This year marks the 45th anniversary of General Mills’ Monster Cereals, which first hit store shelves way back in October of 1971. As all breakfast historians know, Count Chocula and Franken Berry were the first two cereals to be introduced as part of the line, and they were something of a ground-breaking novelty at the time; they were, after all, the first chocolate and strawberry cereals to ever hit the market. The line is still beloved to this day, but it hasn’t been without its fair share of controversy.
Most notably, the earliest iteration of Franken Berry was made with a pigment that turned kids’ poop a strange shade of red/pink, which led several parents to rush their children to the hospital out of fear that they were, well, pooping blood. Dubbed “Franken Berry Stool” by the always clever media, the troublesome phenomenon was a thorn in a General Mills’ side, but they quickly changed the formula and ended the public panic. As for Franken Berry’s fellow founding father, Count Chocula made similarly disastrous waves in the late 1980s, finding himself in the news for all the wrong reasons.
For the 1987 Halloween season, General Mills came up with a really fun idea; for the first time ever, they added the real Frankenstein’s monster and the real Dracula to their art, standing alongside, on their respective boxes, the comically kid-friendly Franken Berry and Count Chocula. Black and white images of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, in their most iconic roles, appeared on the boxes, and General Mills even cut together commercials that brought the Universal Monsters and Cereal Monsters together.
Check out the 1987 Count Chocula commercial below!
So what was the problem? Did the Lugosi family not approve of the late Bela’s likeness being used to promote breakfast cereal? Not quite. Here’s where things get really interesting.
While it may seem unimpressive today, General Mills was quite proud of utilizing the computer technique that allowed them to place enhanced images from classic horror movies onto their cereal boxes, but they overlooked one pesky detail in their image of Dracula. In the 1931 film, Bela Lugosi wore a six-pointed medallion with a large stone in the middle, and when their computer team enhanced the image, the medallion became flat and two-dimensional. Rather than looking like a medallion with a stone in the middle, the necklace appeared to be a traditional Star of David, and the Jewish community was none too happy about the idea of a blood-sucking monster being presented as Jewish.
Silly? Well, the community actually had good reason to be upset.
The term “blood libel” denotes an anti-Semitic belief that was perpetrated throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, and the basic gist of the slanderous accusation was that Jewish people kidnapped and murdered Christians so that their blood could be used as part of religious rituals. There are 150 recorded cases of Jews being arrested and even murdered as a result of this accusation, so it’s needless to say something the community doesn’t take lightly. When it was perceived that Dracula, a notorious blood-sucker, was being depicted as a Jewish monster, it makes sense that General Mills got some angry calls.
Not long after Count Chocula hit shelves in October 1987, the company received an outpouring of negative feedback, and to their credit, they immediately recognized the problem that they had initially missed. Not only did they issue a statement assuring that they’re not anti-Semitic and only intended to “use Dracula’s likeness in a fresh and entertaining way,” but they also recalled the original boxes and released a second wave of the cereal with slightly modified art – which removed the necklace altogether.
“I guess the new electronic processing technique and getting such a nice picture was so exciting that we became myopic and weren’t able to perceive potential problems,” William Shaffer, General Mills’ public relations manager, told the Los Angeles Times back in ’87. “You can rest assured we’ve sensitized everyone as to the future.”
Dracula never again appeared on a box of Count Chocula cereal.