“They’re Gr-r-reat!”

“I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!”

“They’re after me Lucky Charms!”

“Can’t get enough of Super Golden Crisp!”

Try to think of a cereal spokescharacter who isn’t insanely jazzed about breakfast. For decades, grocery aisles have featured colorful brand mascots on cereal box packaging, all of which have big grins and wide eyes. In commercial spots, they have long been depicted as guarding their breakfast bowl bounty (Trix Rabbit, Lucky the Leprechaun), helping to prep the most important meal of the day (Tony the Tiger, Snap, Crackle, and Pop from Rice Krispies), or quite literally sniffing out where even more cereal can be found (Toucan Sam from Froot Loops, anyone?). More often than not, these icons don’t even get to eat their own cereal. You can probably count on one hand the number of times the kids allowed the Trix Rabbit a bowl full of fruity Trix in the last 25+ years.

Putting the obvious aside in that they represent their brands, what’s really going on here? What really makes brand mascots so gaga for cereal?

Joining us today are Russell Horton, vocal talent for the Trix Rabbit, Marty Gitlin, author of The Great American Cereal Book, Dan Goubert, Founder of CerealouslySunny Bonnell, Co-founder and Creative Director of Motto, and Simon Jones, vocal talent for Frosted Mini-Wheats. In our roundtable discussion, they try to pinpoint what it is about cereal that mascots — and consumers — love so much.

We’ll open with the reason why we’re here. Why are cereal mascots so gaga for their breakfast? And why breakfast specifically, as opposed to lunch or dinner?

Marty Gitlin: Cereal has always been considered a breakfast food, a concept that goes back to the beginning of cereals (the first cereal was Granula and it was created in 1863).

Dan Goubert: It’s all about that mantra instilled in children by their parents: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. We can only assume that Lucky’s mom and Sonny’s Grandpa told them the same thing. When mascots are depraved for so long — lunch being more time spent away from cereal and dinner symbolizing the end of the fun weekend afternoons — the idea of “the forbidden fruit” only becomes worse and worse. Cereal mascots are metaphors for childhood, so they necessarily share kids’ struggles.

Russell Horton: It’s all about finding the hook that matters to the mascots. Trix cereal is based on Kix and is very colorful. The Trix Rabbit is a color fiend and he’s crazy for the colors that are found in the Trix cereal and yogurt.

Consumers love cereal mascots, but are there certain qualities in these characters that kids respond to positively?

Dan Goubert: It’s got to be the eyes. One characteristic is unique in every successful mascot from Cap’n Crunch to Chip the Wolf: massive oval crazy eyes.

Sunny Bonnell: Everything points to eye contact. Kids respond positively to eye contact with cereal brand mascots, which is why cereal boxes marketed toward kids are placed on the middle and lower shelves, so they can look kids directly in the eye.

Eyes aside, what is it about a cereal mascot’s personality that endears them to children?

Marty Gitlin: Mascots really took off as a result of kids television programming, which allowed them to maximize their marketing potential. Cereals were generally targeted to adults before 1949, so the marketing was not related to mascots, which are generally created for kids. The characters are colorful. They’re fun.

Russell Horton: Mascots lose it with cereal because they want it so much and it’s liberating to see that in people and mascots alike. It breaks all social conventions.

Marty Gitlin: Toucan Sam used to talk Pig Latin in commercials. And Tony the Tiger was the result of a contest in which kids voted for the Frosted Flakes spokescharacter. He beat out Elmo the Elephant, Katy the Kangaroo and Newt the Gnu.

Dan Goubert: Kids see so much of themselves in cereal mascots. All Sonny, Lucky, or the Trix Rabbit want to do is eat cereal all the time… And what does a kid want to do? Eat cereal all day without their parents stopping them.

Russell Horton: As adults, we’re taught not to make a scene, but kids have permission to be a little crazy. For the mascots, this is their natural passion so they sync up perfectly with kids.

Dan Goubert: The Sisyphean efforts of cereal mascots seen on TV give kids the courage and inspiration to try once more, to ask once more, and to dream of a day when they are like the children in the advertisements: fully in control of their cereal’s destiny as well as their own.

Simon Jones: We all have a soft spot for sugar. It’s not human nature to be drawn to healthy cereal because it’s boring. We like to spoil ourselves in the morning. Influence is found in the sweet cereal, and kids will eat it forever.

Speaking of influence, how do you see cereal – and the brand mascot’s role in it –adapting to stay relevant with the next generation?

Russell Horton: Consumers today are health-conscious which means there will be different advertising for the cereal and its mascots. This could be a challenge. If the cereal is better, less sugary, for the kids, will they still try to take it away from the Trix Rabbit?

Marty Gitlin: I think cereal companies don’t consider brand mascots to be important to marketing. The push toward healthier cereals precludes any opportunity to create new mascots.

Dan Goubert: It’s likely that our beloved mascots will grow up, but I recommend that cereal prey on its status as a nostalgic touchstone. Bring back long buried mascots, put the Cap’n into hiding again, or let us high-five Franken Berry with a virtual reality headset. Cereal has always been about fun and silliness, not “no sugar allowed” strictness. I’m even all for cereal even ditching its “morning” placement in favor of its cult status as a midnight snack so long as it stays in grocery stores. As long as [these mascots] are still on shelves, Toucan Sam and Sonny will fly me forward.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the interview, it was interesting! I am writing an essay questioning the preponderance of male mascots on mainstream packaging. I would have loved to hear what the interviewees’ views are on that. Especially Marty Gitlin’s, whose book I enjoyed reading.
    The title of my essay is “In the ready-to-eat cereal aisle: is the preponderance of male mascots on mainstream packaging owing to ill-conceived marketing tactics or to the perpetuation of male hegemony?”. Gitlin states above that he thinks “… cereal companies don’t consider brand mascots to be important to marketing. The push toward healthier cereals precludes any opportunity to create new mascots.” This is a very important statement, which I have to disagree with (unless I misunderstood the context) as the anthropomorphism, nostalgia and sugar factor linked to mascots and the products their represent are at the core of RTE cereals marketing tactics (mainstream brands). And there has been no effort to include female mascots, even though giving mascots a touch of gender-neutrality would likely not have hampered the nostalgia factor, which is profitable (targeting parents, easing the nag factor from children…). Why is that?
    Looking at recent sales’ statistics across the US (Statista.com), and despite natural and organic RTE cereals going mainstream (when applicable, those that are more likely to target children as well as their parents tend to display gender-neutral representations), 7 of the 9 leading brands are associated with male mascots. A trip to the supermarket will confirm that… Unlike TV and magazine adverts, the gender-biased representations on cereal boxes has never been addressed nor been regulated. I find this quite incredible that the cereal box, which has shared the all-important ritual of breakfast with most children for many generations is thought of as innocuous. Giving the little girl no other choice than to interact with the male authority figure is of course damaging to her and to our society at large. Didn’t mean to rant here 🙂 As the mother of 2 young children (a boy and a girl) I just think it’s an important topic. Perhaps for a future paper? And I’m genuinely interested in what Gitlin, Horton, Bonnell and Jones would have had to say.
    Thanks!
    Elodie

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