top of page

What Cereal Commercials Taught Me About Life

Updated: Apr 16

Everything that comes at us when we're kids seems so new and vivid, and so potentially important, that it lodges in the best spots in our mind and doesn't leave. A year as a kid creates more memories than ten as an adult. When I was growing up I watched thousands of TV commercials for cereal, and I ate thousands of bowls, so I can't even do that math. With those rainbow-colored cartoons, goofy characters, catchy theme songs, bold packaging, crunchy and sugary spoonfuls, cereal slams us on all five senses. And we're exposed to it before we can even read. The TV ads that beamed into my head over and over probably had a bigger impact on my worldview than college. The question is, what did they teach me?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about it while writing and publishing my comic book series "Cereal," a comedy/thriller/fantasy that explores the impact of cereal marketing to kids and the imprint that those characters and commercials leave. Here are some of the lessons about life I think I learned:

Apple Jacks and the Power of Fighting Back

Kellogg's brought Apple Jacks into the world with an apple-head mascot and a promise of retribution: eat this cereal regularly and end the thugs who are making your life miserable: "A bowl a day keeps the bullies away." As a kid I'd already heard about the sneakers that helped you run faster. But there is a time to run, and there's a time to stand your ground, to crush their baseball with your bare hand, so those terrified bully bastards eat shit and politely give you back the hat they took. That was a thrilling proposition to a meek kid. I wonder how many tried it, munching Apple Jacks before confronting their schoolyard tormentors, only to be beaten savagely. Or maybe not. I bet sometimes it worked, the way Chris Makepeace just needed to stand up to bully Matt Dillon in My Bodyguard, the way little Ralphie blew a gasket and pounded on Scut Farkas. I knew in my heart that no cereal would stop troubled idiots from being brutal. But I think through these Apple Jacks ads I internalized a belief that has lasted for my whole life: when it's time to push back against oppressors, you use whatever it takes.

Cocoa Puffs and the Struggle Against Addiction

Sonny the Cuckoo Bird wasn't in the earliest advertising for Cocoa Puffs. Just being one of the first foods to bring chocolate to breakfast was enough. But as the culture evolved into the 1960s, Sonny entered the scene as perhaps the first cereal "user." He had intense cravings for puffs, and even the thought of them got him bug-eyed and wild. He had difficulty functioning without them. Occasionally, someone would exploit the power of his urge by offering him Cocoa Puffs. In one commercial, Sonny was rowing a boat, and it was going too slow, so his own grandfather pulled out some puffs to make Sonny go berzerk and row like a madman. A recurring theme had Sonny restraining himself to avoid outbursts, even chaining himself to prevent relapse, like Samuel L. Jackson did to sex addict Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan. Self-restraint is great lesson for kids. But the message was mixed, because Sonny usually got his fix. The bottom line I took away from Sonny's struggles was that obsession happens, and it's okay, but bad things happen when you let it control your life.

Quisp, Quake and the Great American Divide

The never-actually-Quakers at Quaker Oats started the youngest children on a lifetime path of choosing sides culturally. Quisp, created during the apex of the "space age," represented the wonders of science, the endless possibility of the future. He was scrawny, with an oversized head like Carl Sagan. He literally was a propeller-head. Quake was beefy, grounded on Earth. He began as a miner and later became a cowboy. Quake was MAGA. The cereals were identical except in shape (flying saucers versus nuggets), but from the start kids were instructed to prefer one or the other. Kids could wear their choice by sending away for either a Quake hardhat or a Quisp propeller beanie. I remember getting the Quake helmet, and my little brother got Quisp. I was a pipsqueak, a shrimp, so I must have been trying to live another life (I also always chose Hulk over Spider-man). During the 1972 U.S. presidential elections, while conservative Nixon ran against liberal McGovern, Quaker held an election between Quisp and Quake via mail-in ballots on cereal boxes, telling kids that the loser would no longer have a cereal! Quisp won, and without a recount or challenge Quake pretty much did go away. But Nixon destroyed McGovern. The Quisp-versus-Quake question really is eternal -- nostalgia versus looking forward, progress versus preservation, self-reliance versus cosmic awareness. The way we all come down differently on these issues is the definitional rift of civilization. But we still have to live together.

Mikey and The Meaning of Life

First we need to talk about the name. Life! It made sense as the title of a magazine that had award-winning photography and features. And there was a board game Life, which simulated living adult life. But the fake Quakers had some major balls to call a food "Life." The intent seemed to be to give it gravitas and meaning. I think that alone inspired me to think "outside the box" creatively, but I remember being perplexed by these Mikey ads. I'd already had Life. It was tasty and never struck me as being especially "good for you," so when Mikey liked it, it didn't seem shocking in any way. The whole premise felt phony; the twist ending was lost on me. But my little brother Steve looked like Mikey at the time, and I think this came across as a sort of cautionary tale. The older boys in the ad are little pricks, using Mikey as their test monkey for a cereal they expect to taste like crap. When Mikey throws the scheme back in their face, it's sort of comeuppance for the big brothers, like don't be such a know-it-all-dick just because you're a little older. I think the later rumor about Mikey being killed by mixing Pop Rocks with Coke was part of the same story; it was implicit that someone must have put Mikey up to trying the dangerous combination, and he unwittingly exploded. I wish I could say that message got through to me. I could have been a nicer and more supportive big brother. It's one of my great regrets and something I have been mindful of as time goes on.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

When Freakies cereal hit the market in 1972, from pet food maker Ralston-Purina, it was creatively derivative in a dozen ways -- but also jarring and weirdly groundbreaking. The characters were shaggy and ugly, borrowing style from underground comix and the hallucinatory puppetry of Sid and Marty Krofft. Gilbert Shelton's adult comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers began in '71, and trippy TV shows like H.R PufnStuf, The Banana Splits, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters were already warping kids' minds. When I was little, hippies scared me, all that facial hair and fringe and smoke. My friends and I were led to believe that hippies lived in the woods behind our school, so stay out of there. I thought they all were Charles Manson. Freakies brought that sensibility to the mainest of the mainstream, a product that mom would buy for us. I think that was inevitable, but these characters weren't cute like the Funny Face drink mix mascots. They were kind of repulsive and probably doomed to the early cancellation they got. Still, the idea that there was an audience for Freakies, that something this quirky could exist in a world of Cheerios and Wheaties, made its mark.

Trix Rabbit and Lucky the Leprechaun: the Haves and Have-Nots

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung suggested that throughout human history, there have been recurring archetypal characters in storytelling, representing universal ways people can behave. One is the sneaky Trickster, who in stories from a wide variety of cultures is a rabbit character. Bugs Bunny obviously was a Trickster, one that we loved, rooting for him against the goons he taunted (Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam). Trix Rabbit revived the character as someone to be wary of. He constantly schemed to swindle kids and get their Trix, giving rise to the tagline "silly rabbit, Trix are for kids." I liked the idea of something being explicitly for kids -- finally! -- but I also knew it wasn't really defensible to withhold Trix from the rabbit just because he wanted some. It felt needlessly mean. Lucky the Leprechaun held up a mirror to that selfishness. He had the cereal, and we were the ones chasing him to get some. The rabbit rarely got the taste he was looking for, but in the end Lucky usually gave up the goods and shared some with the kids. I think even as a child I could see the difference that a little generosity made, even though I ate Lucky Charms once when I was sick, threw up, and didn't have them again for 20 years.

38 views0 comments


bottom of page