Breakfast Is A Marketing Gimmick

It’s in the news for health reasons, but its true birth is marketing.

Erik Brown
May 17 · 8 min read
Original Breakfast Marketing Campaign October 1944—

We’ve all been told that breakfast is the most important meal in 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 a mixture of marketing, religion, and health fads.

Okay, mostly marketing. But, religion and health had a bit of a push in the beginning.

In our view of breakfast, we’ll examine the strange birth of the cereal industry. From the alternative medicine and religious roots to the giant industrial cereal industry of today — it’s an interesting story on its own. Then, we’ll slide into the birth of bacon and eggs from the mind of the father of propaganda.

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. So join me in this examination of breakfast and the roots of its creation.

Breakfast Appears And Creates Problems

Photo by Dan Russo on Unsplash

Breakfast is a relatively modern invention. Traditionally, people ate whatever they had around when they were hungry in the morning. According to a story in the Guardian, the traditional farmer’s breakfast didn’t appear until the 1800's.

Eggs were generally always popular since chickens were a living factory of sorts. Eggs were an easy meal to cook as well. Meat would also be involved in the meal in some way. Usually whatever could be salvaged from a previous dinner made it to the plate. However as industrialization began, Americans began to notice a problem — indigestion.

As the work environment changed, people were sitting and standing in one place for long periods. A heavy breakfast was blamed for this problem. Early nutrition experts even gave a name to this malady — dyspepsia. In an interview with the Atlantic, the historian Abigail Carroll explains the widespread infamy dyspepsia gained.

“Magazines and newspapers [just overflowed] with rhetoric about this dyspeptic condition and what to do about it.”

This would be the environment early cereals would be born into. This rapidly changing world believed a heavy breakfast was no longer healthy. A desire for a healthy alternative was generated. A number of preacher / healer types would create products to fill this void. Some might call these people quacks, but in their time they were considered on the cutting edge.

They would create their own health institutions called sanitariums. Obviously, the name sounds less appealing today. However, some of their ideas aren’t exactly far off from what we see in modern days. If this “sanitarium” existed today and offered yoga and meditation, I’m sure a number health conscious people today would flock to them.

The Creation Of Cereal As A Healthy Alternative

Granula — Picture From The Dansville Historical Society

An abolitionist orator, preacher, and practitioner of alternative medicines would come up 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 eaten.

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.

Like I said, if they just included yoga and meditation people would be heading to them today.

Granula became somewhat of a sensation. It was a light meal and was quicker and easier than cooking. Jackson would recommend soaking it in milk before you went to bed so it could be ready in the morning. The demand for the product grew, selling to users beyond the sanitarium. At its height of popularity, 60,000 lbs. of Granula were produced per year.

In 1878 Jackson would have a visitor to his medical facility, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Yes, that’s the cornflake guy. Dr. Kellogg would study the medical facility and its methods. He would also become extremely interested in Granula. Dr. Kellogg would go on to create his own facility in Battle Creek Michigan with his own cereal.

These institutions would teach that if you ate a healthy breakfast you could be more productive at work. Of course, that would be an excellent selling feature that would win over converts. Cereal companies would begin to pop up like weeds. According to the article in the Atlantic, by 1903 there were 100 cereal companies in Battle Creek Michigan alone. Kellogg’s corn flakes would produce 50 tons of product themselves in their first year.

In the 1940’s vitamins were discovered and their health benefits became understood. Cereals would be infused with every vitamin imaginable, which became part of their marketing campaign. Another new ingredient would be added as well — sugar. Cereal began to stray off the path of health at this point into the modern sugary product we know today.

Original Breakfast Marketing Campaign October 1944 —

According to the Guardian, this is where the first mention of breakfast being the most important meal of the day came into existence. In 1944 General Foods, maker of Grape Nuts, would start a marketing campaign for their cereals. In radio ads advertisers would say, “Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” The advertisement in the beginning of this article is part of that campaign. Of course no scientific study was made to back this up. Who those “experts” were wasn’t exactly explained.

Revenge Of The Heavy Breakfast

Edward Bernays — Bain News Service [Public domain]

“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 (and propaganda)

The tendencies of Americans had begun to change. The efforts of the cereal companies were beginning to work. A small breakfast became the ideal way to start your day. This tendency wasn’t lost on the pork industry.

According to an article in the Washington Post, The Beach-Nut Company hired a marketing guru named Edward Bernays to help them sell more bacon. Bernays had successfully gotten more women to smoke in the 1920’s by calling Lucky Strike cigarettes “Liberty Torches”. He also helped a banana company market a revolution to remove a government in Guatemala. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, was also an avid admirer of his work and used it during the war.

Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, used psychology to sell products. If the American public was convinced a light meal for breakfast was healthy, he’d convince them otherwise and use physicians to do it.

Bernays approached a doctor employed by Beach-Nut and asked him whether a heavy breakfast is healthier than a light breakfast. The doctor said in his opinion it was. Bernays then asked the doctor if he would reach out to other doctors and ask if they agreed.

The doctor at no cost reached out to 5,000 other physicians and 4,500 replied in agreement. Bernays then took this statement and used it as a marketing tool. It wasn’t any kind of medical study, just an off the cuff survey. Bernays would promote this survey in newspapers, often noting that bacon and eggs was a healthy breakfast. Although the doctors never mentioned “bacon” specifically, it didn’t matter.

The marketing campaign was a smash success. Newspapers across the country reported that 4,500 doctors said that a heavy breakfast made up bacon and eggs is a healthy way to start your day. Beach-Nut’s profits soared. Bacon, once something only farmers might eat, became a staple in the American breakfast.

Health Or Marketing

“I think that the breakfast table is one place where you see the most blatant demonstrations of this human tendency to tie what one eats to who one is. People make their lifestyle change at New Year and every morning is like a small New Year’s Day — a chance to start things off in the right direction. So if you have cold pizza for breakfast, it says what sort of person you are.”

Arndt Anderson, author of Breakfast: A History

Your day to day life is filled with marketing. At many points, you may not even realize it. Just the fact that you believe breakfast is the most important meal of the day is proof of this. So as scientists debate the health benefits of breakfast, realize there’s a bigger point.

The entire idea of the importance of breakfast was something contrived to sell cereal, bacon, and whatever else is on shelves of a store. Now the next time somebody tells you breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the words of Bernays should pop into your mind.

When something is reported to you as healthy examine it carefully. More than likely there’s a marketing machine behind this product pushing it along. It may very well be what is advertised or it might be as contrived as bacon and eggs. Marketing can be a force for good, but its power also requires us to be cynical about claims and examine them carefully. You never know when an Edward Bernays might be making decisions for you.

Thank you for reading my ramblings. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, please share.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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