The first day I met Jim Matson, he took me to a supermarket and we watched housewives buying things. It was a huge store, about the size of a football field, and very modern, with thousands upon thousands of neatly arrayed products. Jim moved up and down the aisles, noting the new products and the changes in the old ones, pausing occasionally to read a label.
As we turned down the cereal aisle, we could see the distinctive sepia tones of Heartland Natural Cereal. Five years old, it still stood out in a sea of explosive colors, of Lucky Charms and Choculas and Sugar Frosted Flakes. “There it is,” Jim said, a bit wistfully. Later he’d say that Heartland was the most exciting thing he’d done in his life, but now he just shook his head and continued down the aisle.
Jim is an executive with Pet Incorporated of St. Louis, which used to call itself the Pet Milk Company. He invents new products for a living. When he visits a supermarket, it is serious business. Usually he just wants to check out the competition, to see what’s new. Sometimes, though, he can look down a row of products and see what’s missing; sometimes he can visualize a new product waiting to be born. Moments like that make his job fun, but they don’t come very often.
While it would be a bit presumptuous to call Jim Matson the father of modern granola, he is probably the person most responsible for bringing it to your breakfast table. In 1972, he invented the first corporate granola, Heartland Natural Cereal—a major cultural event in the history of this decade.
The corporate takeover of granola was a pivotal moment in the downward spiral of the late, lamented counterculture. (Another key moment was when long hair became the “dry look,” but that seemed more abstract.) I decided to find out exactly how the big cereal manufacturers had taken the plunge. But no one at any of the companies would own up to it; the public relations people always said the granola decision was made by groups of executives over a long period of time—until I spoke with Pet. The public relations department sent me directly to Jim Matson, who said that granola was his idea and he was proud of it.
Unlike many executives at Pet, who favor doubleknits and flashy patterned clothes, Jim dresses traditionally: solid colors, conservative striped ties, button-down shirts. He is obviously a man of some taste. At the age of forty-two, he is a blond man turning gray; an active man—mountaineer, backpacker, outdoor type—moving toward chunkiness. When he speaks, he forces the words very precisely through his nose while barely moving his lips, and he would seem very official indeed if it weren’t for a pair of playful blond eyebrows which preside over a serious face that often seems a bit flushed. Like his face, Jim is sometimes playful and sometimes official; he enjoys being unpredictable. His three favorite books are The Little Prince, Catch 22 and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
After our visit to the supermarket that first day, we went to a White Castle, bought some greasy hamburgers, onion rings, french fries and Cokes, and went to the St. Louis botanical gardens where Jim began to tell me about his early days at Pet.
He remembered July 4th weekend, 1971. He was driving to St. Louis from Minneapolis; his wife and four daughters were to join him later. It was a strange time. A new job, a new city and the news of the Pentagon Papers all over the radio. The government had been lying all along. The protesters had been right. It was an event, Jim realized, with implications that eventually would reach all the way to the supermarket shelves. It was the sort of situation he liked to roll around in his mind, examining all the angles . . . but he was preoccupied by more immediate matters that weekend.
Somewhere along the road, Jim stopped at a gas station and bought an interesting pack of Lifesavers, a new kind — tropical flavored, tart and tangy. A crazy idea began to take hold: Pet had a venerable diet drink called Sego that was starting to lose ground to the new powdered diet mixes. What if they jazzed up Sego with tropical flavors? He was so excited that he decided to forego the usual market testing that would have shown him the product was an unequivocal bomb.
Tropical Sego and Spoon-Up (a diet pudding that became a moderate success) were Jim’s two bright hopes as he began to explore his new home that summer. On occasion he would walk through downtown St. Louis, which, though not exactly vibrant, was diverse enough in 1971 to support a small health food store, much to Jim’s surprise.
He had heard about health food stores. They were booming in California, but California had a sizable population of dietary weirdos. The idea that a health food store would open in St. Louis was the sort of signal that a good marketing executive looks for. Jim kept returning to the store, looking at the products, seeing what people bought. It was obvious that things like sea salt and obscure kinds of flour would never have mass appeal. But Jim was impressed by the way the cereals were moving. He did some research. He learned that health food cereals, especially something called granola, were doing about $19 million worth of business annually. In California, granola was starting to make the big move from health food stores to supermarkets.
