Children of the Corn Flakes, Part IV

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

Cereal Aisle Reruns
Get up early on Saturday morning to watch your kid’s favorite cartoons and don’t be surprised if you’re blasted with an all-out assault of unrecognizable superheroes, redubbed Japanese animation, and the occasional Looney Tune with the good parts cut out (rabbit season or duck season, no one gets a shotgun blast to the face). But take a stroll down the cereal aisle at the local Super Big Mart, and you’ll find a dozen familiar faces smiling back at you.

Despite the allure of famous faces and box office totals, most of the top-selling children’s cereals are promoted by established cereal mascots, some more than forty years old. Tony, Cap’n Crunch, Sonny, Toucan Sam, the Trix Rabbit, L.C. Leprechaun, and others continue to dominate, proving that a good character (and, yes, a tasty cereal) will transfer from one generation to the next. The tiger may get a facelift and start competing at the X-Games, but it’s still the same personality beneath the new, more muscular frame.

One change that did catch many mascots (and their marketing handlers) off guard was the 2007 decision by industry leader Kellogg’s to stop marketing overly sugary cereals to young children. Any cereal that didn’t meet new nutritional standards set by the company [1] would be reformulated or removed from TV, radio, print, and web ads that reach audiences at least half of whom are under the age of 12. Sugar is bad, kids. Most other major cereal manufacturers followed with similar self-imposed guidelines, although careful massaging of serving sizes has helped keep the damage to a minimum. No company is going to toss four decades of character development out the window over a few calories.

Once again, the power of the brand flexes its muscles. Tony the Tiger isn’t just a cereal mascot, he’s a pop culture icon, a character that holds a special place in the hearts of millions of kids, their parents, and even some grandparents. Tony is every bit as beloved as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or Bart Simpson. There’s no movie or TV series to tell his story, but a dozen commercials expand the brand each year, hitting kids as they watch cartoons that will be forgotten in a year’s time. Tony will be remembered.

There are those who see only sinister motives in Tony and his friends. Yes, it’s true: our breakfast buddies were there to sell us boxes of sugar frosted wheat, corn, bran, and oats. Our young, empty noggins were easily engaged by cartoon cats and birds pitching cereals we didn’t know we wanted until the regularly scheduled program took a break for a few short messages. Manipulative? You bet. Evil? Not really. The brand didn’t want to run our lives; it simply wanted loyalty and possibly unconditional love. Is that so wrong? After all, loyalty is a lesson worth learning, even if it’s found at the bottom of a cereal box.

Not all of my friends grew up to be loyalists for life, but even the non-believers developed a soft spot for the characters they ate breakfast with every morning. [2] They may not feel the need to decorate their home office with vintage collectibles, but they still smile at the tiger on my desk. As for me, I learned the lesson well. Sure, some brands faded over the years, a few matured or were replaced, but the first—my shoes, my soda, my cereal—those brands remained special, if not always part of the daily menu. Saturday morning cereal commercials introduced a world of food-related entertainment that would change the way I ate only a daily basis. I didn’t know it at the time, but my edible adventure had only just begun.

[1] To meet the new standards, a single serving can have no more than 2 grams of saturated fat (0 grams of trans fats), 200 calories, 230 mg of sodium, and 12 grams of sugar (not counting sugar from fruit, dairy, or vegetables). Avid nutritional facts readers will note that a single serving of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes already rests on the safe side of the company’s “new” benchmarks. Tony the Tiger ain’t no dummy.
[2] There are, of course, those unfortunate souls who grew up in homes where sugar frosted cereals were banned (or worse, replaced with Kix). Still, the ads had an impact: some of the most passionate collectors are the ones who never got to play with toys when they were kids. Take that, mom!

Jump to Part V