When Licensing Goes Bad: Batman Cereal
These days, I don't bother to eat breakfast very often. If I do, I don't ever have cereal; I prefer Campbell's soup or a microwave pizza to a cold bowl of awfulness. But when I was growing up, I tried just about every cereal I could get my hands on, everything from classics like Cheerios and Trix to failed brands like Crispy Critters, Dunkin' Donuts Cereal, and OJ's. And when I think of cereals that I didn't want to eat, I immediately think of one company: Ralston Cereals. If you're unfamiliar with Ralston Cereals, they're the company that makes Chex and Cookie Crisp. At least they were prior to 1997, at which point they sold those brands to General Mills. Now I'll give credit where credit is due: Ralston's Chex cereals were both healthy and reasonably delicious. On the other hand, Cookie Crisp fucking sucks. Cookie Crisp was an example of marketing at its worst: Ralston used a gimmick that shamelessly pandered to kids (i.e. cookies for breakfast) combined with lovable cartoon characters (Cookie Crook and Cookie Cop) to peddle a grotesque cereal that didn't even ALMOST taste like cookies. Of course, how was I supposed to know that before I tried it? From the time I was about five years old or so, my mom would take me food shopping with her every Saturday. And every time we reached the cereal aisle, I would beg her to buy my Cookie Crisp but she'd make me get something else. This went on for almost three years before she finally caved and bought me the damn cereal. After one bowl of the horrible stuff, the illusion of cookies for breakfast was shattered and I refused to finish the box. This was a recurring theme in our household, me begging desperately for cereals that turned out to be absolute shit. And as I would later discover, most of them were made by Ralston.
The fact that Ralston Cereals made terrible cereals is rather unsurprising when one considers that their parent corporation is Ralston-Purina. Yes, the company that makes pet food. And if their cereal is any indication of how good the pet food tastes, it's no wonder that my family had two cats run away on us. In addition to Cookie Crisp and Chex, Ralston Cereals put its names on at least a dozen or so gimmick cereals including Rainbow Brite Cereal, G.I. Joe Action Stars, The Nintendo Cereal System, and Bill & Ted's Excellent Cereal. As you can see, the vast majority of Ralston's roster favored the Cookie Crisp philosophy of cereal. After all, it's a lot easier to make a cereal box that looks good than a cereal that tastes good. Chex, of course, was the glaring exception to Ralston's "If You Put A Popular Character Or Toy On The Box, People Will Buy Your Cheaply Made Cereal" strategy and I think I know why. Chex was a front. Chex was there so that kids could whine "But moooooooooom! It's made by the people who make Chex!" and walk out of their local supermarket with a fresh box of Ghostbusters II cereal in the carriage. It's a pretty dastardly scheme and I'm pretty sure Satan himself is behind it. That bastard is always pulling shit like that when he's not busy writing songs for Ozzy Osbourne and Marilyn Manson.
I arrived home one dreary October afternoon to find a mysterious package waiting for me. I was immediately fearful of its unknown contents. I have many enemies including Microsoft, drunk drivers, Bandai, and Carol Howie Eldridge, so for all I knew it could be a bomb. Fortunately, it was not an incendiary device; it was a box of Ralston's Batman Cereal from 1989 that I bought off of eBay. Ever since I did the Pepsi Free article, I had struggled to find another "classic" food to review. The problem is that normal, rational people don't keep old boxes of food lying around so old food is hard to come by. After failing to win a box of Giggles cookies and refusing to meet the starting bid of $99.99 for a box of Nintendo cereal, I almost gave up. Then I suddenly remembered Batman Cereal and tried searching for that. Right away, two auctions came up; never underestimate the ability of comic book nerds to hold on to mediocre memorabilia for over fifteen years. I kept an eye on them, but both ended up going higher than I felt like paying. Then I got lucky. Someone posted a box with a "Buy It Now" option of $6.00 plus shipping. I was in business.
Batman Cereal, if you haven't already figured it out, was Ralston's shameless attempt to cash in on Tim Burton's super awesome movie of the same name. Well, I suppose it wasn't entirely shameless since they did actually get licensing rights to make the cereal. Now if they had tried to cash in on Batmania by selling us Die Fledermaus, East Germany's favorite bat-themed cereal substitute, that would have been pretty low. As gross as this cereal is, Ralston sure knew how to polish a turd. The stark black and yellow box is pretty damn cool. The rather artful use of blackspace gives the box an ominous feel that foreshadows the impending doom waiting within. But the real selling point of Batman Cereal was not its badass box, it was the free gift that came with it. These days, you're lucky if you even get a sticker with your cereal, but in the 1980s we got all sorts of cheap plastic toys in our cereal. One of the biggest (and therefore best) toys was the Batman bank that came with this cereal. At 7" tall, this bust became a staple of boys' bedrooms. To get anything even HALF this cool from cereal these days, you have to send in 2 proofs of purchase and $4.95 shipping. I know Batman is filled with all sorts of angst, but he looks especially unamused to be a bank. With his crossed arms, angry pout, and lack of legs, The Dark Knight looks like he just walked into quicksand and can't believe he fell for such an amateur booby trap. On the plus side, his stern glare was a surefire way to keep younger sibling from stealing your precious eighty-five cents. What, you're gonna steal some money from me? From Batman? I don't fucking think so, punk! Unfortunately, the bank loses a few points of coolness for having a night light offer on the back of it. I don't know what the hell Ralston was thinking with this one. The movie was PG-13, so if you were young enough that you needed a goddam night light to keep the fucking boogey man away, you probably shouldn't have been watching the movie or eating the cereal. Of course, NO ONE should have had to eat this crap.