He began to prepare a presentation about the health food business. He accumulated facts and wrote them down. When he finally delivered his presentation in September 1971, it lasted forty-five impassioned minutes.
“I was young and inexperienced in communication tactics at the time,” Jim remembers. When it was over, one of the executives said, “What are we supposed to do with all that?”
At about the same time Jim Matson was making his health food pitch, the largest granola factory in the world was operating twenty-four hours a day in a small warehouse building in Chico, California, at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley. It was called Lassen Foods and was owned and operated by a quiet young man named Wayne Schlotthauer. Like many other figures in the American breakfast cereal industry, he was a Seventh-Day Adventist.
The Adventists had grown out of a nineteenth-century religious movement led by a man named William Miller, who said that Jesus Christ was coming back in 1843. As you might imagine, the movement lost some strength in 1844 …. . . but several groups survived and eventually prospered. Today, the Seventh-Day Adventists still believe that Christ’s return is imminent, but they’re not making predictions anymore. Aside from that, they are distinguished by the fact that they observe the Sabbath on the seventh day, and they are health nuts. In the late nineteenth century, they ran some of the finest medical facilities in the country—one of which was the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which was operated by John and W.K. Kellogg, who invented cornflakes.
Don Hawley, the editor of Life and Health Magazine, an Adventist journal, says that while there’s no precise reason for it, a majority of Adventists are vegetarians who are especially interested in fruits and grains. “We believe God speaks to man through his body,” Hawley says. “People who feel good are usually good Christians. A sour body means a sour disposition.”
Whatever the rationale, it seems to be working. A recent survey showed that the life expectancy of Adventist males in California was six and a half years longer than the average.
Wayne Schlotthauer certainly seems a healthy enough specimen, a cowboy type with dark hair and long sideburns. He says his grandmother was making something she called “granola” when she came over from Germany in 1912. Wayne also says he and his wife were mixing small batches of granola by hand in his father-in-law’s health food bakery in Chico as far back as 1957. They made it with a wheat base which, he says, “would take your fillings out.”
You might figure that, having mixed the stuff by hand in 1957 (not to mention his grandmother in 1912), Wayne Schlotthauer must be the real father of modern granola. But no, that honor goes to Layton Gentry. In 1972 Time, in its inimitable fashion, dubbed him “Johnny Granola-Seed.”
Not much is known about Layton Gentry. His last address was Hollister, California, but no one knows where he is now. Apparently, no one knows where he got the recipe either, but it was a good one. It substituted oats for wheat and could be chewed without disabling the jaw.
His first recorded granola-related appearance came in 1964 when he sold the exclusive rights to the recipe to the Goodbrad family of Collegedale, Tennessee. They were Seventh-Day Adventists and vegetarians. John Goodbrad figured the cereal business would be a good way to keep his wife busy. John Goodbrad Jr., who took over when it began to boom in the late Sixties, says he thinks Gentry was a lapsed Adventist. “He said he made the recipe up himself and he sold it to us for $3,000.”
Gentry’s second granola-related appearance came in Chico, California, in 1967 when he just showed up one day at Wayne Schlotthauer’s father-in-law’s bakery. He stayed there two months, selling Wayne the exclusive rights to granola on the West Coast for about $18,000. Which may seem like a lot of money, but is only a drop in the bucket when you consider that by 1971, Lassen was doing $3 million worth of business a year.
Leaving Chico, Layton Gentry apparently sold the recipe in Australia and New Zealand, Canada, Hawaii and Missouri. In 1972, the Wall Street Journal found Gentry’s wife, from whom he had separated. She said, “Layton never liked things to get too big…. . . . He was in the Army for twelve years. You know what that does to a man.”
The change from wheat to oats was the turning point for granola. The arrival of the hippies, who didn’t go for cereals that snapped, crackled or seemed otherwise bellicose, didn’t hurt business either. Soon Schlotthauer had moved the granola operation out of Chico and over to his hometown of Paradise, which was about twenty miles east.
