As the first television generation, the Boomer Generation grew up with a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons, many of which featured anthropomorphic animals as the main characters. Mighty Mouse, Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Huckleberry Hound, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Yogi Bear… the list goes on and on throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Therefore it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that marketers tried to get us to coax our parents into buying their products by appealing to us with cartoon animal spokescharacters. Looking back, what is somewhat surprising is how these characters became famous in their own right, in our hearts and minds, as their names and mannerisms entered our daily vocabulary.
Here are a few of the best-known characters:
Tony the Tiger
Tony was created when ad men at the Leo Burnett Company were tasked with introducing Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes in 1951. Originally, there were four animal characters that were looked at for the brand: Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu and Elmo the Elephant in addition to Tony. In 1953 packages with both Tony (and his son, Tony, Jr.) along with alternative packages with Katy the Kangaroo were placed into stores. People chose Tony over Katy hands-down, and Tony the Tiger became the official spokes-cat for Sugar Frosted Flakes. Newt and Elmo never made it to a box.
From the box Tony made his way into television commercials, where the instantly-recognizable character became even more famous with his distinct voice and catchphrase. The deep, resonant sound of “They’re Grrrreat!” that we remember was the voice of Thurl Ravenscroft who voiced Tony for more than 50 years. He also was the deep voice behind the song, “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but he wasn’t the first voice of Tony the Tiger. Dallas McKennon initiated the voice of Tony, but he was quickly replaced by Ravenscroft. McKennon was also known to boomers as the voice of Buzz Buzzard in Woody Woodpecker cartoons, and he sang many songs and provided character voices in many of Disney’s classic films.
Tony’s look — size and shape — has changed considerably through the years, but he still appears in commercials and on cereal boxes. You won’t find the word “sugar” playing such a prominent role in the product name any more, though. Boomers may be hard-pressed to recognize the muscular Tony on today’s boxes of “Frosted Flakes.”
Post developed a series of characters to sell its cereals in 1959. Many of the characters became so popular in Post ads and commercials that the company developed a Saturday morning cartoon for them, called Linus the Lionhearted (1964-’69). Sugar Bear was among these characters. The bear’s appearance quickly evolved and most boomers recall the walking, talking bear with the blue turtleneck. He had a laid-back swagger like Dean Martin and a voice (by Gerry Matthews) that sounded like Bing Crosby. His thing was he always battled for a bowl of Sugar Crisps against his nemesis, Granny Goodwitch.
In 1969 the FCC ruled that characters from a children’s show couldn’t appear in commercials on the same program, so the show was cancelled, but Sugar Bear lived on. In the 1980s the cereal was called Super Sugar Crisp. When Sugar Bear took a bite, he morphed into Super Bear, a muscular and somewhat Hulk-like version of himself.
Toucan Sam, a bird with a pink-striped beak and carrying a fruit basket on his head like Carmen Miranda, made his debut in 1963 as the spokescharacter for Kellogg’s Fruit Loops. With a “nose” like his, Sam’s catch-phrase became, “Follow my nose! It always knows!” The first Toucan Sam was voiced by the great Mel Blanc. Early boomers will remember that in the beginning of the Fruit Loops brand, Toucan Sam spoke in Pig Latin to call the cereal “oot-fray oops-lay.” Later the company decided to ditch the Pig Latin — and the fruit basket — and replaced Mel Blanc with an actor speaking in a British accent, which the character still sports today. In the 1970s, his beak colors matched the colors of the Fruit Loops in the box.
The Trix Rabbit
Appearing in 1959, Trix was seen in TV commercials trying to trick children out of their bowls of General Mills’ Trix cereal. The rabbit waxed poetic about the sugary puffed corn pieces, naming the colors as “Raspberry Red, Lemony Yellow and Orangey Orange.” His attempts were always thwarted, with one of the kids intoning, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for Kids!” Many late boomers will recall the 1976 campaign that asked kids to decide if the rabbit would get some Trix. Kids mailed in box tops and overwhelmingly voted to let the rabbit enjoy some Trix. The company sent a button to each kid who submitted an entry proclaiming the way they voted. (Do you still have yours?) After that, on occasion the rabbit joined in with the kids, but the company repeated the promotion in 1980 with the same results. Additional colors were added to the mix throughout the 1980s, as the sugar content was reduced. In our boomer days, Trix was 46% sugar!
Sugar Smacks Seal
Smaxey the Seal wore a sailor suit on the boxes of Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks in 1957. He took over for Cliffy the Clown, who had been the spokescharacter since the introduction of the cereal in 1953.
By 1961, Smaxey’s reign was over and Quick Draw McGraw took over. He in turn was replaced by the Smackin’ Bandit in 1965, who was a half-mule, half-kangaroo who went around kissing anyone in sight. The Smackin’ Brothers were next in 1966, followed by Dig’em Frog in 1972. Most late boomers recall Dig’em on their Sugar Smacks boxes. There were a couple of other replacements in the ’80s, then Dig’em was brought back in the ’90s.
In a 2008 Consumer Reports study, Honey Smacks, as Sugar Smacks was renamed in the 1980s, was one of two brands found to contain more than 50% sugar by weight. (Post Golden Crisp — the cereal we knew as Sugar Crisp — was the other). The report likened the amount of sugar in a single serving to as much as there is in a glazed doughnut from Dunkin’ Donuts. No wonder we boomers had so much energy as kids!
Cocoa Puffs Cuckoo Bird
Every boomer can recall the catchphrase, “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!” maniacally screamed by Sonny, the Cocoa Puffs spokescharacter. The cereal made its debut in 1958 and he was introduced in TV commercials in 1963. In 1965 he was placed on the boxes. Originally he was paired with a another character known as “Gramps,” so he was identified as “Sonny.” Later the Gramps character was dropped and Sonny became the lone cuckoo.
Like most of the characters, various actors have been the voice of these icons through the years. The original voice of Sonny belonged to Chuck McCann, who was later replaced by Larry Kenney. Kenney is also known to many children of boomers as the voice of Lion-O on Thundercats in the 1980s. Sonny wore a pink and white striped shirt in boomer years, but he was stripped of his stripes in 1993.
To this day if someone says “she’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” everyone knows they mean the person is crazy about whatever the subject is at the time.
All of these cereals made their way into the Mister Boomer household at one time or another. Coincidentally or not, all of them were at the request of Mister B’s younger sister. Among her favorites, she was a huge Sugar Smacks fan for years, and also Fruit Loops and Cocoa Puffs.
Mister B and his brother had their share of sugary cereals, with Mister B’s favorite being Kellogg’s Sugar Pops. For the most part, though, the brothers ate Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran, Kix, Cheerios and Wheaties, and later, Shredded Wheat and Wheat Chex.
What memories do cereal box characters bring to you, boomers?