Kids loved Lunchables. They were doing everything sideways, backwards and upside down. But they were also laughing and having fun while doing it, Drane said. “It was a sort of puzzle game. Like LEGOs.”
Inspired by the design of the American TV dinner, Oscar Mayer finally settled on a 4.5-ounce package. It hit grocery shelves packed in its trademark bright yellow box. In its first year, Oscar Mayer brought in US$218 million — but because of high production costs, it would be years before it turned a profit.
Months of research went into perfecting the branding of Lunchables to widen its appeal. "Salt Sugar Fat," the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Moss, reveals how dozens of families in two states participated in the company’s research.
They were given pre-loaded shopping cards to track their purchases; special devices on their TVs showed Lunchables commercials that were not broadcast to other families in the neighbourhood.
The testing, which went on for months, surpassed Oscar Mayer’s highest hopes. Not only did the people in the experiment go for the trays after being exposed to the advertising, the familiarity of the contents, however plain they were, proved to a foundational theorem in processed foods, which Drane calls “the weirdness factor”: if a new product is too unusual, shoppers get scared. “I used the term, ‘80 per cent familiar,’" Drane told me. “If you’ve got a new thing, it better be 80 per cent familiar, or you’ll have people scratching their heads wondering what the hell it is.”
"80 per cent familiar." The quote hit me like a rock.
Lunchables was advertised to be a sort of “badge” to promote individuality, Drane told me. It was a powerful marketing strategy that infused children’s lunchtime with new “little special moments.”
“A badge makes you feel special. Like you’ve been recognized somehow. You’ve been cheered on. I think that fits. I think that’s always been it,” he said.
Actually, the exact opposite was true for me, I told him. Lunchables was something I wanted because I didn’t want to stand out. I wanted to conform.
Drane laughed and repeated, “How interesting!” four times.
“Marketing is all about making the not-all-that-important in our lives have more value.”
“Multiculturalism and sensitivity to all that” in his generation was different from the discussions around it today, he explained. “I think a good thing to happen in our society is that people see the world through the eyes of more than themselves. They’re more sensitive to fitting in, and not fitting in, and feeling comfortable.
"So when you said what you said, I don’t think I heard it that way before, but it certainly made sense to me immediately.”
He continued: “Marketing is all about making the not-all-that-important in our lives have more value.”
So obvious, right? But as an eight-year-old, I was oblivious to the advertising forces raining down on me and shaping my perceptions. My obsession with Lunchables stemmed from the anxiety of not being able to fit in because of factors — my family, background, economic circumstance — beyond my control.
And kids love to have control.
To Drane, there was no mystique to his creation. His only pursuit was to create industry in the Madison community during the '80s and ‘90s.
“I had the joy of creating lots and lots of good, paying jobs for that product,” he said of Lunchables.
But there are also forces bigger than Drane, bigger than Lunchables. Oscar Mayer is slated to shut down its Madison plant in March 2017, after nearly 100 years of operation. Almost 1,000 people will lose their jobs.