(An interesting historical footnote: Paradise is not called Paradise because of the concentration of Seventh-Day Adventists there. Nor is it even called Paradise because it was a center of the California gold rush. It was originally called Pair of Dice because the gold miners would go there to gamble. When the mines played out, the town elders changed the name.)
The Paradise factory was so successful that Schlotthauer decided to build one in Chico. For a while, he had both factories running full steam.
The Chico factory, which represented the highest state of the art in 1971, consisted of a machine that looked like a cement mixer, which mixed the oats with whatever else would go into the day’s batch (raisins, nuts and so forth). Honey and corn oil were fed into the mix through tubes. The wet granola was then shoveled into troughs that emptied onto long, cylindrical gas ovens (which Schlotthauer had designed) for drying. After drying for twenty minutes, the cereal was cooled on a conveyor belt which led to a bagging machine. Not a very complex operation, but interesting enough to attract a series of rather strange visitors by 1972: representatives of the major cereal companies. Some wanted to buy out Lassen, others just wanted to steal the method. Wayne Schlotthauer saw the handwriting on the wall and sold out to a New York conglomerate in late 1972, and became a thirty-four-year-old millionaire.
When he was a kid, Jim Matson had never wanted to be a businessman. His father was a businessman who moved from Kansas to New York to Minneapolis, all while Jim was still a boy. Jim didn’t like the life; he wanted to be a small-town newspaper editor. He went to college at Iowa State, majored in journalism and met his wife, who came from an old, calm Iowa family. He was drafted into the Army for two years in the late Fifties. When he emerged, the idea of becoming a small-town editor seemed less plausible. He became a salesman for General Mills in Cleveland, and began to work his way up the ladder.
Today he has a large, sunny office overlooking the Gateway Arch and the Mississippi River in St. Louis. No doubt he had to struggle to reach this point, but there are few signs of stress. He moves with grace, makes decisions quickly and easily, and doesn’t yield often to the sports jargon that renders so many executives insipid.
As a marketing executive, Jim is a glamorous figure in a world dominated by statisticians. He works with concepts, not numbers, and so is something of a mystery to many of his colleagues. But then, Pet is — despite Jim’s protestations — a pretty dreary place, dun-colored and entirely functional. Every room resembles a Holiday Inn. The statisticians, by and large, are humorless sorts, unencumbered by any strong emotions other than the desire for profit. On occasion, Jim will foist his favorite books on his corporate friends, but they rarely understand or enjoy them.
All this was quite apparent when Jim took me to a new-products meeting. It was held in a large conference room on a high floor of the Pet Building. A dour group of men, most in their thirties and all quite proficient at their respective tasks, sat around a long conference table. Each had a sheaf of statistics before him. One by one the products were reviewed, and each one had problems. The problems all seemed, to an outsider, rather colorful and interesting, but they were discussed without emotion: Mexican pizza wasn’t doing well in the pizza section; perhaps it would do better with the Mexican foods. Despite numerous possibilities, no one was quite sure what to use as a name for frozen french fries you pop in a toaster, a product regarded as having a bright future. Another cause for optimism was frozen yogurt, but there was difficulty at that time in selling it outside the big yogurt markets (New York and Los Angeles) because people didn’t understand that you eat it like ice cream; instead, they tried to thaw it out.
There were so many potential problems. Even the most likely success could be crippled by a wrong decision in packaging or placement or advertising. A staggering degree of expertise was required. As clever as Jim Matson and his production team were, they needed outside help—specialists. In 1971, Workshop West—a strange combination of advertising agency and market-research firm located in Los Angeles—had been hired as new-product consultants. Workshop West was, in effect, two people: Michael Lindsay and Elliott Uberstine. They could develop product ideas by the dozens, then market test the ideas to see if they would fly—and do it all before an actual product existed. They took out some of the gamble, but not much: even after all the testing, four out of five new products usually fail.
It was a remarkably chancy business, and Jim Matson’s idea, in September 1971, that Pet Milk should challenge the Big Four cereal companies and bring out a goddamn health food cereal, seemed chancier than most. But Lindsay and Uberstine were intrigued. They began to learn more about the cereal business. It was, at that point, an $800 million industry, and very diverse. The most popular cereal was Cheerios, with a 6.6 percent share of the market. It was estimated that a new cereal would have to capture a 0.5 percent share to be successful. Introducing a new cereal seemed a lot easier than, say, introducing a new car.
