Quaker Oats quietly touches up its iconic oatmeal man, ‘Larry’

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Maybe because we’re both gents from Ohio who ended up working in downtown Chicago. Maybe because we’re men given to chubbiness and self-promotion.

But the Quaker Oats Man is on my radar. Always has been. So when my wife came home with a container, the moment it was removed from the Sunset Foods bag I noticed something amiss. I set the old and new cylinders together on the counter.

The new Quaker Oats man is different. Windblown, for starters, his white neckerchief flapping in the breeze. His complexion paler, with rosier cheeks; his predecessor had a uniform, peach quality. The image a little smaller, his face a little thinner too, more of a distinct chin. Behind him, a faint image of farmland has been worked into the deep red background.

Could I have missed the big announcement? Online, there was nothing but a brief mention in a trade magazine earlier this year. I found a lot more hoopla from 2012, when they last fiddled with his image. Trimming five pounds, according to Quaker, which let slip that in-house, they call him “Larry.”

“Larry”?

Seven years is awfully quick to redo Quaker’s icon. Calls and emails were fired at Quaker — headquartered in Chicago — and PepsiCo, which bought the brand in 2001.

While waiting, I started to dig, beginning with Quakers. Formed in Britain in the 1650s, George Fox called his sect “The Society of Friends.” They immediately got in trouble for failing to bow and scrape to officialdom, and were beaten and jailed. After Fox told a judge he should “tremble at the word of the Lord” the judge called him a “quaker,” derisively. Eventually the sect started calling themselves Quakers — a kind of defiant rebranding, the way gay people started proudly referring to themselves as “queer.”

By the 19th century, the group became known for honesty, which made them ripe for exploitation. Fake “Quaker Doctors” hawked patent medicines.

In 1877, an Ohio mill was granted a U.S. trademark for “a figure of a man in ‘Quaker garb,’” the first trademark for a breakfast cereal. Oats were a hard sell, something classy people did not eat. Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 dictionary, defined “oats” as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”

Not surprisingly, Quaker Mills went bankrupt in 1881. The company was purchased and the brand pushed relentlessly. The first national magazine advertising for a breakfast cereal was for Quaker Oatmeal.

If you think Facebook advertising can be annoying, imagine the indignation of Brits who, arriving to their country in 1900, were greeted by the enormous billboard Quaker Oats built before the White Cliffs of Dover, the beloved chalky welcome mat to the British Isles “disfigured only to proclaim the virtues of Yankee Oats,” a local paper complained.

The product was given a boost in 1970 by the introduction of instant flavored oatmeal. Many of my college days began with a mug full of Apples & Cinnamon, brought to life by a few ounces of boiling water from one of those little electric teapots found in every freshman dorm. It was our ramen.

Still waiting on Quaker. … In the meantime, let’s bow our heads for breakfast cereal. The entire category is fading: $13.9 billion in 2000, to $9 billion in 2017. Millennials can’t be bothered to clean up their bowls, forget preparing anything in a pot.

Quaker still dominates oatmeal — two-thirds of the market in 2017, with sales of $766 million.

Yes, oatmeal gets a bad rap. “Oatmeal, huh?” Calvin says, gazing at his father’s breakfast in a “Calvin & Hobbes” comic. “A bowl of pasty, bland, colorless sludge.”

In its natural state, perhaps. But that’s like eating toast without anything on it. After being dressed up with bran, wheat germ and maybe some brown sugar, crushed walnuts, dried cherries or a tablespoon of jam, oatmeal prepares a fellow for the day ahead. That said, most days I settle for a grapefruit.

Flipping the old cylinder over, I noticed a “BEST BEFORE” date of March 27, 2018. Which means we bought it sometimes toward the end of 2016. In other words, it took my household nearly two years to go through 42 ounces of oatmeal. Or an average of a serving and a half a month. And I like oatmeal. Quaker has its work cut out for it.

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