"What about cereal?" This was a question someone posed in the middle to late 1960's when television executives wondered how they could make money with Saturday Morning Television cartoons.
The great cartoons of the late 1960's through the early 1980's were -- for the most part -- incredibly engaging entertainment for young persons, millions of them, who sat glued to the television from 8am to around 1pm every sixth day of the week.
All of this had to be paid for. Television is more about advertising than it is about entertainment. Two things paid for the grand run of Saturday morning television: toys and cereal. And pay they did. By the middle to late 1970's, the three networks were generating $50 million in ad revenue per week. That would be about $200 million per week in today's dollars.
And Alpha Bits produced some of the simple, most fun, and highly memorable commercials of the era.
Beware the Monsters
"Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for...." There is no reason to even complete the famous Friedrich W. Nietzsche quote. The monsters in the Alpha Bits commercials never had a chance. Oh, they may get close to grabbing one of those little kids in the commercials, but the short chapter play ends the same way time and time again. The kid dressed in the non sequitur aviator costume spells the monsters name out with the cereal letters, eats the words, and the monsters go away.
Simplicity works. Always.
Alpha Bits, one of many cereals made by Post, had a decent gimmick. The letters of the alphabet comprised the cereal and the cereal's gimmick. Perhaps during the very early days of the cereal, the odd educational side of "wordy" cereal may have proven appealing to parents. The trouble with Alpha Bits cereal is the bland taste. In a world of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch and Fruity Pebbles, the blasé taste of Alpha Bits falls flat.
If eating Alpha Bits served a mission, well, that changes everything....and defines a nice piece of Generation X childhood-oriented pop culture.
Spelling out words with Alpha Bits cereal would do more than assist an education in basic comprehension. Doing so could save a youngster from a horrible death.
Welcome the Monsters
The villains in the old Alpha Bits cereal were classic monsters. The monsters sneaking up behind to attack the children were often an homage to the classic Universal monsters of the 1930's and 1940's. A few 1950's sci-fi robots and aliens found their way into the commercials as well.
The presence of these monsters in wildly successful commercials is an overlooked highlight reflecting the popularity of these creatures in the 1970's. To be sure, classic monsters were on their way out as far as pop culture relevance was concerned. The monster boom and fad of the 1950's and 1960's -- sparked by the release of the old "unwanted" films to television -- was fading away. The era of the TV horror host would fade with it in only a few years, although a few outliers remained.
Monsters did have enough appeal and recognition to appeal to a large enough segment to children viewers that their presence in these commercials would be akin to an obtuse celebrity endorsement. Ironically, as the popularity of classic monsters was on the decline, the presence of these creatures in the commercials gave new life to a rather boring cereal.
Heartfelt & Scary Fun
The key to the success of the Alpha Bits commercials is they were absolutely fun, but the monsters never ceased to be scary. Be it Dracula, the Wolfman, a Witch, a Swamp Monster, or crazed Robot, the malevolent creatures were presented as frightening and not for laughs.
Those were the real monsters from the horror movies sneaking around on those commercials -- monsters with malevolent intentions.
Monsters in commercials -- be the commercials geared towards kids or adults -- are usually played for laughs. The sad reason here is classic movie monsters lost a lot of their ability to scare by the 1970's. Dracula and Frankenstein ended up being used as comic relief in many commercials. And a number of those commercials were really great. Alpha Bits stayed away from silliness and camp. The monsters were menacing. Imagine what would have happened had the kids not spelled out the monsters' names? Curtains for sure.
Despite the odd sense of seriousness to the kids' dilemmas, those Alpha Bits commercials were both memorable and fun. The creative minds behind these commercials are not exactly going to get the due they deserve, a shame to be sure. The ad campaign was a brilliant -- and wildly successful -- one.
Those old Alpha Bits commercials live on via the internet and in the hearts of us aging Generation X'ers who fondly remember them as part of a childhood experience from long ago, an experience that won't ever be recreated.