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Toward a Theory of the American TV Commercial, Vol. 4: Songs in the Key of Cheerios

I had not thought sogginess had undone so many
by Ian Dreiblatt
October 10th, 2019

This is the fourth entry in a new recurring feature in which Believer Commercials Correspondent Ian Dreiblatt travels back in time via YouTube.com to review and examine the cultural phenomenon that was Television Commercials. Commercials featured here will mostly be old, and have, in many cases, already left an indelible mark on America and its culture. Read the first entry here, the second here, and the third here.

If you lived in America in the mid-eighties, you knew for sure which cereal was loudest: it was Rice Krispies, in a blowout. Rice Krispies was so loud it’d spawned a trio of magical sound elves: Snap, Crackle, and Pop, decibel sprites who camped out in kitchens to save kids from the tedium of a quiet breakfast. A bowl of Rice Krispies could wake a pirate or enrage a sensitive dino. This was cultural knowledge bordering on lore. Earlier generations too, since the Depression, had heard the gospel roar and waxed operatic in reply. Even the Rolling Stones had sung about it.

But breakfast is a war of all against all, and in 1988, a fleet of sleek commercials heralded the arrival of a new cereal: Apple Cinnamon Cheerios. In the flagship ad, we meet a nuclear family. “Have you heard what Cheerios has been up to?” Father asks, with the studied rigidity of a vaudeville straight-man, as the sound of funky synth-drums appears to slice up some apples. “Heard about a new Cheerios?” Mom spunkily adds, followed by a shot of cinnamon being grated to the accompaniment of drum-machine record scratches. In case we haven’t got the point yet, an adorablish child then appears, leaning in toward us and urging, “Listen!”, as our perplexity crests a theme song whose lyrics exhort, “Listen to the sound of a whole new O: new Apple Cinnamon Cheerios!”

The music isn’t amazing, but it manages to believe in itself, which is all you can really ask of anyone. Processed guitar chords surge, and some post-Graceland drum samples lend a faint islandiness. More interesting, though, than the music itself —which is not incomparable to the “Sinkable? Unthinkable” Theme that had been swiveling through Cheerios commercials for years—is the fact that it’s being used to direct our focus to the aural properties of the Whole New O in question. Throughout the spot, the claims on our attention are enthusiastically auditory. Which is baffling, actually, since Apple Cinnamon Cheerios don’t sound like anything, and silence in food is not generally thought a weakness.

In waking life, Cheerios say nothing, no matter how closely we listen, but this commercial conjures, and exults in, an expressive soundscape that has no direct correlate in lived breakfast. Instead, it presents song as a metaphor, the sonic apparition of something inexpressible that inheres deep within the Cheerio. I like to call this phenomenon—a commercial treating the ineffable nature of a silent product as though it were music—Cheerionium. What we hear in this ad has nothing directly in common with the sensory experience of being near Cheerios, but it does endeavor to portray the inner music of Cheerios, the true voice an American morning deserves. Os are slivers of the spheres, after all.

When Rice Krispies commercials discuss sound, by contrast, they’re talking about a real phenomenon: Rice Krispies do snap, crackle, and pop. But in the debauched witch’s sabbath of sheer sensation that is the Commercial Baroque, we often find the cereal’s sound—in actuality, a dulcet rustle—portrayed as something louderSometimes it’s speech. Sometime it’s music. Whereas Cheerionium must invent an expressive tonality to reveal a product’s nature, even the most abstruse Rice Krispies commercial offers a stylized depiction of an actual event. This—the highly figurative representation of a product’s real sound—also has a name: Krispesis.

The significance of these two principles is in no way confined to cereal. The Commercial Baroque saw a great flowering of Cheerionium, with a number of songs designed to express products’ immanent natures.

Lemon Fresh Clorox, for example, proclaimed itself the pristine ghost of eternal blemishlessness in a series of ads that showed a Zydeco band wahooing through an unarticulated space as endless and blank as the afterlife itself. Tumbling everywhere were effulgent, paradisically yellow lemons. (Also monkey servants, for some reason.) It’s a potent, if extra, invocation to exuberant hygiene, expressed primarily as coocoo music.

In Nestle’s mid-eighties “Sweet Dreams” campaign, a tune ripped off from the Eurythmics presents candy bars as a tattered rapture of plangent synths and altitudinous longing (“Ooh smooth! Ooh rich!”). Never has a chocolate bar looked so tantalizingly fascist. That song’s composer, Lloyd Landesman, was once asked about another of his creations, the CBS college football music. “The way it’s composed, it sounds like college football,” he said—defining Cheerionium exactly.

Not all Cheerionium is successful, as Game Boy demonstrates in a 1993 rap for “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.” The commercial is a dank joy, and the song’s irresistible—but, in its work to connect us spiritually with its animating commodity, it overshoots wildly. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” is a ridiculous thing to say in a Game Boy ad, and the song’s actually a little too good—it lacks the tinniness and sweaty palms sacred to the real experience. (Also, what is this funky-fresh video dungeon in which we find ourselves?) The vibe here is decidedly un-Game Boy: this spot does not speak the true Cheerionium of Link’s Awakening.

History’s greatest genius of Cheerionium happens to be a Soviet Estonian director named Harry Egipt, whose commercials have been scrubbed from Youtube, with the exception of a single ad for ground chicken, in which curséd voices from beyond the soul of anguish torment us up to the gizzard-drenched catastrophe of our table. Would that other ingots from the treasure house of his career were still available.

