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Life Cereal on Mad Men: The Cure for the Common Breakfast

In last night's episode of Mad Men, "Waldorf Stories," the firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce pitched executives from Quaker Oats on a new slogan and advertising campaign for Life cereal. When the initial tagline "Eat Life by the Bowlful" was quickly rejected, Donald Draper, out of drunken desperation, offered the lazy, hackneyed tagline, "The cure for the common breakfast." And one of the Quaker Oats executives is fan. "Love it," he said. "It's got the health angle, Life makes you feel better. It's got protein. Very nice."

Life was first brought to the market in 1961, and while the cereal may be best known and adored for its 1972 ad campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach, "Mikey Likes It," its original branding and positioning was as a "healthy" breakfast. At the time, a lightly sweetened whole-grain oat cereal was something of a gamble in a sugar-saturated breakfast cereal world.

The Quaker Oats Company, a company founded in 1901 by the merger of four oat mills in the Midwest, made oats. Oatmeal! Healthy breakfasts! They were slow to introduce sugary cereals and only had their first true hits in that market with Cap'n Crunch in 1963 and Quisp in 1965.

And so it was for Life cereal. The angle was health. You can see it in the early 1960s print advertising (above) and commercial (below) , showing a bizarre group of oblong-shaped characters (dubbed "The Useful Proteins") promoting that Life had the "most useful protein ever in a ready-to-eat cereal." (Note that "protein" is pronounced "Pro-tee-in." Is this a Midwest thing? How the olds used to pronounce it?)

The 1967 ad changed the approach somewhat, eliminating "The Useful Proteins" and instead appealing directly to fitness-minded moms and girls mindful of keeping their "girlish figure" (giggle). It was sold as "adult nutrition that tastes good to kids."

This season of Mad Men, set in early 1965, positions it squarely in between the two ads. "I know you want to associate with health," said Don Draper, "But that's not fun." And you can imagine that the proposed campaign "Eat Life by the Bowlful" intended to do away with the focus on nutrition and the somewhat-misguided animated characters, to channel nostalgia and speak to their audience intelligently.

In the show, the Quaker Oats execs saw the ad as "kinda smart for regular folks... When I go back to Chicago, all they're gonna want to hear is a slogan." The fictionalized history in Mad Men, the slogan they got was "The cure for the common breakfast." In reality, it just took until 1972 to finally get "Mikey likes it."

Video: 1962 Commercial for Life Cereal

Video: 1967 Commercial for Life Cereal

Video: Life Cereal on Mad Men

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