Children of the Corn Flakes, Part II

(This is the second of a 5-part series on cereal box mascots and the kids—and adults—who love them. Part I can be found here.)

Golden Age of Cereal Mascots
The revolution began with a wave of cereal box ’toon characters, first on the air and then on the packaging. During the ’60s and early ’70s, grocery store aisles were flooded with dozens of new breakfast cereals including such perennial favorites as Trix, Cocoa Puffs, Cap’n Crunch, Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Life, Quisp, Sugar Crisp, Sugar Smacks, Count Chocula, and Frankenberry. With each new flavor a star was born (sometimes more than one) to pitch the brand to an ever-increasing Saturday morning audience.

Of course, the original breakfast icon arrived almost a century earlier and it wasn’t a lion, tiger, or sugar bear, but a pudgy, rosy-cheeked gentleman in a funny hat. Santa Claus? Nope. It was the Quaker Oats Man, who first graced oat boxes in 1877 (fifty years before Mr. Claus started shilling for Coke). The Quaker has since had a few facelifts, but the hat has never wavered. He’s not, however, a character most kids want to share a bowl of cereal (or oatmeal) with on a Saturday morning. Mr. Oats is an icon, but he’s more corporate logo than kid-friendly cartoon personality.

The first cereal box character to find shelf space in the popular culture was a tiny little gnome with big ears and an even bigger nose. Snap! first graced boxes of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies in 1933. Six years later he was joined by brothers Crackle! and Pop! In addition to the oversize facial features, the brothers had soulless black eyes that peered deep into the hearts of men, daring them to eat Rice Krispies. [1] Fortunately, someone in marketing decided it was better not to scare the customer and thus the little goblins became friendly elves with funny hats and big spoons. There were plans for a fourth brother named “Pow!” but the company thought better of it. Nobody wants to eat breakfast with a terrorist.

By the time the Krispie clan found its way to television in 1960, the breakfast cereal landscape had been transformed thanks to another Kellogg’s character, a cartoon kitty named Tony. Sugar Frosted Flakes [2] introduced Tony the Tiger in 1951 in a television promotion aimed squarely at kids. Designed by children’s book illustrator, Martin Provensen, and voiced with grandfatherly love by Thurl Ravenscroft, Tony was the perfect blend of smart design and winning personality. In early ads, Tony shared the stage with a kangaroo, an elephant, and a gnu, but the big cat was by far the most popular and the others were dropped from the campaign within a year.

Tony set the stage for the wave of cartoon cereal characters to come. Here was the model (kid-friendly television campaign + colorful packaging and promotions) that would inform underage consumers of their new power in the marketplace. What advertisers slowly came to realize was that kids were a blank slate in terms of product recognition. They didn’t like or dislike any particular cereal, which meant a strong campaign featuring an appealing character could instantly create a new customer. Toss in a catchphrase and a jingle and you’ve got a brand loyalist for life.

These (Marketing) Tricks are for Kids
Selling directly to children wasn’t a new concept, but there was little doubt that television was the perfect medium to make it happen. In 1960, General Mills unleashed the brain-addled Trix Rabbit, complete with TV commercials that proclaimed: “Trix are for Kids!” Subtly was not part of the message. This cereal was for children and children alone—not even the rabbit gets a bite! Kids ate it up. Trix, which had been a marginal seller at best, quickly became one of General Mills’ top selling brands. It wasn’t long before Toucan Sam was pitching multi-colored Froot Loops, Sonny was going nuts over boxes of Cocoa Puffs, and Lucky Charms were disappearing from shelves despite the best efforts of a certain leprechaun to keep his tasty treasure a secret.

Perhaps no cereal owed its success to television advertising more than Cap’n Crunch, a product that didn’t even exist until after its namesake character was created. Realizing the market was being driven by decidedly younger decision makers, the Quaker Oats company skipped product development and instead hired animator Jay Ward to come up with a concept for a to-be-determined breakfast cereal. Ward, creator of Rocky & Bullwinkle, George of the Jungle, and numerous other postmodern cartoon characters, was more than happy to help (TV ads paid better than TV ’toons). Cap’n Crunch and his crew of young misfits set sail in 1963. By 1965, the Cap’n had the best-selling cereal in the country.

Cap’n Crunch may have been Ward’s most famous cereal creation, but his best was probably Quisp, a nerdy, cross-eyed space alien who traveled a billion miles just to share his favorite breakfast cereal (called Quisp, naturally). Quisp (the alien) was good with numbers and one-liners, and once helped NASA defeat a marauding ball of space yarn by knitting it into a giant sweater. He also had a running feud with a burly miner named Quake, who would inexplicably show up at the end of every Qusip commercial to plug his own cereal (called Quake, of course). The odd nature of the characters was part of their charm and a trademark of Ward’s sense of humor and marketing savvy. [3]

Both cereals were initially popular, but eventually Quake began to lag behind in sales. The character simply didn’t hold kids’ attention like his pal Quisp. In an effort to save the brand, Quake got a marketing makeover, becoming a skinny Australian cowboy (long before Crocodile Dundee made it cool to be Australian), but this didn’t do much to improve sales and the company pulled the plug. Quisp remained a fixture on store shelves until the 1980s, but he too finally succumbed to low sales and was retired. [4]

Crossover Kings
Despite his ultimate demise, Quisp’s 15 year run was considerably longer than most cereal mascots. For every Tony and Toucan Sam, there are dozens of Mr. Wonderfuls, Sir Grapefellows, and Hill Billy Goats. Despite an eager audience, creating new characters in a crowded marketplace is very difficult, which is why many cereal companies turn to licensed characters to pitch their brands.

Over the past 75 years cereal boxes have featured hundreds of established characters including: Mickey Mouse, [5] Lil’ Abner, Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo, Charlie Brown, Strawberry Shortcake, Spongebob Squarepants, Superman, Batman, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Bart Simpson, Darth Vader, C3PO, Shrek, Mr. Spock, Mr. Magoo, and Mr. T. By using existing movie, comic book, and cartoon stars, [6] cereal companies get a proven personality without the burden of actually having to make one up themselves. It’s Advertising 101: Kids like Spider-Man; Spider-Man likes Frosted Mini-Wheats; kids like Frosted Mini-Wheats. This is the power of branding at work. You want to support the brand, right? Then you must buy this cereal, because this is what the brand likes to eat. All hail the mighty brand.

Cereal boxes and other product packaging featuring licensed characters were actually quite common until the 1950s, when rising licensing costs and new advertising opportunities led cereal makers to try original characters. With television providing a direct link to the kid consumer, it was possible (and cheaper) to create a cartoon personality from the ground up. Ironically, it was the long-term success of so many of these original characters that caused a shift back toward the use of licensed characters in the 1980s. It was cheaper to rent R2D2 for six months than to spend 2 years trying to establish a new popular personality.

Cereals featuring the likes of Shrek or the Transformers tend to sell less than the established brands, but they do provide a quick hit for a company whose cereal sales are lagging. Most crossover campaigns survive a year, maybe two, before they wear out their welcome, although there have been exceptions. In 1969, Post began using characters from The Flintstones animated series to promote Cocoa Pebbles and later Fruity Pebbles. The connection drove sales of the cereal to the top of the charts. It’s worth noting that the original series stayed on the air for six seasons from 1961 to 1966, but Fred and Barney have been pitching for Post for almost four decades. [7] Some characters are born salesmen.

[1] I calls ’em like I sees ’em.
[2] In the 1970s, Kellogg’s would shorten the name to simply “Frosted Flakes” as part of an effort to downplay the amount of sugar in the product. This didn’t fool anyone, least of all the kids.
[3] Not all of Ward’s ideas went off without a hitch. As a publicity stunt, Ward bought a small island and named it “Moosylvania” in honor of Bullwinkle’s fictional home country. Ward then traveled the country gathering signatures and support for Moosylvania statehood with the intent of hand-delivering the petition to President Kennedy. Good plan. Unfortunately, Ward’s surprise visit to the White House in October 1962 coincided with a minor international incident (Cuban Missile Crisis) and he was escorted off the premises at gunpoint.
[4] For those who still long for that “quazy energy,” listen up: you can order the stuff directly from the manufacturer by going to Or, if you don't mind a generic package design, look for a bargain-priced bag of Quaker Sweet Crunch. It's the same stuff, just without the little pink alien on the wrapper.
[5] Mickey Mouse first appeared on a box of Post Toasties corn flakes in 1934.
[6] Yes, I am calling Mr. T a cartoon character. In fact, it was a ’toon version of Mr. T that appeared on his own cereal in the mid-1980s. Mr. Spock also appeared in animated form. However, Michael Keaton (Batman), Jaleel White (Urkel), Jim Carey (The Riddler), Jonny Depp (Captain Jack Sparrow), Yoda (Yoda), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze) all appeared in character on various cereals. I pity the fool who buys a box of Apple Jacks featuring the Governor of California in silver face paint.
[7] Fred and Barney also shilled for Winston cigarettes in 1961, but Post would prefer you not search for any of the old black and white ads on YouTube.