Children of the Corn Flakes, Part I

(This is the first of a 5-part series on cereal box mascots and the kids—and adults—who love them.)

I was branded at an early age.

I drank Pepsi with breakfast, ate Frosted Flakes for lunch, and would have, if I could, dined at Burger King every night of the week. Mom says I cried when my sister chose Ronald over the King. Mom says I was a handful. Not true.

I was being loyal to the brand.

I was brought up to believe in Truth in Advertising. Brand loyalty wasn’t a marketing tool, it was a family value. Mom might not understand, but I was part of something bigger, something important, and something that required that I remain true to my soda, my shoes, and my cereal.

You don’t mess with the brand.

I proudly wore my Chewbacca trucker cap to school on picture day. I ran around in Nikes, even in the snow, and this was before the company made a shoe for every sport, season, and special occasion. I wore Levis, not Wranglers, rode a Huffy, not a Schwinn, and preferred the Marvel universe to DC’s. I was swingin’ with Spider-Man comics while all the cool kids were reading “graphic novels” about some old Dark Knight. It’s true: I nerded up for the brand. [1]

Saturday Morning’s All Right for Advertising
These days I drink beer and Coke Zero, prefer Foster Burger to Burger King, and wear nothing but Nikes (some things never change). It’s not that I don’t want to eat Frosted Flakes every day, it’s that my stomach refuses to digest that much processed sugar. Welcome to my middle ages.

But that’s who I am now. In the days before my taste buds evolved and my duodenum developed an intolerance for Twinkies, I was a brand loyalist, a soldier in the fight against the competition, be it Brand X, Burger Y, or Cereal Z. Naturally, my allegiances were born on Saturday mornings sitting in front of the television watching cartoons and commercials, sometimes watching the ’toons for the commercials. This is how I learned what obscure Star Wars alien would next be molded into plastic, what fast-food franchise shared my mortal fear of clowns, and what breakfast cereals came with the best prizes (and the most sugar).

It was the latter category that locked in my loyalty early and often. A bowl of cereal, with its kid-friendly construction, was the first foodstuff I learned to make on my own. Here was sweet gratification at my fingertips with at least begrudging approval of the head chef. I could rip open a box, dig out the toy, [2] and in minutes enjoy a sugar-frosted breakfast with my TV pals—you know who I’m talking about. There was the famished rabbit teased mercilessly by a gang of neighborhood kids, the brain addled bird that suffered epileptic fits at the sight of sugar, the miserly leprechaun, the stoner bear, the dim-witted Captain, the nerdy vampire, and the pink-skinned reanimated talking corpse. These were the cartoon pitchmen of the breakfast cereal, the animated advertisements that spoke directly to children in a language they could understand: eat this cereal because the tiger says it’s great. That was good enough for me.

It was good enough for a lot of kids—and why not? These cereal salesmen were alive, at least on Saturday mornings, in ads that offered dramatic action, dumb jokes, and surprisingly dense cartoon continuity. The mini-stories within the ads were often more compelling than the shows they surrounded (many of which were little more than long-form ads for toys, but that’s another book). I still worry about the Trix rabbit getting enough to eat. Seriously, they starved that bunny. It’s a wonder PETA never got involved.

Fortunately, cereal wasn’t exclusive to Saturday mornings, and thanks to the marketing geniuses at General Mills, Post, Kellogg’s, and Quaker, even school days felt like the weekend when you got to share breakfast with a glossy headshot of your hero. Some kids poured their bowls and put the box away, but not me. I liked to have it on the table, front and center. Not only did that afford me the opportunity to check out whatever game or promotion was splashed across the back, but it also reinforced my support for Tony’s platform. Frosted Flakes were great. It said so right on the box. Hey, sis, get those Apple Jacks out of my face—this is tiger country.

Okay, as a brand loyalist I did waver a bit when it came to cereal. Tony got the lion’s share of my attention, but I wasn’t against filling my bowl with Cocoa Puffs or Frankenberry when the mood struck. I had my flakes, I had my puffs, and I had my “berries.” No conflict there. The trick was convincing mom to stock up on different varieties. She knew we had Frosted Flakes at home. Why did we need Frankenberry? They’re pink; Steph will like them. (And she did, the dirty cheater.)

That the responsibility for choosing a breakfast cereal fell to me, or any kid for that matter, was not something to be taken lightly. There was a time when breakfast cereals were simply flakes, puffs, crisps, and corn, served in a bowl with milk and maybe a little sugar. It wasn’t until the ’toons arrived that the kids took an active interest in the selection process. And arrive they did, en masse, filling the airwaves and cereal aisles with smiling cartoon faces and catchphrases. Almost overnight, children became the decision-makers in what made it onto the breakfast menu, and the cereal mascot became a pop culture touchstone for a generation of young viewers.

[1] This was back when Batman was dark, edgy, and cool and Spider-Man was a geek in red tights that lived with his aunt. The story remains the same today, but $3 billion at the box office means it’s cool to live with your aunt as long as you get to make out with Kirsten Dunst.
[2] Being first to open the box was extremely important. It didn’t matter if I ate another puff, pop, or flake—breaking the seal meant I got to claim the toy. Mom had rules about finishing one box before opening another, but there were loopholes. For example, it was simple courtesy to leave something in Open Box A in case my sister wanted some. Oh, sure, the box was half full, but she might be really hungry. You never know.

Jump to Part II