Lippert Critiques Retro Cereal Boxes

Forget about your sluggish digestive system and/or your borderline cholesterol problems. Instead, let’s go back, back, back to a time when we innocently ate sugarcoated fluorescent cereals at the breakfast table and “read” the boxes even before we knew how to identify the alphabet.

They’re as reassuring as footie pajamas, these retro cereal boxes that General Mills has re-created and distributed through Target. What a smart marketing move and a genius way to redefine comfort food at a tough economic time — by providing comfort kitchen art!
Even if your parents refused to buy them, why do these faithful updates of the originals of Trix, Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms, etc., conjure such powerful memories?
According to Brian Collins, of the design firm Collins, the blend of colors and figures on the original boxes were designed to play well on nascent TV sets. Paradoxically, the Trix Rabbit and Coo Coo Bird loom larger than life in our memories, because the designs were “more reductive than today,” he says. “They were designed to have affinity with cartoons and be easily captured by a TV camera at a time when color was not precise.”

Collins also makes the point that when it comes to the past, vintage music and TV shows are always with us, but old package design quickly fades.

In those days, the cereal-box design stood out in commercials that were cartoons that ran during cartoons, so they had, in effect, a double impact. When moms took kids to the grocery store, they could recognize the icons on the boxes from watching television, often before they could even speak.
Indeed, the re-creation of the GM packages (they’re close to the originals, but by law must have contemporary food illustrations) makes clear just how insanely overdesigned cereal boxes have gotten these days. With the battle for shelf space in cereal aisles that much more desperate, brand designers have made every inch of the box pop, and the result is often ugly and chaotic — and forgettable.

So if old equals comfort, why was the redesign of the Tropicana packaging such a disaster? Because it tampers with the reassurance of the present design (the orange with the straw) and instead evokes the generic products of the 1970s, but in a fake way, drained of all meaning, like a ghost package. Some fans of the new design suggested that it’s perfect for bad economic times, since generic products seem cheaper. But I don’t think people want to be reminded of gas lines, macramé and Jimmy Carter’s self-named “malaise.”

Regardless, General Mills has hit it out of the park this time. The design move provides continuity for a third or even fourth generation to delight in “silly Rabbit.”

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