If you’re like me, then you remember the 1980s as a golden age of Saturday Morning Cartoons and scientifically targeted merchandizing for your parents hard earned bucks. If you’re not old enough to remember this first hand, have no fear, I’m going to take you on a trip through an especially odd chapter in the book of marketing to the offspring of boomers…breakfast cereal. If this seems like an odd thing, well, it was. In context, however, it wasn’t. The 1980s were a time when TV shows were planned to sell toys and those toys might have crappier versions that came at the bottom of a cereal box.
For cereals in particular, there was this push that they were part of a “balanced breakfast”. A thing which literally nobody ever ate and was only balanced by the things in it which were not cereal.
Also, these cereals were not really delicious bran flakes with berries (that I’m probably highly allergic to) next to eggs, jams, tea. They looked more like this:
So now that our kid sensibilities were catered to by waving sugar in our faces and the health concerns of our easily marketed to Boomer parents were mildly assuaged the pitch could be constructed. In fairness, the idea was no so revolutionary. As I said, our Boomer parents were the testing ground for this kind of marketing utilizing cartoon mascots. To be more accurate, cartoon mascots that emulated Saturday Morning Cartoons. Saturday Morning Cartoons were a serious thing back then, because it was generally the only time you could see cartoons. Cereal commercials, using the appeal of cartoons, made these apparently healthy, incredibly sweetened breakfasts both product and entertainment. We eagerly awaited new commercials like a new season of our favorite show. Some had all new characters like Tony the Tiger, while others marketed existing characters like the Flintstones. Just add memorable catch phrases and jingles (and milk) and we were spooned in.
Take the example of Sugar Bear above. His name makes you think of down South (non-racist) hospitality. He looks and sounds like the unholy charming chimera of Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and a cartoon bear. He croons a catchy a tune cribbed from a classic gospel song (Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho), and beats up malcontents like Popeye downing spinach…only he’s hyped up on sugar.
There was no end to the cartoon animals selling us cereal. The likes of Sugar Bear, Tony the Tiger, and that horrifying sun from Raisin Bran were not just well marketing tools aimed at us young Gen X’ers and old Millennials….our Boomer parents had been brainwashed by these guys not that long before. Our parents had some attachment to these guys too, so the sell was made easier.
However, you really couldn’t top the novelty cereals that were available for “a limited time only” in the 80s. Things like this:
Can we talk about this for a minute? Beyond the absurdity of the “Nintendo Cereal System” as a concept, these marshmallows look nothing like the characters they claim to be. King Koopa is a generic dinosaur, the Goomba is a triangle, the Koopa Troopa might be an Indian Arrow head and Mario is Mr. Bill. And don’t get me started on the Legend of Zelda marshmallows. They look like rejected Lucky Charms.
Would you believe I would cut off a toe for this cereal? And for the amount of sugar involved, I might have had my toe amputated anyway after too much of it. Worse yet, it was disgusting. After lobbying for this cereal and cereals like it: Batman: The Movie Cereal, The Addams Family Cereal, Ninja Turtle Cereal, Urkel-Os or the cleverest one…
…they just say on the shelf, never to be eaten again except by meal moths. Against Tony’s deepest claims, not all of these cereals were great. Most of them were terrible, and the rest were seriously bad for you.
Here’s a few rules for these cereals that any kid from the 80s can attest to:
- If there’s marshmallows in it, you want it but it tastes horrible
- You can identify the cereal by the color the milk turned
- You either had a million choices of cereal in your house or one box at a time
- There seemed to be a new commercial every other week
- You sang the jingle while you ate it
- You might punch someone in the face for saying your favorite cereal was trash (they were all trash)
All in, these cereals are the best worst thing ever. I don’t let my kids eat them because I value their teeth and insulin levels, but today’s kids are marketed at by some much YouTube and SnapChat or whatever that this kind of campaign can’t possibly work anymore. I honestly don’t know how anything gets bought…or how they all know about those god forsaken fidget spinners!
Post Script: Not all the cereals used cartoon characters. Here’s a few videos showing real people selling deadly levels of sugar marketed as part of a balanced breakfast: