A California woman's lawsuit over the existence of Cap'n Crunch's "crunchberries" might be ridiculous, but she's not the only one confused about her food.On the front of the cereal box, a joyful Cap'n Crunch thrusts red, purple, and teal balls of crunchberries towards customers. The cartoonist Jay Ward, of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, created the original Cap'n and his crew for Quaker Oats before the company ever started production on its crunchy corn-based cereal in the 1960s, unlike most breakfast cereals, which are created in the lab before they're ever branded with a cartoon character. As breakfast cereals have come to symbolize food industry artifice, Cap'n Crunch with Crunchberries, in particular, represents a "cheeky postmodern quotation" in the history of cereal development, writes Catharine Weese, a graphic designer at the American Museum of Natural History, in the current issue of Gastrononica. It is a breakfast cereal pretending to be a breakfast cereal.But one California woman claims to have been misled by those ultra-fake berries in the "Cap'n Crunch with Crunchberries" advertisement. Janine Sugawara sued PepsiCo, the makers of Quaker Oats and Cap'n Crunch, for $5 billion for fraud, misrepresentation, and breach of warranty. She said that the fictitious name (crunchberries) implied a nutritious content (real strawberries) that is contradicted by the actual contents (strawberry extract is 12th on the ingredient list).A court dismissed the case in late May, concluding that no "reasonable consumer" would be deceived into thinking the cereal actually contained the fictional fruit, according according to the legal blog Lowering the Bar. The court said that, should the case proceed, they would have to "ignore all concepts of personal responsibility and common sense." In an update, Kevin Underhill, Lowering the Bar's author, says: "[Sugawara] is an entirely normal person who knew perfectly well that there are no ‘crunchberries,' and probably knew that ‘Cap'n Crunch' is not a fruit-laden cereal."Still, commentators were quick to question Sugawara's intelligence. Duh, a cartoon tiger doesn't mean the box contains an actual tiger. That's something that doesn't even require fine print. One Times Online blogger compared the frivolous case to a judge's dismissal of a 1994 suit in which a Michigan man took the advertising fantasies created by Budweiser-depicting "tropical settings, beautiful women and men engaged in endless and unrestricted merriment"-too literally.
But these points about advertising being undeniably fake might be lost on some kids. One 2005 study points out that children were persuaded by the suggestive terms "fruit" or "berry" that tend to conjure up the real thing even in cereals that contained neither fruit nor berries. Sugawara's lawyer, Harold Hewell, successfully challenged Gerber Products Co. for depicting apples and oranges on Fruit Juice Snacks suggesting (falsely) that the sugary drink contained those fruits-something that had been on the litigation agenda of the food watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest.There's a lot of confusing food advertising out there. Just because the box shows a strawberry, no one really expects to find one in a box of shredded wheat. Similarly, it's unclear if anyone should believe some of the nutrition claims. As one decision from the Federal Trade Commission's statement on food labeling says, "advertising claims about foods sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup [that] did not contain sugar and were accepted by the American Diabetes Association implied (falsely) that the foods were appropriate for people who needed to avoid sugar." In other words, they lied.It's hard to pick out a box that doesn't have some dubious-sounding claim, and there's long history of this form of advertising. As Barry Newman points out in the Wall Street Journal, early Grape Nuts cereal ads "claimed it prevented malaria and appendicitis. It doesn't." The cereal's founder, C.W. Post, died of an apparent suicide shortly after suffering from appendicitis.Misleading advertising is ingrained in our food culture. Consumers seem to be rarely, if ever, presented with clear, concise information about a food's origin. But the extreme presented in Sugawara's case (how could any regular supermarket shopper be so gullible?) raises a larger, more legitimate question about labeling claims that imply a positive effect without any explicit data. Crunchberries may or may not lead a "reasonable consumer" to a never-never land of nonexistent fruit species, but manufacturers continually use the same advertising space to make claims about food safety, health, or nutrition-and expect these front-of-the-cereal-box claims to be taken seriously.Within the simulacra of the cereal aisle, there's a fine line between what's credulous, irrational, or just plain silly. Let's hope one seemingly absurd claim about a sea captain's fruit does not undermine legitimate challenges to products falsely claiming to be healthy, "all-natural," or "organic."