Talking Animals Sold Cereal to Boomers

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.”

Sugar Bear
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
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?


Boomers First Accepted Smoking, Then They Rejected It

The association between smoking and the Americas predates the founding of the Jamestown Colony. The Mayans grew tobacco for centuries in Mexico before the New World was colonized by Europeans, and in the U.S. mainland, Native Americans did the same.

When the Jamestown Colony was established in 1607, tobacco became its first cash crop. The colonists attempted to export tobacco to England, but discovered that the variety grown by Native Americans did not appeal to British tastes. As a result, tobacco plants were imported from Bermuda in 1610 and successfully planted in Virginia. Thus the tobacco market in the U.S. got its start.

At that period in history, smoking was an occasional occurrence. Historical data suggests that people — mainly men — may not have even used tobacco once a day. More chewed tobacco than smoked, but those who did smoked pipes. Since tobacco was imported, the whole concept of smoking was pretty much the domain of the merchant and upper classes.

Near the end of the Civil War, an enterprising American invented cigarette rolling papers, beginning the slow decline of pipe smoking. The popularization of cigarette smoking can trace its roots back to 1881, when James Bonsack invented a machine that could roll 100,000 cigarettes a day. With the expansion of the railroads, packaged cigarettes could make their way across the country.

Still, smoking didn’t pick up speed until World War I. In a deal with the government, tobacco companies provided free cigarettes for the troops. Many returning soldiers had picked up the habit from what the government felt was a way for soldiers to remain calm and relieve boredom. The same partnership took place during World War II — only now with many millions more men involved, the tobacco companies gained an advantage they would hold for the next three decades. Returning soldiers were hooked on the habit, bringing smoking to its highest level in U.S. history. These are the men and women who became the parents of the Boomer Generation. Throughout the 1940s and into the ’50s, smoking was portrayed as synonymous with cool in movies and ads both in magazines and on TV.

In 1964, at the very end of the Boomer Generation years, the U.S. Surgeon General wrote about the dangers of smoking. Congress acted on his report in 1965, passing the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act. For the first time, cigarette manufacturers were required to place warning labels on their packages that read: “Cigarettes may be hazardous to your health.”

It was during this period of mixed messages that boomers grew. Smoking was a part of daily life at that time. People smoked in their homes, while at work, in retail stores or restaurants. Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, Jack Paar and later, Johnny Carson, all smoked on their TV shows. Cigarette companies were the sponsors of all types of family programs, from variety shows to The Flintstones. Is it any wonder that many boomers associated the act with a level of adult coolness that pressured them into trying smoking at an early age?

Mister Boomer was always on the side of the anti-smokers. More than likely this came about because his parents were both heavy smokers. His brother and sister also hated their home situation. Both parents used the last embers of a cigarette to light the next one — they were chain smokers. There wasn’t a time when one or both of them didn’t either have a cigarette in their hands or sitting in an ashtray. There were ashtrays in every room of the house. You couldn’t escape it in the family car, either. Wherever they went, there was the stench of cigarette smoke. Mister B remembers, as a young teen, being tasked to wash the walls in his and Brother Boomer’s bedroom in preparation for new paint. Watching a layer of brown slide down the wall as the boys scrubbed was deeply disturbing. Nonetheless, the smoking ritual, mess left behind and, most of all, the smell, were more than enough to make smoking an unattractive notion to Mister B.

As young kids Mister B and his siblings tried to dissuade their parents from smoking. Brother Boomer went so far as to take two or three cigarettes from any pack laying around the house, and threw them away. In their youthful exuberance, less cigarettes meant less smoking. They didn’t realize that their parents would just buy more. When it came time to buy more, Mister B’s mom would think nothing of dispatching Mister B or his sister to a neighborhood store, where it was not unusual to see children under the age of ten purchasing cigarettes for their parents. Mister B didn’t even need money, since the store ran a monthly tab.

Mister Boomer’s parents were the product of the tobacco companies’ target marketing. Both chose top brands to smoke: Chesterfield and Lucky Strikes for Mister B’s dad, L&M for his mom.

By the 1970s the oldest boomers were adults, while the earliest boomers were coming of age. While the allure of smoking grabbed ahold of many, there were chinks in the armor as many stayed away from the product. Cigarette ads were banned from TV and radio. For the first time, cigarette smoking was actively being discouraged. This prompted some states to adopt smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants.

The ultimate turning point may have been the mid ’80s. Boomers were parents themselves, and public opinion on smoking was much different than when they were young, due to the large amount of negative information that began to appear in the press. In 1984 Congress acted again by enacting Public Law 98-474: The Comprehensive Smoking Education Act. This law required stricter warning labels in the form of four different messages that had to rotate every three months in their manufacturing process.

After that point, city, state and federal government agencies began to restrict smoking. It was banned from many public buildings, taxes were increased to encourage people to quit, and by 1990, smoking was not allowed on airplanes.

It was always a mystery to Mister B why someone would want something burning to hang directly beneath their nose. Today’s offices are, for the most part, smoke-free. When a co-worker so much as burns popcorn in the office microwave, the complaints are long and loud. Yet boomers grew up — long before there was burnt popcorn in a microwave — in an atmosphere where smoking was fostered in every aspect of daily life, including at the office. Perhaps it was this overexposure, coupled with overwhelming scientific data, that has contributed to the decline of smoking among members of the Boomer Generation and their offspring. Mister B echoes the phrase boomers used to hear in the early days, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

What part did smoking play in your home growing up, boomers?