Then and Now: The Evolution of Cereal Mascots

by on 15th September 2011 with 13 Comments

toucansam

Today we’re going to have some good old nostalgic fun and take a walk through cereal box history to look at some beloved characters that have been with most of us since we could chew.

Keep reading to see what your favorite cereal box mascot looked like years ago versus today!

Why Cereal?

Why the heck are you reading about cereal boxes on a design blog? The simple answer is, I happen to love cereal. The other day as I was chomping down on some delicious Raisin Bran I found myself doing what everyone does when they eat cereal: looking at the box. This led me to realize that I’ve spent a healthy chunk of my life simply staring at cereal boxes while I eat breakfast (or lunch, or dinner, or a late night snack).

When I was a kid, I used to mostly play the games on the back and compare the nutritional information with the cereals my brothers were eating (the higher numbers always win). These days I tend to gravitate toward design while I stare. The typography, the photography and most of all, the illustrations. On the rare occasions when I neglect to purchase an “adult cereal” in favor of something sugary, I always think about the characters on the box and how they’ve evolved over the years.

As a designer, understanding generational trends is an important skill and cereal boxes provide an excellent study in retro illustration styles. Thinking about these characters will help you mentally define what makes an illustration seem modern and what makes it seem aged.

Then the next time a client asks you for a retro design, I guarantee you’ll find yourself thinking about Tony the Tiger or Cap’n Crunch!

Tony the Tiger

They’rrrre great! Who doesn’t immediately think of Frosted Flakes upon hearing that exclamation? Tony the Tiger was originally created in 1952 by Eugene Kolkey. The original design is quite different than the character we know today, have a look:

tonythetiger

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As you can see, Tony (or perhaps this shows Tony Jr?) used to look a little more like a cat than he does these days. Granted, the last time I checked tiger heads weren’t shaped like a football, but the concept still holds true. Compare this to the very human-like character we know today:

tonythetiger

Just look at that guy! He went from a cute cat to a superhero! Tony is a perfect example of a trend that you’ll see over and over throughout this post: anthropomorphism. This is a big, fancy word that simply means to take a non-human and impose human characteristics upon it.

The goal of the original illustration seemed to be to take a tiger and make it more friendly, less ferocious and slightly more human in the process while still keeping much of the “cat” identity. Today, Tony has been completely rethought so that he has the basic muscular structure of human being. It’s almost as if this Tony started human and was given Tiger-like characteristics, the reverse of what we saw before.

There are definitely some other trends as well. Notice the use of gradients in the new Tony to add more depth and realism. 1950s illustrations definitely have a flat look to them by comparison. Tools like Photoshop and Illustrator have made it easier to add these kinds of details to artwork and I would wager that printing technologies had something to do with it as well.

Also notice the shape of the eyes in the new Tony: they’re oval and quite elongated. Many of the other characters we’ll see started with oval eyes, but they’ve become even more elongated over the years which gives a more interested, excited appearance to the characters.

Finally, the overall line thickness of the underlying character framework has increased pretty dramatically. Occasionally, older characters had little to no noticeable outlines and were just defined by colors and patterns. Today we really emphasize the thick, marker-like strokes of the basic line drawing.

Toucan Sam

Toucan Sam was created by Manuel R. Vega in the early 60s as the official mascot of Froot Loops. Can you spot any similarities and trends that we discussed before with Tony in the original Sam?

toucansam

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Once again, we can definitely notice a lack of black, defining lines. For the most part, Sam is comprised of solid color fields (no gradients) that sit right up against each other. Notice that Toucan Sam isn’t a very high fidelity drawing but is instead composed of extremely simple shapes.

Don’t make the mistake of ever thinking that artists simply weren’t as talented back then, they were more than capable of drawing a realistic toucan! Instead, it was a stylistic decision to keep these characters simple in nature.

Here’s a look at Toucan Sam as we know him today:

toucansam

image source

The transformation of Toucan Sam is conceptually almost identical to that of Tony the Tiger. First, notice the anthropomorphism: his body shape, wings and feet are much more human and less bird-like than they used to be. The colors and shapes are also no longer simple, instead we see gradients, highlights and a more complex structure.

We can clearly spot the underlying lines as well. They’re more subtle than we saw on new Tony but still much more defined than the old Toucan Sam. Finally, take a look at the eyes. The original Sam had oval eyes but they weren’t nearly as elongated as they are in the new Sam. This definitely gives him a more hyperactive and excited appearance, which is furthered by the action that has been infused into the scene. The old bird was pictured standing still while the new one swings into the scene on a jungle vine to present you with your breakfast.

Cap’n Crunch

Horatio Magellan Crunch, more commonly known as Cap’n Crunch. He’s been selling overly sweet breakfasts to children since the early 60s and is now in fact owned by another of my favorite sugar peddlers: Pepsi.

Long ago, Cap’n Crunch seemed a bit more fragile and old than the robust sea captain that we know today:

capncrunch

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Notice though that this particular illustration is quite modern in its characteristics, we can see how illustration styles are evolving into what we know today. The old Cap’n has thick lines and even some impressive shadows!

There’s one particular aspect of this illustration that catches my attention immediately: the eyelids. Notice how the inclusion of eyelids onto this character has given him a old, droopy-eyed look. This is actually pretty common in cartoon characters around this time period, especially for character who were supposed to be old or lethargic. Let’s look at today’s Cap’n.

capncrunch

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Notice the new Cap’n has no eyelids. It’s also interesting to note that the recently released retro Cap’n Crunch box featured the old Cap’n design, sans the eyelids!