But there was another consideration that convinced Matson and the Workshop West people that the time was right to enter the cereal business. A philosophical consideration. Matson was starting to sense a new mood in the country. He and his wife hung out with a well-educated, moderate-to-liberal crowd, the sort of people who had been trying to deal rationally with the upheavals of the Sixties. But now, with virtually every institution in society under heavy attack, there were signs of a delayed reaction to all the craziness. “There was a need to retreat to a simpler style of life,” Matson recalls. “I figured that people didn’t want to give up a hell of a lot, but they did want to withdraw from the confusion all around them. I figured that this mood would have new product possibilities.” In a way, the ramifications of the Pentagon Papers were beginning to reach the supermarket shelves.
Mike Lindsay, the creative half of the Workshop West team, began scouting the granola sections of California supermarkets. He was from New Zealand, a clerkish man with dark hair brushed straight back and a pale face with small, closely set eyes. He was about forty and spoke very, very softly but had a dry, insistent sense of humor that tended toward the scatological. He had come to the United States as an advertising copywriter, and developed the righteous conservatism of the successful immigrant. America, he said, was a place where “if you hadn’t done what you wanted to do, it’s your own fault.” He couldn’t understand the people who were protesting in the streets. “If you compare the reasons for unhappiness here with other countries, they’re rather miniscule. Black people over here have it rather good; they’ve never had it so good as they do now.”
So Mike went to the supermarkets and watched with distaste “the ladies with the thonged sandals and the funny clothes” buying granola. The health food counters were the stomping grounds for malcontents. “We had to figure out a way to broaden the base,” Mike said.
There were several fairly obvious steps. First, they would put the cereal in a box instead of “those dumpy little plastic bags that sit around on the shelf.” Then, they would get rid of all the little bits and seeds, the dusty quality of health food granola, as well as of the European versions like Familia. Corporate granola would come in large chunks. It would be, Mike said, “an American kind of product.” More important, a certain attitude—a very definite sales pitch—kept popping up in Mike Lindsay’s mind. “Americana as such,” he would later describe it. “Some feeling of the rustic past.”
But these decisions didn’t come all at once. Months were passing. Matson and the Workshop West people were involved in other projects. There was the diet pudding and Tropical Sego which, it was becoming more and more obvious, was going to be a disaster. New Year’s Day 1972 came and went. Matson was growing a bit nervous.
Then, one night in late January or early February Mike Lindsay literally awoke with a start. He was in St. Louis for a new-products meeting, the continuing saga of diet pudding and tropical flavors. But that wasn’t what had him up in the middle of the night. It was the cereal. The pitch for the cereal was writing itself. “It was a whole bunch of moralistic stuff: ‘We’ve been in the milk business for one hundred years. We’ve taken care of children for one hundred years and we’re not a cereal company but, believe us, we know how to feed kids.'” As he was writing that out, the name came to him. Heartland Natural Cereal. No other name would be considered.
The next day he brought the name to Matson on the back of an envelope. Jim realized several things immediately: he knew it was a perfect name for the cereal, and he knew the cereal was going to be the smash hit he was looking for. He was so sure he decided to gamble again. He called the legal department to see if anyone owned the name, and called the laboratory in Illinois and asked them to start developing an appropriate product, even before the market testing began.
Meanwhile, Lindsay was already thinking about the box. The box would be crucial. He talked to Elliott Uberstine, the market-research expert at Workshop West. Elliott Uberstine, then about forty, was a swarthy, tough Jewish kid from the Bronx and, like Mike Lindsay, deeply conservative. Uberstine was a very disciplined man. He was the man with the numbers, but he was also pretty excited about what was happening. “The package for Heartland was revolutionary,” he recalls. “We talked about it a lot. You know, there’re a couple of ways to get noticed: if everybody’s hollering, you can holler louder … or you can be the guy with his mouth shut and people will say, ‘Why is he so quiet?’ All the cereals with the fifty colors jumping and flashing just blended into the environment. By our simplicity, we made noise.”
