Fun in a box: The Pebbles cereal line has endured for more than 50 years. Courtesy Post Holdings Inc.
I've Always Wondered ...

Why are Flintstones vitamins and cereal still popular decades after the show ended?

Janet Nguyen Dec 2, 2022
Fun in a box: The Pebbles cereal line has endured for more than 50 years. Courtesy Post Holdings Inc.

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Listener Steve Petersen from Salt Lake City asks: 

I’ve been wondering about “The Flintstones.” Decades after the show went off the air (albeit with some specials and movies here and there), how can they still successfully sell cereal and vitamins? Talk about staying power.

Fred, Wilma, Pebbles, Barney, Betty and Bamm-Bamm may have been born more than 12,000 years ago, but they’ve had no problem adapting to the new millennium. 

The popular animated TV series “The Flintstones,” which ran from 1960 to 1966, spawned two successful product lines that remain shelf staples even decades after the show ended. (Although movie adaptations were released in 1994 and 2000.) 

Post Consumer Brands still sells its Pebbles cereal products featuring “The Flintstones,” which makes it “the oldest brand to be based on a television character or series,” according to Heather Arndt Anderson’s book “Breakfast: A History.” Meanwhile, gummies and chewables in the forms of the Flintstones and their friends, the Rubbles, can be found in the vitamin aisle. 

A mix of factors may have contributed to their staying power, including the potent nostalgia associated with these products, the lack of new entrants in the cereal space, movies and publicity campaigns — all helping to keep the Modern Stone Age Family in the public consciousness. 

It’s easier for consumers to stay loyal to brands that they were introduced to as children, said Deidre Popovich, an associate professor of marketing at Texas Tech University. 

“People who had these products when they were kids are still buying them for their kids, but probably also for themselves to some extent,” Popovich said. 

Brands like these, she said, allow us to reexperience happy memories from our childhoods. 

Why Pebbles lives on

Post introduced Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles nationwide back in 1971, according to the company’s website.

The cereal giant that created these colorful, sweetened rice crisps said it obtained the licensing rights from Hanna-Barbera, the production company behind “The Flintstones,” to rebrand its “underperforming” Sugar Rice Krinkles cereal. 

Even if you never watched “The Flintstones” like your parents, chances are you’re familiar with Fred Flintstone’s signature line: “Yabba-dabba-doo!” 

It demonstrates that some shows and movies have “a very strong paratextual life,” meaning that we can recognize elements of a work — images or quotes, for instance — without having directly seen it, explained Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College and co-author of “Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up with Cartoon Culture.” 

If you say “Rosebud is the sled,” many people in a given group probably know you’re referencing “Citizen Kane,” Burke said. 

“‘The Flintstones’ are an especially good example of that. Even if you haven’t seen ‘The Flintstones’ directly, you’ve heard some of the catchphrases. You’ve seen them referenced,” he said. 

Burke said a vast array of “Flintstones”-related merchandising have been sold, from umbrellas to inflatable chairs. 

“‘Flintstones’ infested enough of the material landscape of American culture that their paratextual presence is much stronger than any of the other surviving breakfast cereals,” Burke said. 

So, he said, that could explain why the Flintstones are still on cereal boxes as opposed to a brand like, say, Count Chocula.

“Count Chocula is surviving on cereal alone. He never was anything but cereal, and that’s all he’ll ever be,” he said. 

That indirect familiarity with “The Flintstones” may be helping to bolster the cereal’s sales, although Burke noted there may be other factors at play, like its taste.

“You like the Fruity Pebbles first and foremost. And then you kind of like the characters, but you like the characters because of a vague sense of familiarity with them,” Burke said. 

Burke also pointed to the lack of new products in the cereal industry, at least when it comes to sugary ones aimed at kids. 

“They kind of represent a sort of product segment that hit its mature form a while back,” he said. “I think at this point, you would be a really, really weird cereal executive if you said, ‘Let’s try a new “Space Jam” cereal.’” 

Cereal sales had been on the decline for years amid expanded breakfast options and hectic work schedules, a trend that began reversing during the pandemic. But sales are slowing down, dropping from more than $9 billion in 2020 to $8.66 billion last year, according to market research firm IRI. 

A fun way to get their vitamins

Miles Laboratories, later acquired by the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer, launched its Flintstones vitamin tablets in the late 1960s, eliminating its Chocks line — chewable vitamins with an astronaut mascot by the name of Charlie Chocks, according to Tim Hollis’ book “Toons in Toyland.”

Like Post’s cereal line, this cross-collaboration replaced a previous product that lacked the star power of Fred and the Family Stone. 

In the 1990s, Bayer launched a publicity campaign, asking consumers to vote by phone on whether Betty Rubble should be added to the vitamin family. 

Betty won in a landslide. More than 15,800 people voted in favor of her inclusion, with about 1,500 naysayers. But she had to replace another member of the cohort. 

“We decided to bag the car. Hopefully people won’t be too angry,″ Karen Lazan, the vitamins’ product manager, said at the time. 

Commercials would play on TV screens across the country, with Fred and Wilma addressing their pitch to “Mom” and touting the health benefits of these supplements.

Insider reported in 2020 that the Flintstones supplements were expected to bring in more than $100 million in revenue that year (noting that doctors and consumer advocates say that gummy vitamins in general aren’t as beneficial as people may think). 

Unlike the choice of cereal, which may be dictated by kids’ preferences, vitamins are a more parent-driven decision, Burke said. 

“For them, ‘Flintstones’ is still a sort of meaningful touchstone,” he said. “Parent familiarity with a product for kids is a big help in [this] case.”

As the date of “The Flintstones’” final airing recedes further into the past, Popovich said she doesn’t think the cereals and vitamins need the TV show to continue thriving.

“They’ve become successful in their own right over time, even if people aren’t aware of the origin story,” she said. 

Burke also noted that the show’s large cast of characters, its easily understood visual iconography and the ability to create prehistoric gags related to the sitcom family have enabled “The Flintstones” to appear in a wide variety of products and succeed. 

“Even if you don’t know the show specifically, you see them all in relation to each other and you know who they are instantly. You know Fred Flintstone’s the dad. You know Pebbles is the baby. Barney is the friend. Dino’s the dog,” Burke said. “It gives [companies] lots of characters to build presence around in various product lines.”

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