Tony the Tiger posing with Groucho Marx, host of “You Bet Your Life.”
Tony the Tiger was born in 1952, just a year after I was. We grew up together. Who in my generation can’t immediately conjure his iconic stripes and hear him announce “Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes: They’re grrrreat!”?
Tony and I grew up in the new and exciting era of television and—more important—the era of marketing to that new and massive (and ever aging) consumer cohort known as the Baby Boom.
The whole point of marketing is to appeal to people’s emotions. In other words, sell to their desires instead of their needs. Before the Age of Consumerism, people of modest means could buy only what they needed. Today, thanks to a great product called “credit,” most of us can buy just about anything we want.
But let’s get back to Tony the Tiger and what he was selling for his employer, the Kellogg Co. of Battle Creek, Michigan. Did know that John Harvey Kellogg, MD, invented the corn flake to serve as a nutritious and wholesome breakfast to the residents of the sanitarium he owned and administered? He was a pioneer and proponent of plant-based nutrition. John’s brother, Will Keith, who worked as J.H.’s assistant, was the entrepreneur in the Kellogg family. After the brothers had a falling-out, W.K. added sugar to the unpalatable corn flake and forged on to make Kellogg’s a household name and himself a wealthy man.*
Neither of the Kellogg brothers lived to see Tony’s birth. J.H. died in 1943 and W.K. in 1951. By the time Tony came along, Kellogg’s had added a coating of sugar to the moderately sweetened corn flake.
Tony’s job was to convince children’s parents that ultra-sweetened corn flakes were better than plain ones. Sugar Frosted Flakes tasted great, maybe, but they definitely weren’t nutritionally good for you. In Tony’s case, as in so many others, better nutrition wasn’t the goal. Profit was the goal.
“Sugar coating” applies to more things than food. The tobacco industry used it for years with such slogans as “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” and for Pall Malls, “Outstanding…and they are Mild!” Unlike Kellogg’s, though, the tobacco industry didn’t sugar coat something already only marginally unwholesome. It sugar-coated something lethal.
This brings me to Donald Trump (you knew this was coming, right?) and his magnificent marketing slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Although it sounds reasonable, especially to many in our beleaguered working class, Trump’s misleading slogan sugar-coats a sociopolitical diet of slow-working toxins.
Beneath the slogan are policies that harm people, physically and psychologically. There are policies that harm the country, physically and socially. There are policies that threaten both stable and tenuous international relationships. There are policies that threaten our constitutional democracy and republic to its core. There are policies that have potential to lead us into more unnecessary and ever more destructive wars. And behind all the great-making is a great deal of profit-taking.
Donald Trump is the master deceiver. His ability to deceive made his election possible. Assisting him in the subterfuge is his Minister of Propaganda, Steve Bannon, along with a number of other sugar-coating surrogates.
Since the election, I’ve taken a renewed interest in social media as a force for sociopolitical change, a necessity I can no longer ignore. I realize so much found in the ether is angry and vulgar nonsense, but there is value and substance too. Occasionally, I’m compelled to add my own two bits of snark and sarcasm by conflating the slogans of the two cultural icons featured in this article. For example:
Excess sugar is nutritionally dangerous. The Trump/GOP agenda is socially dangerous. That they are otherwise is a delusion. Neither of them is grrrreat! Believe me.
*Here’s a documentary about those fascinating Kellogg brothers of Battle Creek, Michigan, and how they created Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.