Lindsay decided the box would be a muted tan, a sepia tone like the old photos. It would have a woodcut of a man cutting wheat with a scythe. It would be quiet, almost prim. There would be no free offers or circus acts. “I wanted instant history, the feeling of honesty and sincerity. At the time, it was a daring and unusual move to make.
With a mock-up of the box completed, the next step was to put together a “concept board” for market testing. This was a picture of the box along with a written description of the product on paper about the size of a place mat, sealed in plastic. It would be shown to 300 women around the country for their reactions. It featured a simple photo of the tan box and a container of milk on a red-checked tablecloth, and Mike Lindsay’s sales pitch: “Introducing the serious cereal. No sparkle. No honk. No tweet. Just honest-to-goodness nutrition.” A written description followed: “This is one cereal advertisement that isn’t aimed at children. It’s for parents who want their children to be well-fed. For parents who are troubled by the recent news of the disgracefully low levels of nutrition in many famous cereals,” and so forth. It ended with a drum roll and blare of trumpets: “We stake our name on its tremendous nutrition and on its wonderful natural taste.”
Of course, at this point, no actual product existed. The tremendous nutrition and wonderful natural taste were figments of Michael Lindsay’s fertile imagination, but the housewives didn’t know that. They loved the idea. They gave the product the highest approval rating in the history of Uberstine’s testing system: seventy-five percent said they would definitely buy it; ninety-one percent believed the ad. They were especially impressed by the nutritional value, natural flavor and the fact that you didn’t have to cook it.
The final test results wouldn’t be available for several months, though, and Jim Matson was impatient. He sat in his office frustrated, dying to see what the box would actually look like on a supermarket shelf. Of course, if he were back at General Mills—where he began his career in the Sixties—it would have been no problem. At GM’s Minneapolis headquarters they had an entire mock supermarket stocked with mock products so you could take a new package in and see how it would look on the shelf. Not only that, they had about a half-dozen light schemes—so you could see how the product would look in an A&P, as opposed to a Winn-Dixie or a Safeway. Pet was a relatively small company and didn’t have anything like that, but Jim was still dying to see how the box would look. So one day he and the Workshop West people went to an old supermarket near the office, waited for the cereal aisle to clear and then put the box up, smack in the middle of the section. The effect was incredible. Lindsay recalled: “It was like a product from the late nineteenth century had been left on the shelf by mistake. It looked like it was out of a general store in North Dakota.”
By early April there was good news on other fronts as well. The name “Heartland” was owned by the Castle and Cooke Co. in Hawaii—it had been used for a discontinued line of canned beans and the company was willing to part with it for not very much money. At the same time, the lab had come up with a granola recipe that was very close to what Mike Lindsay had been imagining. Big chunks and presweetened, only minor modifications were necessary. “It was a one-in-a-thousand situation,” Matson recalls. “Everything was working out perfectly. It was a marketing man’s dream.”
While the market testing continued, Mike Lindsay spent the month of April developing a series of radio and TV ads. He presented his first ideas—along with Uberstine’s initial test results—at a meeting of Pet’s top brass in St. Louis on April 20th, 1972:
Open on futuristic room as in Fahrenheit 451. Decor is all plastic. Several people in twenty-first-century garb are pacing nervously back and forth. Suddenly there’s a boop-beep and the visitor’s face appears on a TV screen.
Lady: Moltan, you’re here!
Moltan (on TV screen): Yes. Open quickly.
Door opens and closes as Moltan darts inside. The group gathers around him.
Man: Did you bring it?
Another Man: Have you got it?
Lady: Were you followed?
Moltan: Don’t worry. Yes, I have it. And no one suspects.
All: Let’s see it! Let’s see it!
A table zips out of the wall and they all gather around it. Moltan reaches into his valise and takes out Heartland. Moltan opens the box and pours a little into his hand.
Moltan: Now look closely. You know what this is? It’s old-fashioned rolled oats….
Moltan:… And wheat germ.…
Woman: I remember reading about that. It has incredible nutritive power!
Moltan:… And honey!
Moltan: Yes. Don’t you remember? It comes from bees!
All: Bees! Unbelievable!
They all get out bowls as Moltan pours them each a serving. They eat.
All: Ooooh. Aaaah. Ummmm.
