The Special K Challenge: what were we all thinking?

Written by Amelia Tait

Reassessing the Special K Challenge – the 00s marketing campaign that convinced us all to eat two bowls of cereal a day. 

Warning: this article contains references to dieting and eating disorders

When Ellen Rosemarie Harvey was 14, she “wanted to be thin – plain and simple”. She idolised anorexia sufferer Cassie from teen drama Skins, dwelled on Kate Moss’s infamous remark that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, and used to weigh herself throughout the day, sharing the results with her friends on MSN. She can’t remember exactly when she first saw an advert claiming that Special K cereal could help her lose weight in just two weeks, but she remembers its impact. The schoolgirl from Southend-on-Sea began eating a Special K bar for breakfast and a bowl of the cereal for dinner (in the school canteen, she ate a buttered roll for lunch).

Now 28 and a writer, Harvey is just one of many people who is reassessing the 00s marketing campaign known as the “Special K Challenge”. While there are global variations in what exactly the diet entailed, promised and how it was named, its premise was consistent: for two weeks, replace two meals a day with Special K or a Special K product, eat a regular third meal and lose weight. In the UK, this messaging began life as the “Slimmer Jeans Challenge” in 2002; by 2007, it was being advertised in gyms and had 2.3 million annual participants (40% of whom were returning from the year before). In January 2008 alone, the challenge helped generate £12.4m worth of sales.

Over a decade later, the diet has resurged in popular memory, with numerous viral tweets and popular TikToks marvelling that we once thought it was normal to replace two of our three daily meals with a 30g bowl of cereal. “I feel gross about how wrapped up in diet culture I was as a teenager,” Harvey says. Melissa Weber, a 34-year-old financial planner from Cape Town, undertook the challenge at 16 and recalls being hungry at school. “It didn’t actually keep you full – I was constantly hungry, and I don’t necessarily think it was the healthiest thing for a child,” she says.

The Special K Challenge was not marketed towards children or teens – one 2005 advert featured a montage of adult women trying to squeeze into their jeans and an overlaid disclaimer read, “Can help slimming only as part of a calorie-controlled diet. Must have a BMI of over 25. Over 18s only.”Though some American dietitians complained publicly about the campaign in the Chicago Tribune in 2005 (California nutritionist Elaine Wilkes said: “When I first heard it, I thought it was a joke.”) the challenge was not met with widespread outrage, nor was it ever criticised by UK watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority. In the 00s, the challenge was not considered especially outrageous – and to many, it was vastly appealing.

“You would see the adverts a lot,” Weber recalls – the schoolgirl wanted to emulate the iconic red-swimsuit-clad woman at the heart of many historic Special K adverts: “She looked so happy and successful – that whole thriving young woman image.” For Harvey, the challenge appealed because it “didn’t require any guidebooks or memberships or fancy products”. For her and her friends, it was “an easy and cheap way for us to control our calories”. Did their parents ever express any concerns? “Nobody expressed any concerns at all, it was completely normalised. My friends would get taken along to weight loss meetings with their mothers.”

Hard as it may be to believe now, former Special K marketer Enda McCarthy argues the Slimmer Jeans Challenge was somewhat of an antidote to early 00s diet culture.

“All of the actors that were in the [Slimmer Jeans] advertising, their BMIs were all checked – there was nothing that sought to make this anything that raised whatever the perceived red flags were at that time,” says the ad man, who worked on Special K while managing partner at marketing company J Walter Thompson between 2000 and 2005. “I mean, we were coming off the back of very, very thin models that appeared in quite a lot of the Calvin Klein advertising and stuff like that.”

The idea of dropping a jeans size, McCarthy explains, was chosen because it was “attainable”: “If this was going to be judgmental, if this was going to be setting out standards that nobody could aspire to… it wasn’t going to work,” he says. Of course, he admits, “We know people felt hungry on it,” but, he says, “It wasn’t onerous. And it didn’t set out to judge anybody.”  

Certainly, the campaign was a vast improvement on some of Special K’s earlier offerings – in the 1980s, the cereal brand ran its “pinch an inch” ads, one of which featured a husband grabbing the skin on his (extremely thin!) wife’s midriff, before a voiceover declared, “If you can pinch more than an inch, you may need to watch your weight.” Contextualising the Slimmer Jeans campaign reveals why there wasn’t uproar at the time: in 2002, when the challenge launched, low-carb bible Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution was published – it went on to sell 15 million copies. Also in 2002, Closer magazine released its very first issue (featuring one story headlined, “My five-year-old daughter is anorexic”). This was the era of low-rise jeans, burgeoning pro-anorexia websites and women’s magazines drawing big red circles around celebrities deemed too fat or too thin.

McCarthy also repeatedly points out that the government’s five-a-day campaign was only launched in 2003: “The idea that ‘you are what you eat’ and ‘look good, feel good’ – those things didn’t really exist then,” he says, “People today are much better placed to make positive choices.” Harvey recalls that as a teen she saw dieting and good health as synonymous; it never occurred to many to question the sugar content of Special K (4g in a 30g bowl), nor the fact that a serving without milk has just 113 calories.  

The challenge transformed Special K’s fortunes at the same time it transformed women’s lives. Kevin Brennan was Kellogg’s marketing director from 1999 to 2010; he began working on Special K when it was “a relatively small, niche brand” in 2001. Brennan says new products – such as Special K with freeze dried fruit – and the Slimmer Jeans Challenge combined revitalised the brand. “Every year we ran it, the thing got bigger,” he says of the slimming campaign. In 2005, tokens on the cereal box could be collected and exchanged for a small, red “body fat analyser”. In 2007, Special K dethroned Weetabix as the number one bestselling cereal, after a 14% annual rise in sales.  

Like McCarthy, Brennan describes the challenge as positive: “It’s red dresses; it’s a nice cereal to eat.” He even undertook the two-week challenge himself while working for Kellogg’s. “A bowl of cereal for breakfast is a simple thing to eat… That discipline can keep you away from maybe a croissant or something that’s more calorific and more fat-laden.”

Perhaps the biggest proof that the past is a foreign country comes in Brennan and McCarthy’s reaction to the fact that many women aren’t looking back fondly at the diet. “I can’t say I’ve thought about it,” Brennan says when asked if he has reassessed the challenge in recent years, before becoming more circumspect on our call. McCarthy seems genuinely blindsided by the revelation that the challenge left some young women unhappy.

“I mean, if anybody felt that, then clearly, that was nobody’s intention at all. And at the time, if anybody felt like that, that was clearly not right,” he says. “I’d be devastated to think that people felt that at the time because of something that we did. That wasn’t what anybody intended to do.”

Weber, who used to eat a 90-calorie Special K cereal bar for lunch as a teen, says: “I felt jealous of my classmates eating pies and toasted sandwiches and chips and other stuff they bought from the tuck shop.” When she looks back at pictures of her younger self, she can’t believe she thought she had to lose weight.“I thought I was huge. I was always trying to fit in and be skinnier, have thinner thighs, a flatter stomach.” I can relate: when I was a teenager suffering from anorexia in the mid-00s, I used to eat handfuls of Special K without milk, believing it to be the “healthy” option and freaking out when I thought I’d consumed more than the recommended 30g portion.  

Neither Brennan nor McCarthy can pinpoint the exact origins of the “two bowls for two meals” challenge mechanism (Brennan says it originated in the UK, while McCarthy says it was borrowed from the US), but both note that it was backed up by science. The Special K challenge did technically work – numerous research papers (funded by Kellogg’s) have proven its veracity over the years. A 2011 American diet book published in collaboration with Kellogg’s, The Special K Challenge & Beyond, claimed that the average weight lost when replacing two meals with cereal was 4.8lbs in two weeks. It also advised that the remaining third meal should be “at or below 700 calories”.

