This cereal wants you to be confident

Hey ladies, stop doubting your food choices, yo.

In today’s episode of an occasional serial I’m going to brand “All the Hungry Ladies,” a cereal of a different sort: Special K.

On Monday, multinational company Kellogg Co. introduced female eaters in New York’s Times Square to its newest campaign using a truly disruptive slogan, one no woman on earth has ever heard anyone tell her before: “#OwnIt.

Yes, many of us can recall those tender adolescent mornings we spent in the company of the big white box, emblazoned with the big red K, and the inspiring call to action: “Try our kick start and see if you can drop a jeans size in two weeks.” What a good and loyal coach, protein cereal. What an emotionally nourishing breakfast companion. (Lunch pal, too. Two bowls and a balanced dinner, baby, and you were down 6 pounds.)

“Women spend 1 hour and 1 minute second-guessing what they eat every day.”

Now, all these years later, Special K has us seeing red again. But this time its branding comes in the form of a big red installation, emblazoned with a big white clock (because clocks bear absolutely no troubling associations for women) and this little psychobabble bon bon: “Women spend 1 hour and 1 minute second-guessing what they eat every day.”

Ah, what’s that taste? It’s sweet, whole grain liberation, ladies! We’ve truly time traveled, haven’t we, from those old tape measure tropes? Back in the day, our cereal was just plain confusing: Eat!, it said. But also: Lose weight! Talk about mixed messages. What a relief that in these far more evolved times the cereal message is finally clear: Eat! But also: Eat doubtfully, lose time!

Kellogg Special K Times SquarePRNewsfoto/Kellogg Company

Kellogg’s Special K sheds light on new survey revealing that women spend 61 minutes every day second-guessing their food choices in New York’s Times Square

Last week I wrote about a friendly, familiar face whose sensible refrigerated side dishes are intended to whip some comfort into the drudgery of dieting: a little twist of cauliflower in your potatoes, for instance. Oprah Winfrey’s “O, That’s Good!” line hits the market at a time when research shows “diet” foods and drinks are losing their luster.

“Consumers are somewhat skeptical about diet products, and instead of purchasing traditional diet-specific products they are turning to a well-balanced diet and products that support it,” said Marissa Gilbert, health and wellness analyst at market research firm Mintel, when the company published its 2016 findings on consumer diet trends. “The diet industry faces downward pressure as US adults remain skeptical of the ingredients in diet-specific products, their effectiveness in managing weight and the fact that in reality a magic weight loss pill likely doesn’t exist.” (This, even as industry insight firm, Women’s Marketing, reports that 66 percent of Americans are on a diet.)

So, rather than plug its cereal as the diet pill that women can serve with a splash of milk, Kellogg’s latest campaign aims for “a new take on female empowerment through eating,” reported Jessica Wohl, in her May 2017 piece on the campaign for AdAge. “The brand has for the past few years emphasized women’s joy and overall wellness, distancing itself from the longtime diet-focused messages that originally helped make the brand a key part of Kellogg Co.‘s portfolio,” she wrote. To wit: a new 30-second commercial that opens with this line: “Women are amazing. Our bodies grow babies.”

Speaking of bodies. While there may be no magic pill for dieters, there certainly is one for brands: a celebrity spokesperson. And for a brand like Kellogg Co., which seems keen on fanning the culture flames in the general direction of food-as-life-coach, a hungry but confident lady like actress Taraji P. Henson (recently of Empire and Hidden Figures fame) can be a human bellows.

PRNewsfoto/Kellogg Company)PRNewsfoto/Kellogg Company)

Taraji P. Henson teams up with Kellogg’s Special K to rally women to eat with confidence and stop second-guessing their food choices

Or, at least that’s the hope. But Henson’s own “#OwnIt” message feels like yet another installment of muddled food marketing messages targeted toward women (I reported on Big Beer’s similar and super-cynical “lady booze” shill back in March). Henson told People magazine on Monday that she wanted to encourage women who agonize about their food choices to “take your life back,” and followed that atta-girl advice with some personal wisdom: “It’s all about choices. If you make better choices for yourself then you feel better about yourself. If I choose a Special K bar that has fiber, folic acid, vitamin A and D over a Snickers bar, it’s a better choice for me so I don’t have to beat myself up all day long about that Snickers bar or feel bad when I go to my trainer and have to admit: ‘I had a Snickers bar today. I know it wasn’t the best choice.’”

Well. No apparent agonizing there.

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Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.