Special K Phenomenon

The New York Times recently printed a story announcing that Cindy Crawford will be Kellogg's Special K's new "endorser". The cutting-edge news it contained about the oversaturated cereal market and its advertising campaigns was not as interesting, however, as the the complacency with which it accepted, and even celebrated, America's rigid and steadfast loyalty to conservative marketing strategies aimed at women.

Some background: pre-Cindy Crawford endorsement, Special K had launched something called the "Look good" campaign, a less traditional series of ads "that took an unconventional tack by addressing the issue of women's complaints about unrealistic portrayals of body imagery in the media".

The last Special K commercial many women remember featured a woman strutting her body in front of a mirror with a tight black dress on, checking herself out and subsequently smirking at the image she saw. The implication was that she looked so good because of her Kellogg's breakfast. In contrast to the little-black-dress woman, the "Look good" ads (while probably far from revolutionary themselves) were most obviously attempting to address something important: the unrealistic portrayals of women's bodies in the media.

In fact, The New York Times tells us that the ads were conceived and first run in Canada, and that Kellogg Canada was selected as one of "10 marketers that made a difference" in the 1990s. "The best-known element of that campaign, which carried the theme 'Look good on your own terms,' was an unusually frank and humorous commercial in which men uttered the kinds of self-critical statements about their looks that are typically voiced by women". Perhaps surprisingly, The Times article actually laments the fact that Kellogg was changing its focus from the older campaign, which was more radical, to its mainstream supermodel spokeswoman. "It is unfortunate that the 'Look good' campaign -- so on the edge for a mainstream product -- is disappearing in the United States; it continues to run in Canada," declares the piece.

But if the ads are used and even extolled by our neighbors to the north, then why couldn't the ads cut it here? It is quickly explained in the article that the discarding of the "Look good" campaign was necessary, even crucial, to the success of Special K because of the current state of the cereal industry. The more socially conscious ads, gasp, might not be the smartest thing for Kellogg in terms of profits. And things are tight in the crowded and variety-infused world of the overfilled cereal aisle. "[I]t seemed too risky for Kellogg at a time when the company confronts intensified competition in the cereal market, which has been flatter than a corn flake as busy breakfast eaters seek more convenient fare".

It also seems that the ad campaign, while popular, failed to underscore just what the most important point of marketing this cereal should be: Special K can help women "control" their weight. "Women loved the advertising," said Betsy Andersen, Vice President and Account Director at Leo Burnett USA, "but we didn't highlight what the brand did for you and the role the product can play as a sensible way to manage your weight."

After the article gives us its "oh shucks but it had to happen" concession, and explains that Leo Burnett actually forgot to feature weight as the most important point of the product in its own ads, it quickly goes on to celebrate the wonders of Cindy Crawford. Granted, the article ran in the Business section of The New York Times, but couldn't a better explanation of why the "Look good" campaign floundered have been more expounded upon? Even from a business perspective it would be interesting to look at why Canadians are having an easier time stomaching the "Look good" campaign, or more importantly, why the American public couldn't at all.

If the article wasn't lax enough in its negligence of this issue, even the information it includes on Cindy Crawford seems one-dimensional. "In a telephone interview, Ms. Crawford said she believed the campaign in no way appealed to stereotyped images of female beauty. 'I can relate to women feeling intimidated by those images,' Ms. Crawford said. 'At shows, I'm the biggest one. I'll go to a shoot and none of the clothes would fit because Kate Moss was wearing them.'" To posit Cindy Crawford as an empathetic figure regarding body image issues, when she so heavily partakes in the industry that creates and perpetuates them, is ludicrous. Are American women really supposed to relate? If this heartfelt tale of model-cum-sympathetic-sister doesn't quite work for you, maybe this angle does: The New York Times gushes, "she even has a baby." And she looks that good? Special K is amazing.

Unlike some models, Cindy has never touted the anorexia or heroin-chic look. However, a supermodel for a spokeswoman is a far cry from the "Look good" campaign. If Special K is really genuine about helping women stay in shape and feel good about themselves, why didn't Kellogg pick, for instance, a female athlete to promote its cereal? Or why didn't it feature ads that focused on women who are trying to exercise because they want to look good, not because how they make a living stipulates it? Regardless of the answer (and I have my own theories), somehow Cindy Crawford's boring commercials about New Year's resolutions to "look great" are getting played on TV while our Canadians neighbors get to question what is it to "look great".

"It was designed to be disruptive," said Betsy Andersen, "but we may have been a little too far ahead of the curve." Special K, by featuring Cindy Crawford in its ad campaign, is not necessarily sending women back an era in terms of dealing with body image issues. But the sad matter of fact is that Special K had a good and original thing going. Regardless of the ad campaign's popularity, Kellogg's had to do away with it and acquiesce to the demands of the "competitive" cereal market. What Special K was really giving into was the demands of marketing a product to women in the U.S. And if the company that is telling us to "look good on [our] own terms" won't genuinely question the already existing terms of what looking good is, how does it really expect its consumers to?