It’s not often that I agree with James Surowiecki, who contributes “The Financial Page” column nearly every week to The New Yorker, but unlike many left-of-center economic scolds, he’s an engaging writer—although not quite on the level of The Wall Street Journal’s iconoclastic Holman Jenkins Jr., the man at the top of the heap—and aside from the occasional blanket vilification of everyone who works in the financial sector, Surowiecki usually leaves me with something to ponder. (The same can’t be said for St. Paul Krugman, one of the reasons, or so I’m told, that The New York Times is considering inserting a packet of Pepto Bismol tablets on the two days a week his scabrous column mars that daily’s op-ed page.)
The current deep recession has, not surprisingly, created a new category for financial writing: comparisons to, and profiles of elderly Americans alive at the time, of the Great Depression. A little goes a long way, especially for those of us who grew up with repetitious, if fascinating for the first five times, stories of the “olden days” from parents, uncles and aunts. I’m guilty of the same trait, I suppose, reminding my sons that at their age Dad’s wallet wasn’t a virtual ATM, and on my 15th birthday, a particularly difficult economic time for the family, my present was a $1 hero at the local Italian deli and a reprieve from the usual Saturday chore of vacuuming the house.
Anyway, Surowiecki writes in the current New Yorker about how the two packaged cereal giants of the day—Kellogg and Post—reacted to the violent downturn starting in 1929, so far as how the companies repositioned their advertising strategies and overall budgets. He explains that Post was the more typical of the pair: slashing expenses and simply doing its best to survive. Kellogg, however, dared to be great, or, at least, very lucrative. Surowiecki: “But Kellogg doubled its ad budget, moved aggressively into radio advertising, and heavily pushed its new cereal, Rice Krispies… By 1933, even as the economy cratered, Kellogg’s profits had risen almost thirty per cent and it had become what it remains today: the industry’s dominant player.”
It was at this time that one of most recognizable slogans in the United States first appeared: “Snap, Crackle and Pop,” a remarkably resilient advertising campaign, for even today kids pour milk over Rice Krispies and marvel when rewarded with the promised sound effects. I have a personal preference for “The Pepsi Generation” blitz of the 1960s, although that was eclipsed in pop culture ephemera by Coca Cola’s treacly “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” blast of commercials on television starting in 1971.
The mind wanders, and so the other night, while playing ping pong with my 14-year-old, when the score was tied at 7-7, I told him, “Okay, that’s 7 Up.” He was game and as we continued, whenever it was a knotted tally, we’d come up with a different soda name. When it was 10-10, I said, “Dad’s Root Beer,” which caused a time-out, since he wasn’t familiar with what, as a youth in New York, I considered the premium brand of root beer. He’d counter with current favorites that were equally odd to me, such as Sierra Mist, Fanta Grape and Strawberry and Baja Blast Mountain Dew. (I took him aback by recalling that in 1964, when the original Mountain Dew went national, it was test-marketed in upstate New York, where I was at Boy Scout camp, and so, upon returning to my Long Island home, was definitely the “first kid on my block” to have sampled this new elixir.)
I’m not much of a cereal eater these days—haven’t been since LBJ was in office—and now the kids have eschewed Trix and peanut butter (!) Cap’n Crunch for Mom-approved granola, but thanks to James Surowiecki I’ve had a very enjoyable couple of days recalling advertising campaigns, swapping stories with my kids, and hankering for a bottle of Squirt, Almond Smash or Royal Crown Cola. Krugman and The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner haven’t yet achieved such an accomplishment with this reader.