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R.I.P. (Again) Quisp Cereal: Reflections on the Cereal That Wouldn’t Quit

I never got my Quisp propeller beanie.

Maybe I didn’t enclose enough boxtops, but it’s more likely that the Quaker Oats Company—manufacturer of the saucer-shaped “breakfast cereal that’s out of this world!”—simply didn’t anticipate the demand. All I know is that an original working Quisp beanie will supposedly set you back $1000 today, though I couldn’t find one for sale even at that price.

In 2022, cereal fans on mrbreakfast.com named Quisp the best breakfast cereal of all time. So clearly the little spaceman with the big cereal still has some fans out there… just not enough to keep his boxes on the shelves.

On January 11, 2024, parent company Quaker Oats announced a mass recall of various cereal-related products.

Quisp didn’t even appear on the list… yet not long after that, the cereal began to vanish from Amazon, Wal-mart, Kroger, and Target. Quisp—if it really was gone—was not simply discontinued but denied, like alien autopsy photos.

I tried to visit what had been Quisp’s official page on the Quaker Oats site and was greeted with a terse “You are not authorized to view this page” notice, which does not exactly dispel the Project Blue Book vibe.

All this has happened before.

Launched in 1965, discontinued ten years later—then briefly re-launched in 1985, 1998, and 2007—Quisp is the Futurama of breakfast cereals: no one can keep it alive but it won’t stay dead. The nearest thing I could find to an official announcement was a Quaker Oats spokesman’s comment that Quisp never made it past one half of one percent of their total breakfast portfolio.

If Quisp really is gone for good this time, it’s a shame. Because it’s actually the most remarkable breakfast cereal ever marketed to kids.

Notice I said marketed. The cereal itself is okay, but is not the most remarkable cereal from Saturn to Alpha Centauri or anywhere. Its formula is suspiciously similar to its sister brand Cap’n Crunch—a brown-sugar-corny-oaty flavor, a sandpaper texture that will carve Nazca lines in the roof of your mouth. What we were told were its “flying saucer shapes” looked more like actual saucers.

Via Wikipedia

To love Quisp was to love Quisp himself—the round-headed, earless, propeller-headed alien on the big blue box. Thanks to a genius branding and marketing campaign by Jay Ward of Rocky & Bullwinkle fame, Quisp may well be the first breakfast cereal mascot who was actually elected to his job.

“We’ll only do it as long as it’s fun” is what Ward’s producing partner Bill Scott recalls promising the suits at Quaker Oats, after they were approached to help develop the advertising for a new kiddie cereal. Ward & co. had previously created TV spots for Cap’n Crunch, and they’d had a lot of success developing story-driven ads that felt more like programming than commercials (maybe too much success: in 1974 the FCC cracked down on narrative cartoon ads, requiring a “we’ll be right back after these messages” separator on children’s television). So great things were being expected from the creator of Rocket J. Squirrel and Mr. Peabody. These hopes were more than fulfilled when he delivered a concept for not one but two cereal mascots… who would be in direct competition for the hearts and minds of children.

In 1965, Quisp (nasally voiced by the great Daws Butler) debuted in a sixty-second commercial he shared with his rival Quake, a booming, big-armed miner with a lantern helmet, cape (?), and the barreling voice of William Conrad. Quisp, as he introduced himself, was the “crown prince of Planet Q.” He had a spaceship and he could fly. Quake was, well, a miner. He said he carved his sprocket-shaped cereal out of the living rock. They talked over each other while making their pitch, then demanded that we kids choose a favorite. We weren’t allowed to eat both cereals. If we had, we might have realized a little sooner that the two cereals tasted exactly the same and were, in fact, just another rebrand of the Cap’n Crunch formula. What had been sold to us as a pair of dueling cereals was actually just a brand preference test.

For ten years, Quake & Quisp duked it out on the airwaves, crashing each other’s commercials and cereal boxes, bickering and negging each other’s attempts at heroism (“You’ll never make it!” Quisp jeered when Quake tried to keep a plane from crashing into a mountain), not asking but demanding that we pick a favorite. Finally, in 1975, like divorcing parents, they announced that they were done screwing around, it was time for us kids to vote on which cereal we were going to live with for the rest of our lives. The winner would get custody of us and the losing brand would disappear just like my dad did after he promised we would stay with him and my new stepmom at their beach condo every weekend.

It was never really a contest. Quisp could fly. He had the whole universe to play around in. He made breakfast fun. By contrast, Quake kept giving off this come-at-me-bro vibe like he was going to kick our scrawny asses if we didn’t eat every bite of his delicious cereal. So I marked my ballot on the back of the Quisp box and mailed it in, and then the campaign started to go haywire. Even before Quaker announced the results, it was obvious that Quake was losing. You could see it in the TV spots: a triumphant gleam in Quisp, a cheated desperation in Quake. He knew he had lost our love. He started making promises that things would be different from now on. Finally, in one memorable spot, he put himself through his “new and improver machine” and came out trimmer, slimmer, and younger, wearing an Aussie bush hat and apparently now able to fly just like that goddamn Quisp.

It wasn’t enough: we saw through the empty promises, just like I did when I found out my dad paid for his new condo with my college fund. Quisp won in a landslide. No longer the star of his own cereal, Quake was reduced to acting as second banana to Simon the Quangaroo, mascot for an orange-flavored cereal that must have been intended for kids who like the taste of baby aspirin. Soon enough Quake was off the box entirely—but it was a pyrrhic victory for Quisp. Bereft of his rival, the Joe Frazier to his Ali, Quisp himself was decommissioned three years later. He would return several times, most notably in an early 2000s incarnation as “the first Internet cereal” with online animated “breakfast serials” by John Kricfalusi. Even at the height of his Ren & Stimpy celebrity, John K’s weirdly stilted, Flash-animated goofs were no substitute for the gentle zonkiness of Jay Ward, and the ads wasn’t enough to save the brand. It doesn’t surprise me that Quisp is now gone again, only that it managed to hang on for so long. People loved Quisp. They just didn’t buy it.

During the Gen X retro-boom of the early 2000s, a lot of early bloggers used Quisp vs. Quake as a metaphor for American elections: you can choose Bush or Gore based on the packaging, but it’s still the same product. That is possibly a disservice to American democracy, but it’s definitely an undeserved slam on Jay Ward and the fine people at Quaker Oats. For the first time ever, children were being empowered to make a conscious choice about a product, and our choice would be respected. It was a narrative they managed to sustain for a decade, long enough for its earliest fans to vote in an actual presidential election. If it didn’t succeed in the long run, don’t blame the messenger.

In the 1970s, Quaker Oats was a creative risk-taker, and there’s always a downside to every risk. Even as Quisp and Quake were still duking it out, Quaker Oats was paying for a whole feature film to promote its new line of Wonka candies. The chocolate was wanting, but we still have Willy Wonka. And we still have Quisp: no bean-counters or busybodies from the FDA can take him from us. If you want to see him, he’s there. Just look at his picture while you eat a box of Cap’n Crunch. You’ll remember why you love him… and why you stopped eating his cereal long ago.

 

 

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