When I was about eight years old, I prank called Quaker Oats. My best friend and I were in that kid-phase where talking on the phone and prank calling is really fun. We were at her grandma’s house, where the phone was connected to the wall. That’s a weird way to date myself, by the way. I’ll have to tell my kids that when I was a kid, phones had cords. And then they will roll their eyes and go “Mom, you’re OLD!” Of course this will all be communicated instantaneously through linked neural thought channels by microchip implants or whatever people will have invented by then. People won’t “verbalize” anymore, like in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, where everyone communicates by streaming data.
Anyways, we decided to prank call the Quaker Oats hotline for some reason. We were eight years old – who knows what our thought process was on this. But we thought it would be hilarious to ask who was the model for the Quaker Oats guy. We thought it was brilliant. Surely, the hotline person would stammer and be confused, much to our delight. I remember trying not to giggle as I clutched the phone to my cheek, watching my friend covering her mouth trying not to laugh as well.
The hotline operator answered. I quickly asked, “Um, who’s the model for the Quaker guy?”
Without missing a beat, she responded, “Actually, there is no specific model. We chose the image because of the Quaker tradition of honesty and wholesomeness.”
“Oh,” I responded.
Neither of us spoke for a few seconds. “Is there anything else?” She asked.
“Uh, no. That was it,” I said, downcast. This had not gone according to plan.
“Alright, you have a nice day. You take care, sweetie.” She hung up.
I was so upset. I had been hoping to fluster her! That was the whole point of prank calling! But apparently this was a question the Quaker Oats people had gotten a lot and were prepared for. My eight-year old brain couldn’t comprehend what had gone wrong.
On the Quaker Oats website, the second question in the FAQ is “Who is the man on the Quaker Oats box? Is that William Penn?” Their answer: ‘”Quaker man” is not an actual person. His image is that of a man dressed in the Quaker garb, chosen because the Quaker faith projected the values of honesty, integrity, purity and strength.’
Well I’ll be darned. Apparently that’s been their go-to answer since the beginning.
Last year, however, the Quaker man did get a make-over. A new marketing campaign to make the 134-year old company “fresh and innovative” decided to revamp the logo. “Larry” as he is apparently called (I can guarantee they didn’t call him Larry 134 years ago) has a new, youthful appearance, losing 5 lb, ditching the double chin, getting a haircut, and gaining broader shoulders so that consumers will associate the brand with “energy and healthy choices.” They had even changed his background from white to red, to signify “movement.”
I thought about this as I ate a bowl of oatmeal this morning at work, simultaneously impressed with the subtle marketing maneuvers, and feeling slightly tricked like how I feel every time I learn about any sort of hidden marketing messages. I used to not really like oatmeal that much. Do I like it more now because of these hidden connotations and messages? I mean, the old Larry does look a bit tubby and slow. The new Larry is definitely fitter and more attractive, as far as white-haired Quakers go.
I suppose there are worse marketing ploys to fall victim to. Oatmeal IS relatively healthy (though clearly steel-cut oats are going to be a lot healthier because of the amount of processing required for rolled oats). I used to eat a lot of the highly processed, little low-fat packets from Quaker Oats that have all that sugary, chemical goodness that you mix in. That definitely isn’t healthy.
I guess in the end, Quaker Oats punked me instead.