Weight loss is one thing – overall health is another. “It worked as a weight-reducing plan simply because it was a way to get people to eat fewer calories, because the portion size is tiny,” says Claire Baseley, a registered nutritionist who has worked for the government’s Food Standards Agency in the past. “Breakfast cereal is fortified and you’ll get calcium and protein from the milk, but Special K has some added sugar, and it’s not really offering balanced nutrition to be having the same meal twice a day.” Baseley also notes that the weight loss isn’t sustainable – it’s well documented that when people resume eating normally after a fad diet, they often gain back the weight they lost.  

As well as leaving people hungry, Baseley also theorises that the Special K challenge could’ve affected people mentally: she says the restrictive two-week challenge “makes food no longer about health, purely about weight” and “takes the enjoyment out of food”. She notes that the diet could’ve made it difficult for people to socialise and eat out with friends.

Over a decade later, Kellogg’s has distanced itself from the challenge, which no longer exists in any of its marketing materials. In 2012, the company abandoned Special K’s iconic red-swimsuit-clad models and opted to advertise with quote-unquote “real women” who had BMIs up to – but very specifically not exceeding – 29. In 2015, the brand bemoaned in a Canadian advertising campaign that “97% of women have an ‘I hate my body’ moment every day” (a remarkable move from a company that once ran an ad featuring an extremely slender woman staring into a funhouse mirror before throwing her long limbs into the shape of a K). That same year, Kellogg’s CEO John Bryant said the Special K challenge was “basically asking people to deprive themselves”.  

What changed between 2002 and 2012? The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty launched in 2004 and transformed advertising by featuring a diverse array of women and exposing the way beauty advertisements were traditionally photoshopped. The body-positivity movement entered its third wave thanks to social media, and in 2010, the UK government launched its Body Confidence campaign to work with beauty, advertising and fitness industries to tackle the possible causes of negative body image. Reassessment of the Special K challenge then began in earnest: in 2014, the Daily Mail ran a story about a teen whose eating disorder began after (though not because) she embarked on the Special K diet.  

Those tasked with advertising Special K in this era found it to be a tough job. Guy Moore – who worked on Special K from 2013-2015 while he was European creative director at ad agency Leo Burnett – says it was then a “struggling brand that lost its identity in the world”. Moore says thanks to the booming breakfast industry and the fact Kellogg’s changed the Special K recipe in 2013 (it literally debuted a shiny new look – sugar was now baked on the outside of the flakes), the cereal declined in popularity. “It was one of the toughest, hardest briefs in the agency,” he says. “I think there was a massive identity crisis; they weren’t quite sure where this product fitted any more in the modern world.” Moore believes the two-week challenge campaign had come to be seen as “torrid” and “condescending”.

And yet the Special K Challenge still lives on online and numerous (non-Kellogg’s affiliated) websites outline its pros and cons and debate whether it can really help you drop a jeans size. The challenge was simply too much of a phenomenon for it to ever really disappear, though thankfully it has shrunk away. Harvey is glad: she undertook the challenge multiple times as a teen “because I would feel that I had failed at it and needed to try again.

“Which is crazy, really, as a 14-year-old shouldn’t be worried about failing at diets,” she muses. Today, she has managed to escape the toxicity of 00s diet culture to live a mentally and physically healthier life. “I have no idea what I weigh now,” she says, “and I am so much happier.”

Kellogg’s response: Special K has been around since the 1950s when it launched as a high-protein cereal aimed at men.Over the decades how Special K speaks to people has changed, reflecting changes in society and our understanding of health and wellness.In light of this, Special K moved away from things like the ‘Two Week Challenge’ more than 10 years ago to meet evolving needs of its fans. We know we need to continuously improve our biggest-selling cereals. A new Special K advertising campaign launching this year will feature both men and women of different shapes and sizes.

For information and help on eating disorders, visit eating disorder charity Beat’s website. Helplines are open 365 days a year. 

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