I spotlighted this on an old episode of the podcast, but back in the late 1980s, there was a Roy Rogers commercial that satirized the nastiness of school lunches.
The ad was controversial because of the way it punched down on hard-working cafeteria staff and was pulled rather quickly. Having been a high school teacher for 17 years now, and knowing the amount of work it takes to feed more than a thousand teenagers on a daily basis for way less money than they should be paid, I completely agree that it’s an insensitive commercial*.
If you’d asked me about that ad when I was in my teens or even my twenties, I would have given you that tired line of “Ah, people are too sensitive/you can’t make fun of anyone anymore/why can’t people lighten up and take a joke?”** I thought it was the best commercial ever produced, the pinnacle of satire. I still think it is, objectively, a brilliant ad because of the way it plays off a reputation even though the punching down is insensitive and unnecessary. The meals served in my junior high and high school cafeteria were often nasty: soggy BLT sandwiches, hot dogs with a seafoam green tint, the steamiest of steamed hams, and industrial-grade rectangular pizza that we referred to as “Ellio’s” as a way to fool ourselves every Friday. In high school, we’d have a separate walk-up window for Domino’s pizza at a dollar a slice, which is one of the saddest things I have ever had to type.
I didn’t buy lunch often, although that wasn’t always an appealing alternative. The 1980s and 1990s pre-dated our current era of thermal-lined lunchbags with ice packs, and while we all carried bitchin’ lunchboxes at the beginning of elementary school, by the time you hit fifth grade, you were more likely to be made fun of for bringing your ham and cheese in a Snoopy lunchbox. So from late elementary school to the day I graduated, I literally brown-bagged it with lunches my dad made the night before. Now, to his credit, they weren’t slapped together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–he knew that PB&J was the worst thing to pack in a brown bag because it always got crushed at some point. These were turkey sandwiches with Alpine Lace Swiss chees on a semolina roll, ham and cheese on marble rye, or epic meatloaf sandwiches, all with a Yoo-Hoo box that had been frozen the night before so that it could thaw out in my locker and still be cold by the time I drank it for lunch. I ate well.
But I was, of course, the exception to the rule. Many of my peers had sad slices of bologna or boiled ham between half-stale pieces of white bread accompanied by a warm box of apple juice (or maybe a CapriSun if they were lucky) and a bag of Hydrox cookies. And this sadness went on for years in our school cafeteria.
That is, until Oscar Meyer changed everything.
Lunchables hit the market just as I was starting junior high school, and by the time I was in eighth grade, they were showing up more often among the “bringers” at the cafeteria table. A quick look at their history shows that Oscar Meyer developed them throughout the mid- to late-1980s as an alternative to the labor that cam with packing kids’ lunches every day. The company had conducted research with mothers, especially working moms who had school-aged children and whose commutes often made pressed for time. Oscar Meyer was the most well-known lunchmeat brand, and after the company merged with Kraft in 1988, they had the most well-known cheese brand to go with said lunchmeat. Add some crackers and you have an appealing, ready-to-go charcuterie plate that any kid would love.
At least that was the deal when they went nationwide in 1989, as the original Lunchables were a TV-dinner-esque box of cheese, crackers, and meat, although there was a “Deluxe” version that included extra meats and cheeses, condiment packs, and a mint. Those were meant to appeal to adults, as you can see in the commercial. In fact, I have to say that though I’d seen this commercial back in the 1980s, watching it now, I was struck by how basic it was. Then again, food companies in the late 1980s still thought the way to kids’ stomachs was through their parents and were aiming at them instead of the kids themselves***. That would change in the Nineties, as Oscar Meyer embraced the “Extremely Cool Extreme Kidz” school of thought.
You’ll also notice that by 1998 (when this commercial aired), Lunchables had expanded just beyond processed charcuterie. Varieties such as wraps, pizza, and hot dogs and hamburgers were part of the line, and their nutritional value was questionable at best. In fact, Lunchables became a poster child of sorts for the childhood obesity epidemic because of their fat and sodium contents****. But nutrition aside, you have to appreciate the Millennial that is this commercial. As well as this one, from 1996.
Now, I’m not going to generation shame too much here, but in the midst of all of Millennials’ current (and justified) crowing about economic hardships, we do need to remind them about how they basically had their asses kissed throughout their childhood and teen years.***** Commercials like these are presented as individualism in your lunch choices, but what they really are is a way to enforce the purchasing power that Millennials had as early as elementary school.****** They used to run minivan commercials where the kids were making the decisions on what car to purchase. You know, as opposed to having to suck it up and squeeze your gangly ass into the back seat of a Pontiac Fiero.
Anyway, Oscar Meyer really knew what it was doing here, even if these all looked really gross and I could feel my arteries hardening, blood pressure rising, and colon seizing as I watched the ads. Because it wasn’t about the food; it was more about making Lunchables seem cool to “kidz” and the thing that “kidz” wanted. Even at a young age …
This was probably the most famous Lunchables commercial, probably because it involved a cute little kid getting all hyped when he finally got the Lunchables that he wanted. And to be fair, he does fall on the “precious” side of the precious/precocious binary that commercials like this often had to navigate, but the parent in me is really annoyed here. I don’t want to crap on a kid, and I’ve never called my own kid ungrateful, but what an ungrateful little shit. Oh, I’m sorry that your mom or dad provides you with food every single day, food that’s probably a better nutritional choice than that road to a future stroke. I swear.
Plus, and this might be a “controversial” opinion here, Lunchables taste horrible. I speak from experience, having actually packing them a few times as a kid. Oscar Meyer’s cold cuts are B-grade at best, they are cut way too thick, and the crackers had less flavor than the pencils I tended to chew on when I was stressed. And the cheese? Oh yeah, thick-cut cheese left to sweat it out for four hours in a junior high locker? Who knows, maybe they have changed in 30 years, but back in the day, they were nasty.
I pack lunches every night before school and use better cold cuts; in fact, it’s possible my kid has only had a Lunchable once or twice in his entire life and didn’t like it either. But then again, it probably was never about the food and was always about the Lunchables experience.
* Huge credit, by the way, to my high school’s cafeteria staff, who did not slow down during the COVID lockdown and converted the high school cafeteria service to a drive-up, and went so far as to personally deliver lunches to classrooms during hybrid learning when the cafeteria seating was closed by mandate. They should be paid double and I’m not kidding.
** Somewhere, I have a long rant about the enormous amount of immaturity found in middle-aged men who constantly say these things that ties into all of the damage that bullshit sentiments like this causes.
*** This original Lunchables commercial also follows that annoying “rhyme time” trend of commercials from this era. I guess it was effective because I watched it and said, “Oh, I remember this rhyme.” But that didn’t make it any less annoying.
**** The turkey and cheddar Lunchables sold today, per serving contain 260 calories (100 cal from fat), 13 g of fat, and 670 mg of sodium.
***** I’m not kidding. Go read The Tipping Point.
******* And this should make them hate Boomers even more, tbh.