The Ode: Cereal mascots (1932–2011)

They began as playful personifications, but growing concerns over nutrition rendered them obsolete, victims of their own undeniable appeal.

In 1933, the first Kellogg’s Rice Krispies cereal mascot, a gnome wearing a baker’s hat and carrying a spoon, was born on the side of the box. The cereal had been on the market since 1928, but Kellogg’s wanted to personify the sound their crisped rice cereal made when milk was added, and named the character Snap. The company added two more gnomes, Crackle and Pop, to their print ads, and by 1939 the three characters were all on the box. Companies realized cartoon characters were a pretty good way of selling junk food to children. Chicago-based advertising firm Leo Burnett Co. became the master of creating American corporate mascots and was soon the brains behind Tony the Tiger (1951) and Toucan Sam (1963).

By the sixties, many cereal mascots were populating TV-land. The white-moustachioed Cap’n Crunch, who was created to promote the sweet cereal made by the Quaker Oats Co. in 1963, starred in commercials with four children sailing on his ship. The plots revolved around the group trying to outsmart his nemesis, Jean LaFoote, a.k.a “the barefoot pirate,” and the stories were turned into comic books.

Cap’n Crunch was the most popular children’s cereal from 1965–1971, but by the early ’70s a new variety of cereal mascot emerged: the monster gang. General Mills introduced Count Chocula (with 119 calories per cup), Franken Berry, and Boo Berry, all of which had little marshmallows mixed with the corn cereal. Commercials featured rivalries between the three characters, and the company introduced prizes in boxes, like glow-in-the-dark stickers. They were wildly popular with children, but the company made an adult mistake in 1987 when it released four million boxes of Count Chocula that featured a picture of Bela Lugosi as Dracula wearing a six-pointed medallion. Jewish groups insisted it was the Star of David, and according to the Los Angeles Times, the company manager had to release a statement insisting General Mills was not anti-Semitic.

The monsters weren’t the only mascots in trouble. The U.S. government was paying more attention to children’s ads, and in 1990 enacted the Children’s Television Act (CTA), limiting the amount of commercial time during kids’ programming. But things continued to go awry. In 2006, with pressure from the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB), which stated it was unethical to use cute mascots to promote unhealthy foods, 17 major corporations, General Mills and McDonald’s among them, took voluntary pledges to reduce marketing their least-nutritious brands to children.

Earlier this year, a journalist with DailyFinance noticed Cap’n Crunch was less visible on Quaker products and nowhere to be found on the company’s website. The director of marketing at Yale University’s food policy centre said her research showed the company is no longer using the mascot to market directly to children.

The nail in the coffin for syrupy cereal mascots might be a law tabled in late-April by the Federal Trade Commission, proposing that companies should only market food to those ages two through 17 if they are low in fats, sugars and sodium. The public has 45 days to comment before the Obama administration sends its final report to Congress, which could leave Snap, Crackle, Pop and the rest of the gang out of work. Though we know sugar is bad for our kids, as mascots become extinct, they will leave no bitterness along with the sweet taste in our mouths.