The seller that I bought this box of awfulness from described it as being "unfit for human consumption". While he was obviously referring to its current state, that phrase paints a pretty accurate picture of how the stuff was in 1989. Like Michael Keaton as Batman, this stuff was tough. Really tough. Compared to Batman Cereal, Cap'n Crunch is like eating pillows. This stuff was designed to actually *rape* the inside of your mouth, to rip it open like a hymen and make you bleed. Not only that, but it was ugly as sin. Batman Cereal came in one fun shape: bright yellow bats. And since the stuff was made on the cheap, only about half the pieces even actually look liked bats. I can't possibly fathom why the hell this cereal is yellow. Batman lives in a dark city, so his cereal should have been dark and chocolately. Sure, Batman's logo has yellow on it, but yellow is definitely not the first color that you think of when you think of Batman. As far as I can tell, Ralston really wanted to make the box black, and you can't put a dark brown cereal on a black box. So they went with yellow, because it looked better on the box art. For some reason, the cereal is honey nut flavored. I have no idea what the hell that is about. I have never seen Batman and honey mentioned in the same sentence except when referencing this cereal. What, were they planning a Batman/Winnie the Pooh crossover or something? Being the cynic that I am, I bet they picked the flavor based on the cereal's yellow color, the color which was probably picked based on the box design. The honey flavor doesn't even add anything to cereal; honey-flavored razor blades may be sweeter than regular razor blades, but they'll still cut up your mouth like Nicole Brown Simpson if you chew them.
The Taste Test
Now comes the part of the article where I attempt to eat the cereal. It's a terrible idea, but it's not as terrible as could be. First of all, the box came wrapped in a layer of plastic to keep the bank attached. I'm not 100% sure on this, but I figure that probably helped to protect the cereal from bacteria and oxidation. Secondly, it has honey in it and honey never spoils. Ever. So that means the cereal should be at least partially edible. At least, that's what I'm going to tell myself to try and get through this ordeal. But no matter how well sealed it was or how much honey is in there, it's still a box of cereal from 1989. When it comes to eating sixteen-year-olds, I'd much prefer a girl to a bowl of cereal. Sure, it's *technically* illegal, but it's a lot hotter and a lot safer than eating sixteen-year-old cereal. Besides, girls are a lot like food; the older they get, the more likely it is that they'll give you some disease. Eating the cereal is much more impressive, however. Anyone can go down on an underage girl in a Filene's dressing room, but it takes a real man to risk severe food poisoning and eat ancient food. I've decided to eat it with milk, because if I've got to do this then I'm gonna do it right. The milk is not from 1989. It is fresh and it contains all sorts of essential vitamins that just might mean the difference between life and death. I also have a glass of Ocean Spray ready so I can cleanse my palette if this stuff tastes as nasty as I think it might. This is it, I'm going for it...
The first thing I notice is that the cereal smells a lot like cardboard. Ralston cereals, particularly The Nintendo Cereal System, have always had rather unique smells but this is different. This is the smell of age and decay. I take a couple bites. The cereal has lost its razor-like qualities, but it still has quite a bit of crunch to it. That surprised me; when I find unfinished boxes of cereal in the cabinet from 6 months ago, the stuff has usually lost its crunch. I take a few quick spoonfuls, hoping to ingest some of the stuff before my tastebuds can figure out what it is. At first, it's not so bad. I can actually taste the honey, much to my relief. But then the aftertaste hits me. Whatever was in this cereal, it has mutated into something fierce. In restrospect, the milk probably made it worse. The combination of aged cereal and fresh milk isn't bad enough to make me throw up, but I just can't bring myself to finish the bowl. Why the fuck did I pour myself a full bowl anyway? I knew damn well that it wasn't going to taste good. Oh yeah, because it takes a better photograph.
This is as far as I got with the Batman Cereal before I gave up. Being an inquistive person, I decided to try a little bit without milk and it was much better. I could taste more of the honey and less of the decaying oats. At the end of the day, this stupid experiment turned out to be harmless. Unlike Pepsi Free, this shit didn't even give me stomach discomfort. Once again, I am victorious over 1980s foodstuffs. Fuck yeah! I have no idea what I'm going to do with the rest of this box of cereal, but I wish I could somehow give it to Hansel and Gretel. If those damn kids had used Batman Cereal instead of bread crumbs, they wouldn't have got lost in the woods; the trail of dead birds would've led them back to safety.
Batman Cereal's production run lasted until 1991, long after the movie had left theaters. By that time, Tim Burton was busy filiming Batman Returns and Ralston was busy planning a slightly less crappy cereal bearing its name. Thankfully, Ralston gave up making promotional cereals around the same time they sold their perennial brands to General Mills. Thus, no one had to suffer to the unmitigated horror of a 2 Fast 2 Furious cereal or Spy Kids Crunch. The bad news is that Ralston is still making cereal. Ralston is currently the leading manufacturer of "high quality emulations of more than 35 national brands". That means they make store brands. So when you see a bad Frosted Flakes rip-off with half-assed cartoon characters on the box, chances are pretty good that Ralston made it. And for a publicly traded company, they have a pretty shitty website. So what have we learned today? Well, we learned that a certain company sucks at making breakfast cereals. We learned that Batman Cereal was a classic case of good marketing making a shitty product profitable. And that's about it. If you really needed my help to figure out that eating really old food products is A BAD FUCKING IDEA, then you really ought to kill yourself. It's people like you whose money lines the pockets of douchebags like Morgan Spurlock. Fuck you.
Posted by: Syd Lexia