Announcer: Heartland. A new natural breakfast food from Pet Incorporated. And just what this plastic world needs.
While Heartland cereal moved closer to reality, the rest of the world seemed to be moving closer to the brink. The trends Jim Matson had noticed were growing more intense. The mood of the country in spring 1972 was approaching nervous exhaustion. No one could predict what might happen next. Nixon, the staunch anticommunist, announced that he would go to China. No sooner had he returned than the North Vietnamese launched a massive and very successful attack on the South, and Nixon responded by bombing hospitals and other civilian targets around Hanoi. The press was awash with speculation about a Russian or Chinese countermove. The Godfather was released. Several priests and nuns went on trial in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, accused of plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger. While Nixon went off again and was stumping in Russia, McGovern was gaining in the presidential primaries. No one knew what to make of it, except, of course, one of Jim Matson’s favorites: the journalist Hunter Thompson, whose drug-induced paranoia seemed the only appropriate reaction to the times.
Mike Lindsay wasn’t feeling all that good either. He was uncertain about his ads. He knew they were plausible; he knew they could fly, but he had a vague sense they were just slightly off target. He was beginning to think they were, perhaps, just a little too hard on the cereal companies, a little too didactic. Maybe it wasn’t wise to increase the tension in a society already too tense. Everyone at Pet seemed to think the product was going to be a success, but Mike felt itchy. There was another attitude, a more appropriate attitude for the product. The answer was on the tip of Mike’s tongue…. . . .
On May 15th, George Wallace was shot in a Maryland shopping center. The next day he romped in the Maryland and Michigan primaries.
On May 18th, Jim Matson boarded a plane for Los Angeles. He, too, was somewhat uneasy about Mike Lindsay’s ads. It was not a conscious uneasiness—more like something in the back of his mind. He met with Mike and Elliott about other matters; in the course of a year they had grown very close. Afterward, they went out to dinner and drank some. Then they went back to Matson’s hotel and put a fairly good-sized dent in a bottle of Scotch. About three a.m. they began to talk about the cereal. Matson, loosened by the events of the evening, admitted he wasn’t entirely sold on Lindsay’s ads. He wondered why they weren’t pulling more on the name Heartland. They had started with that, and the box had fit in with the idea of going back to simpler times, but somehow the ads had wandered off into a nutrition pitch and finger wagging.
Matson began thinking aloud about his wife’s family in Iowa. All that wholesomeness. That was what came to mind when he thought of the American heartland. He had grown up with a romantic vision, mostly gotten from books during a nomadic childhood, of a place somewhere in the middle of the country where life was stable. Mike Lindsay had read most of those same books. He remembered a quote—he thought it was from A.J. Liebling—about a midwestern kid waking up in the night and hearing the sound of a train whistle blowing in the distance. Good old America, before the craziness. Now he and Matson were feeding off each other, bouncing ideas back and forth—thinking of sepia-toned pictures, of wheat fields waving and the old fishing hole. Soon they were jumping up and down in the hotel room, screaming out images to each other. And so it was decided: no more twenty-first century spacemen; no more nutrition pitch. You sell Heartland by conjuring up images of the past, sweet romantic images. Matson suggested they go to the Library of Congress and find some old pictures. Lindsay remembered a documentary about an old Canadian boomtown, done completely in stills. What had been just another product had now become a cause.
Mike began looking for appropriate stills for the ad campaign the next day. “What we found was that it wasn’t such a wonderful time back then. It was a good time in terms of what might happen, but most people didn’t live very long. You know, thirty-one was a good life. And you’d get a picture of some poor guy standing in a prairie somewhere in the middle of Nebraska with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks, and he’s probably got two kids dying of typhoid and he doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from … plus he’s got to wait twenty minutes for the damn camera to go off.”
Eventually, though, they found what they were looking for. Wonderful pictures of kids fishing and families sitting down to dinner and people resolutely working in the fields; pictures of picnics and outings and watermelon-eating contests. The art department tinted the photos, most of which were straight black and white, a slight yellow-brown.
