A recent stroll down the breakfast-food aisle of a Venice, Calif., grocery store might have caused some shoppers to take a second look at some of their favorite cereals.
Rather than featuring Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam and other familiar characters on the boxes, the cereals had obese parodies of these famous advertising icons and altered brand names, such as "Sugar Frosted Fat" instead of Frosted Flakes and "Yucky Children Charmer" instead of Lucky Charms.
The man repsonsible for this brazen cereal hijacking is New York-based street artist Ron English. English said he drew each of the altered box fronts, printed them out and put them on boxes on shelves in two stores, the one in Venice and one in New York City.
His reason, he says, has nothing to do with showing off his artistic ability. Instead, it's much more personal.
"The idea came from hanging out with my kids and them wanting to eat Lucky Charms," he said. "TV gets more of my son's attention than I do, and there are a lot of flash ads and point-of-sale ads that attract kids, and I want to reverse the trend and make it hip not to eat stuff that will give you diabetes."
English said diabetes runs in his family, so it's not his intention to mock diabetics. What he wants to do is make unhealthy foods, like sugary cereals, unappealing to kids.
"I'm using the exact means that advertisers use to deliver a different message," he explained. "If they use a billboard, then I use a billboard. If they put the ad on the front of a cerreal box, I use the same thing. It's a rebuttal to their ads."
Sugary cereals are far from English's first target. He's parodied a number of big corporations in the past 30-plus years, including McDonald's and Disney, the parent company of ABC News, criticizing what he perceives as over-the-top marketing tactics.
It's also not the only recent attention-grabbing attack on food advertising. An unknown person turned a Burger King billboard in Seattle into commentary on the company's desserts. The person turned the fast-food chain's logo into an obese person with X's in place of the eyes and wrote "diabetes" underneath it. Next to the graffiti are three desserts that Burger King sells.
While the intention of English's anti-sugary cereal campaign is to promote better nutrition among children, nutrition experts are divided over his strategy. Some say a much more effective way to encourage healthier eating is through education and that cereals, even the sugary ones, are an unfair target. Others, however, believe English is merely expressing frustration at aggressive marketing to children.
Cereals Not to Blame for Kids' Sugary Diet
A number of cereals do contain a lot of sugar but, some nutritionists say, they are a much better option than some other breakfast food options.
"Cereals, even the sweetened cereals, have nutrition and generally are consumed with milk, a food many kids are not getting enough of," said Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "Clearly sugar-sweetened cereals should not be the first choice for children's breakfast but as a registered dietitian, I'd rather kids eat these with milk than no breakfast or instead of grabbing something at the corner store."
"Breakfast cereal accounts for a tiny portion of the sugar in kids' diets; something like four percent," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y.
"It's about 9 or 10 grams per serving, or about two teaspoons of sugar. It's not as much of an issue as the nine teaspoons you can get in a can of soda."
Most of the kids' sugar intake comes from cookies, cake and sugar-sweetened beverages, Ayoob added. He also cereals also encourage children to eat other healthier foods, such as milk, whole grains and fresh fruit.
Diekman stressed that there are better ways to communicate nutrition messages.
"I would advocate for education so parents begin to choose these cereals on occasion only or that they add them as a topping to a healthier whole grain cereal," she said.
General Mills, one of the cereal manufacturers targeted by English, declined to comment. Kellogg, whose cereals were also altered, issued a statement.
"Kellogg is committed to using our packaging to help consumers make informed choices about how the key nutrients in each product fit in a balanced and healthy diet," said Lisa Sutherland, vice president of Kellogg North America Nutrition. "Cereal with milk is a leading source of 10 nutrients in U.S. children's diets. The fact is, kids who start the day with a cereal breakfast tend to weigh less than those who eat cereal less frequently."
Fed Up With Food Industry?
Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, defended English's art as an expression of overall frustration with food manufacturers.
"It's a reflection of how badly people are feeling about the behavior of the food companies," Brownell said. "We're finding that the companies are marketing their worst products to kids and doing so very aggressively."
The Rudd Center released a report in 2009 that found the most heavily marketed cereal was also the most unhealthy cereal.
While he said sugary cereals aren't the nutritionally worst options for kids, they are the most heavily marketed.
As for English, he hopes his campaign moves way beyond two stores.
"I would like to mass produce the drawings and have people put them in stores," he said. "I want to make this stuff less appealing to children."