How Marketing Created the Most Important Meal of the Day

Propaganda, bacon, and eggs

Erik Brown
May 25 · 7 min read
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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

We’ve all been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The line has been repeated so many times we all believe it. In recent times, science is starting to question this. However, the true story of breakfast involves an incredible marketing campaign.

You may not realize this, but your simple breakfast is an exercise in the art of marketing. It might be the most successful marketing campaign of all time. Just the statement “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” was dreamed up by a marketing team.

Cereal, bacon, and eggs are an exercise worthy of a marketing case study. Examining their creation is also a glimpse into human psychology and how our minds can be manipulated. It’s also a look into the darker side of the business of marketing.

Not Standard or Routine

In an article in Priceonomics, Alex Mayyasi mentions that the Romans believed it was better to eat one meal a day. Whereas the Native Americans grazed throughout the day, eating small meals. He mentions sources that describe breakfast in medieval Europe as being a luxurious meal only the rich partook in.

As the Industrial Revolution began and more people moved to cities, eating habits changed. If they were leaving their home for an entire day, they wanted a substantial meal to send them on their way. Mayyasi points out that they generally ate the same things they ate for dinner or lunch.

This heavy first meal began to be blamed with a national problem of indigestion, which was called dyspepsia. Mayyasi quotes historian Abigail Carroll as saying, “Magazines and newspapers [just overflowed] with rhetoric about this dyspeptic condition and what to do about it.”

According to the Smithsonian, Walt Whitman would call this malady “the great American evil.”

A few health-conscious entrepreneurs came up with a solution to the dyspeptic condition for those who still wanted a hearty breakfast.

Invention of Cereal

“The sunshine that makes a business plant grow is advertising.” — C.W. Post

An abolitionist orator, preacher, and practitioner of alternative medicines would come up with a solution to this dyspepsia. Dr. James Caleb Jackson would come up with a product called Granula in 1863 made from graham crackers. It wasn’t exactly a ready-to-eat cereal; it had to be soaked in milk for about 20 minutes before it could be consumed.

According to the Dansville Historical Society, Jackson would create and use this cereal in his sanitarium in Dansville, NY. The house of healing would offer exercise, fresh air, hydrotherapy (baths), and healthy food for its visitors. Granula would also become popular outside the sanitarium. At one point, 60,000 lbs. of Granula were produced per year.

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Kellogg’s Corn Flakes 1907 — Firstversions.com

A visitor to Jackson’s sanitarium would copy the idea and start his own cereal. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg would open his sanitarium with its own cereal in Battle Creek Michigan in the 1890s, according to Mayyasi. Jackson and Kellogg believed a healthier lifestyle and diet in particular were the cure to dyspepsia.

Another visitor to Kellogg’s sanitarium, C.W. Post, would also copy the idea of cereal. Post would start his own company and create Grape Nuts in 1897 and invest heavily in advertising, spending $1 million a year by the early 1900s. Kellogg’s brother would start his own company as well and also invest heavily in advertising, eventually winning the right to use the Kellogg name.

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Original Breakfast Marketing Campaign October 1944 — Newspapers.com

In particular, the advertisements focused on how cereal was a healthy alternative and could increase your capacity to work. By the 1940s, vitamins would be added to “fortify” cereal along with sugar to make medicine go down easier. According to an article in the Telegram, the 1940s would see another marketing innovation.

In 1944, a marketing campaign for Grape Nuts would be unleashed called “Eat a Good Breakfast — Do a Better Job”. During radio ads, it would be mentioned, “Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” This marketing phrase became soaked into our lexicon ever since. As you can imagine, this made the cereal industry powerful, giving them a monopoly over breakfast.

However, another group would hire their own marketing guru to get their foot onto the breakfast table.

The Creator of Bacon and Eggs

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
Edward Bernays, father of public relations, from his book Propaganda

Edward Bernays was an interesting character. Some would call him a genius of marketing. Others had much less flattering opinions of him. Historian Robert McNamara in an article in Thoughtco mentions he was called “the young Machiavelli of our time,” by the magazine Editor and Publisher. He was also called a poisoner of the public mind by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter as reported by Professor Richard Gunderman.

Whatever he was, he had the power to influence people. His first marketing efforts were in politics. He’d help American President Woodrow Wilson market WWI as an effort to bring democracy to Europe. He’d also help Calvin Coolidge appear less stiff and grim in his campaign for the presidency, according to McNamara.

Bernays would apply what he learned in politics to market companies. This is where he differed himself from everything that was seen previously. He didn’t market a product, he’d seek to change ideas of the consumer who purchased the product. Bernays was a relative of Sigmund Freud and would use the psychology of the subconscious to change people’s minds.

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Edward Bernays (1917) — Bain News Service / Public domain

He’d help the American Tobacco Company to convince women to smoke. In the 1920s, women usually avoided this bad habit. Bernays would find those same women wanted freedom in this time period. He’d start a marketing campaign aimed at young women convincing them smoking would be a good way to express their freedom.

As part of this campaign, he’d hire women to stroll around New York City during the yearly Easter Parade while smoking. This would get the attention of newspaper reporters and the public. In various interviews, the women would call the cigarettes “torches of freedom,” according to McNamara.

Gunderman would also describe a campaign in which Bernays scared people into believing only disposable cups were sanitary in order to promote the Dixie Cup Company. Gunderman also notes that the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels would become a huge fan of Bernays, using many tactics out of his book, Propaganda.

The Beech-Nut company would approach Bernays and ask him how they could sell more bacon in the 1920s. The father of public relations would devise a plan to convince the American public it was a healthier option than cereal. He’d also use the medical community to do it.

According to an article in Americantable.org, Bernays would approach a doctor employed by Beech-Nut and ask him if he thought a heavy breakfast was healthy for the American public. Of course, the company doctor agreed. Bernays had this doctor write to 5,000 other doctors to confirm this, which they did.

Bernays would start a marketing program, citing that these doctors agreed a heavy breakfast was good for the public. Obviously this breakfast would be made of bacon and eggs — although the doctors never mentioned them specifically. The ads in print media would sway the 1920s American public and the ritual of bacon and eggs for breakfast was born. It would also be a huge win for Beech-Nut.

Manipulation or Marketing

“They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.”

Quote from Edward Bernays’ biography, referencing to the Nazis using his work.

Our entire lives are filled with marketing. Sometimes without careful exploration, it can be difficult to figure out what is real and what is the magic of a marketing department. Bernays believed that all societies were bound to be manipulated and it was better for good agents to do it as opposed to malevolent ones.

That’s a pretty skeptical view of humanity and marketing in general. Just as you’re marketed to, you market yourself every day to employers, romantic partners, friends, and customers.

There’s nothing evil or manipulative about putting your best face forward or selling your best characteristics. However, you can easily go astray by convincing people you’re something different than what you truly are.

Marketing must be viewed in this same light, as Bernays said, any activity could be used for positive or negative purposes. We must be careful in our marketing activities not to become manipulators, as opposed to showing the best face of those organizations and products we sell. There can be a fine line between advertiser and poisoner of the public mind.

We must also carefully examine those who market themselves or their products to us as well. Hopefully you’ll be reminded of this every time someone mentions to you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

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Thanks to Niklas Göke

Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. CantWriteToSaveMyLife@yahoo.com

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. CantWriteToSaveMyLife@yahoo.com

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

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