Writing the narration for the ads was easy enough. All Mike had to do was throw together several of the images he and Matson had been shouting at each other. But he was having trouble with the tag line. He fiddled around with hundreds of different combinations. He rejected things like “The Serious Cereal” and “The Heartier Cereal.” He wanted a tag line that not only had the product’s name, but also a measure of consumer involvement like “a Ford in your future.” Finally, on a Saturday morning at the office, he got it: “You have a natural taste for Heartland.” He was now ready to present his handiwork for inspection:
A flood of warm nostalgic images of America’s rural past flow by the camera. There are sounds of birds, of children laughing, a strain of festive carousel music, the far-off call of a freight train. Symbolizing “progress,” shots of the city block out the images, then we dissolve to the Heartland package in a warm, rustic setting…
Ann: Remember how it was, America? Before the cities swallowed us up. Most of us lived on the land. We were simple, natural people. And for us, the seasons spun so slowly that we could watch our own food grow. We celebrated our harvests with gratitude. We treasured the natural good taste of our food. Now everything’s changed. And a lot of people feel our world has grown too complicated, too artificial. And so do we. We’re Pet Incorporated. And we’ve made a natural cereal called Heartland. New Heartland has no artificial preservatives. Natural protein from the natural grain. And delicious granola flavors that need no cooking. Just add milk. And you can’t help liking it. Because . . .… you have a natural taste for Heartland.
There was some opposition to this at Pet. It was a radical departure—not much was said about the product itself. There were those who still felt that the nutrition pitch was the way to go. But Matson held firm and he was right. The Heartland campaign was immediately recognized as a classic.
Matson and Lindsay had stumbled across a tremendously powerful force at about the same time as other movers and shakers in the country were beginning to pick up the same vibrations—the allure of the romanticized past. Nostalgia. It was a concept that had, in Mike Lindsay’s words, undertow. Within a year of their late-night breakthrough at Matson’s hotel, major marketing surveys like the Yankelovich “Monitor” would begin picking up nostalgia as a significant trend for the first time. Up until then, the surveys had shown that most Americans believed life would keep getting better if they worked hard; that most people believed in the dream of upward mobility and looked to the future optimistically. But now a major change was taking place. Each new day brought new un-pleasantries. As Heartland was about to be introduced to the Pet sales force in June, five men broke into the Democratic party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. From hippies wanting to return to the land, to blacks searching for their roots, to people like Elliott Uberstine yearning for the good old days when things were more orderly, there was a turning inward and a sifting through the past. For the first time, in the Seventies, large numbers of people began to look more to the past for their dreams and fantasies than to the future.
Heartland Natural Cereal was, of course, a huge success. It was selling in the test markets even before the advertising campaign began, a fairly remarkable achievement for a new product. In fall 1972 it was distributed nationally. By February 1973, it had a 2.3 percent share of the cereal market. Almost simultaneously, Quaker Oats brought out its own version of granola and, within a year, each of the major cereal companies followed suit.
Before long, though, the nutritional quality of granola came under attack. The “natural” cereals had no additives, it was true. But they didn’t have much nutrition either. Certainly not as much as the impure cereals with the vitamins sprayed on. In fact, what granola had most were calories.
Heartland, after reaching a peak, began a slow decline. It still exists today, but one measure of its reduced status is the fact that the pure sepia box is now adorned with electric blue offerings (“Free: Two Extra Ounces in This Bonus Box” and “Special Offer: Hand-Wrought Copper Mini-Hod From Holland. Yours for just $8.95 and two proof-of-purchase panels from Heartland Cereal”).
Still, Heartland was the success Jim Matson needed. Soon after, he was promoted to president of Old El Paso Mexican Foods, which is owned by Pet. Then he was promoted again to president of Pet’s Frozen Foods Division. If he should ever be promoted again, he would be president of the entire company.
Lindsay and Uberstine still run Workshop West and still collaborate with Matson on new product ideas, although none so spectacular as Heartland. “In terms of advertising,” Lindsay says, “it was probably the biggest single thing of my life.”
Lassen Foods, Wayne Schlotthauer’s old company, lives on. It has gone through several ownership changes but it survives by selling to health food stores and servicing some marginal customers like an orthodox Jewish sect in Brooklyn, New York. Every six months or so a rabbi flies out to Chico, California, and blesses the granola as it drops off the conveyor belt into the dumpy little plastic bags.