Cheerionium is, in its essence, an attempt at synthesis. After collecting the errant half-melodies of our relationship to a product, it splices them together, and invites us to join in the ensuing harmony. In the Apple Cinnamon Cheerios ad, an idealized family occupies a space both rural and urban, nourishing and hungry. From Clorox, we get an accordion-filled vision of ebullient, even deranged radiance. In the Nestle commercials, a storm-beaten romance melts all the violins of Europe, amid keening passion and luxuriant slo-mo choco-ripples (and also a guy plays furious cello on a cliff). Each of these things is, we might say today, a mood—or more exactly, each treats commodity as an aspiration to a mood, sublimated into music.

As for Krispesis, its Rosetta Stone may be this mid-eighties Rice Krispies commercial, thirty bliss-crazed seconds in which Snap, Crackle, and Pop materialize from a bowl of murmuring cereal and float lysergically through a procession of electric dreams that unfold in a phantasmal non-space lush with soaring toast corners, chompsome robo-sharks, unexplained planetesimals. It’s a frankly gorgeous piece of vaporwave avant la lettre, ferrying us nimbly to the limits of what our minds’ spoons can hold, extrapolating a remarkable symbolic load from the mere sound of crisped grains in milk.

To be sure, Krispesis also exists well beyond the confines of Rice Krispiedom itself. This 1992 commercial for Trouble, Milton Bradley’s enduring, stupid board game, is a prime example, with its desperate riffs on the pop-o-matic bubble—a die imprisoned in a small plastic dome that is the game’s one and only feature. The bubble emits a quiet thud that here gets amplified to form the pulsing heartbeat of the ad, as first a nine-year-old Kirsten Dunst, then grandma and grandpa, and finally a trio of space aliens feel the bubble’s mighty pop.

There are plenty of other examples—Maxell’s signature “Ride of the Valkyries” campaign comes to mind—but the unrivaled master of Krispesis is the luminous Suzanne Ciani, a wildfire genius of electronic music once introduced on David Letterman’s morning show as a “voice-distorter.” A pioneer of the Buchla synthesizer with a masters in composition, the first woman to have her voice immortalized in a pinball machine and the first woman to win the Moog Innovation Award, Ciani brings phenomenal chops and a sculptor’s sense of texture to the sounds she makes. And in the seventies and eighties, she worked extensively in TV commercials, creating the jingles that carried Krispesis to its highest-ever exaltation.

Ciani performs Krispesis brilliantly in any number of ads, offering musical interpretations of grass cutters and twinkling crystal that stand out today as gems of unrivaled commodity mimesis. In a 1984 GE ad, she conjures the eloquent speech of an electronic dishwasher. Impeccably courteous and arguably overqualified, it talks in a stammer of appliancey bleeps, alive with the magnetic resonance of language. By the end of the commercial, we realize that that resonance has built into song, obsequiously confident.

A totally different mood prevails in Ciani’s ecstatic Sunkist spot, where a swarm of gurgling diodes simulates the splashing of The Only Orange Juice Good Enough to Be Called Sunkist as it’s poured into a vast, undelineated OJ lagoon, amid peals of cymbals and actual human groaning. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

One more work of Krispesis from Ciani’s oeuvre deserves our attention: her Olympian Atari ad, at once a complete mythic narrative and a delicious puff of glitchily steaming beach funk. To an arcadian beat rife with video-game flourishes, a bard sings us a tale. Two maidens came to the seashore. Three fishermen saw them, and chased them. Finally, the maidens sat in the sand, and wanted to play Atari, but they had no power and no screen. So they plugged their Atari into the earth, and the sky became their screen. And the maidens and the fishermen and the townspeople frolicked, and played Galaxians. They danced to a holy music, affirming the name of the god they were drunk on: “Nobody’s hotter than Atari this summer. Nobody’s hotter than Atari this summer.”

Krispesis, by its nature, sacralizes certain aspects of a product, revealing the concealed infinities lurking just beneath its commerciable skin. Our psychedelic Rice Krispies ad celebrates breakfast as a bouquet of visionary potentialities. In the Trouble commercial, the Pop-O-Matic pop creates a rupture in the surface of experience through which mere play passes into communal ecstasy. The dishwasher spot offers a foretaste of infinitely technologized domestic domination. The Sunkist ad straightforwardly likens orange juice to an orgasm. Krispesis finds kernels of transcendence within familiar experiences, enlarging them to the point of total, if fleeting, absorption. “The sounds I created for products always seemed natural and real to me,” Ciani has said of her commercial work. “Even though it was really a ‘heightened’ reality that I was making.”

At its apogee, Krispesis can become so superheated that the metaphorical element takes over completely. Sensory observation is the great Krispetic wellspring, but by the time the low thrum of a bowl of Rice Krispies has been portrayed as an onomatopoeic gnome flying a bumper-car spaceship into nothingness, we have broken the fetters of empiricism. Eating cereal just isn’t like that. Instead, these commercials commemorate—maybe mourn—the product’s presence by rendering that presence irretrievably symbolic. The sound assimilates those symbols as it blossoms into total affective abstraction, and suddenly, thrillingly, Krispesis and Cheerionium are one.

The synthesis isn’t nothing. These jingles are the hymns intoned at the pixelated altars of American capital, the songs by which we strive to be made worthy of the commerce that floods our sleep with dreams. Through Cheerionium, Krispesis, and other devices, which we’ll get to in subsequent columns, we can briefly encounter the diffuse corporate spirits whose delicious interests shape our civilization. They’re with us when we start the day, and they tarry in us, colonizing patches of our imaginations, teaching us how to listen to the morning, urging us to believe, against the evidence of history and the imperatives of hope, that capitalism is inescapable, enduring, and part of a complete breakfast.

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