came to appropriating funds for such activities it was always my mother I turned to. Officially our allowance from Blackie was a mere thirty cents on Saturdays so Jim and I could go to the Matinee at the Sequoia. Admission cost a quarter and the remaining nickel would get us each a large sucker which lasted longer than most other forms of nickel candy.
So it was Beth I had to get the twenty five cents plus postage out of and when this was done I filled out the coupon and put it in the mail. Thus began the waiting game. Sending away for things always tested what little patience I had to its limit and beyond. Our mailbox nestled within a row of similar boxes on the other side of Molino.
The first few days I was fine about finding the mailbox empty but by the third or fourth day I’d begun stalking it in the afternoon and, since it would inevitably take weeks, disappointment soon became my constant companion. I’d develop strategies in which I’d convince myself not to be downhearted but I inevitably was.
Finally after what seemed like a small animal’s lifetime, the frogmen arrived. All three were beautifully wrapped with their little propellant chambers at the base. They were red, yellow and green and the packet of baking powder was also included.
I immediately set to work in the kitchen, finding a glass bowl my mom used for cake mixes. I filled it with water and then unscrewed the chamber on one frogman and filled it with the special powder. In the commercial we never actually saw the frogmen descending, just falling forward into the water. The picture then dissolved to them under the ship. Next we saw them going up and now I discovered that getting them to descend was practically impossible because the baking soda in the base simply made the bottom of the blasted thing float to the top upside down. The best you could do was put them on the bottom of the bowl and let go but every time the frogman would bob up to the surface upside down. It wasn’t weighted properly. My father’s instincts were absolutely right and watching these stupid frogmen bob upside down to the surface made me feel annoyed with myself.
The promises on the backs of cereal boxes, however, never seemed to lose their allure for me. They always infused me with a burning need to have whatever was on offer, which invariably, was nothing dressed up as something.
The three plastic frogmen were very cheap to produce and the only great expense that Kellogg’s would have met was coming up with the concept, writing the copy, making the commercial and paying for its airtime. Imagine grown-up men and women sitting around dreaming up these alluring fantasies for small children. It was just one more highly effective way of maintaining the cereal manufacturer’s market share.
The showman P. T. Barnum is credited with coining the phrase ‘sucker’ and this word describes perfectly what I seemed to be, for boy, was I a sucker.