Here we also see gradients taken to the extreme, and eyes that form much taller ellipses. There’s an odd sense of overlap too: the eyes overlap each other, the eyebrows are pushed much further up into the hat, etc. Have you ever thought about how ridiculous it is that Cap’n Crunch has eyebrows over his hat? I sure have.

The Trix Rabbit

Joe Harris created the Trix Rabbit right before the start of the 60s. If you haven’t noticed, a clear pattern is emerging here. The early 60s were apparently the height of cereal mascot creation, that golden age when advertisers realized that they could use cartoons to target children and sell more food.

The original Trix Rabbit is a lot like old Toucan Sam in that he’s an incredibly simple drawing. As a curveball this time though, he has a remarkably thick outline:

trixrabbit

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Compare this rabbit for a moment with today’s Trix rabbit and you’ll get a perfect picture of what the 90’s did to cartoon characters:

trixrabbit

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Once again like Toucan Sam, The Trix Rabbit went from being fairly relaxed (despite the skates), to looking like he was just released from the cereal mascot loony bin. Notice not only the eyes this time, but the wide open mouth. Now go back and look at the other mascots and see if you notice a trend: Toucan Sam and Tony the Tiger both went from closed mouth characters to those with wide open jaws. Even today’s Cap’n Crunch has a much bigger mouth than the original.

Finally, despite the fact that our strokes are actually lighter this time around, the darkness is definitely more pronounced and we’ve scrapped uniform lines for more organic marker strokes with plenty of contrast between the thicks and thins.

More Characters

Now that we’ve discussed some popular illustration trends, let’s finish of with a quick look at some more characters. Can you spot the same trends in these the evolution of these other characters?

Lucky

luckycharms

image source

Snap, Crackle and Pop

ricekrispies

image source: left, right

Buzz

cheerios

image source: left, right

Sugar Bear

sugarbear

image source: left, right

Further Reading

If you’re interested to hear more about how these characters came to exist and even see more old/new comparisons, check out Accelerator Advertising’s great article on the topic: Top 10: Cereal Characters.

Conclusion

I hope this walk down memory lane has gotten you all teary eyed longing for the golden age of cereal. More importantly, I hope you’ve learned a thing or two about illustration styles in the 1950’s and 1960’s and how they differ from popular styles today.

Leave a comment below and let us know who your favorite cereal mascot is! How many can you name off the top of your head without checking Google?

A Note About Images: I discovered during the writing of this post that cereal images are incredibly difficult to find. I’ve tried to be respectful and link to the original sources for the various images in the post, but the true original sources are often impossible to hunt down. If I’ve used an image that you own, leave a comment and let me know if you’d prefer that I give you credit or take it down.

Comments & Discussion

13 Comments

  • Matthew

    Wow, the old boxes were definitely better!

  • http://blog.indieflix.com/author/charley/ Charley

    Man, I hate the fake airbrushed look that ALL the newer versions have. It’s a cartoon character, embrace the graphics! Trying to make it look like a photo of a plastic Cap’n is just wrong.

  • http://www.chrome47.com Brad Blackman

    I think all that airbrushing started in the 80s. Then as it got even easier to do with Photoshop, it continued to the excessively rendered look you see today. Notice it’s not just the characters that have gone from flat to highly three-dimensional. The logos, the type, even the backgrounds have gotten incrementally more rendered over the decades. I chalk it up to increased visual competition — everyone is getting louder and louder at the shelf, just like at the newsstand.

  • Dimitry

    Hey! Just give us back the old ones :) for they look much more vogue, especially given the today’s popularity of minimalism. So, the old trends have now the new life – the reborn – in the new context of minimalism. Yet, the cereal mascots stay just there – in the yesterday.

  • Dimitry

    Yet on the other hand, we – the adult ones – like minimalism, but kids like this pseudo 3d look more. And I guess all these mascots target precisely them, and not us :)

  • http://inspirationfeed.com inspirationfeed

    Haha, this is awesome. Love the retro Tony the Tiger!

  • http://www.shaneholden.mobi Shane

    Awesome post! It’s neat to see the comparison of old vs new. I love the simplicity of the old Trix rabbit!

  • http://Smomotion.com Smo

    Great post! As an animator I have a lot of interest in the actual commercials starting these old mascots. Many of which can be found on YouTube. Alot of them were tacked on to kids shows on Saturday morning and made by some incredible animators! Despite their simpler design they often move much more interestingly than their more modern counterparts. The old football head Tony the tiger has a ton of depth the way they made him move, I’m pretty sure some animators from UPA had a lot to do with that. Cap’n Crunch was animated by Jay Ward who also made rocky and bullwinkle, he might have designed the original character too. And the monster cereal mascots, boo berry, count chocula, and frankenberry [another great example of overdoing it with the gradients today...] were originally animated by Bill Melendez who animated on the 40’s looney tunes and [when he made the monster cereal commercials] was making the peanuts cartoons. You can get mini animation history review just by looking at these commercials too since so many studios tried to fund their bigger projects by taking them on!

  • Darasen

    Darn, now I’m hungry.

    Looks like some of the older boxes used spot color as opposed to four color printing.

  • http://www.quintaldesigns.com Ryan Quintal

    I personally don’t see a problem with the modernization of cereal box design. If it were 5 years ago, we’d all be laughing at the boxes on the left.

    The public obsession with making things look old is a nostalgic reaction to the devastatingly modern world we live in. Retro is being done right when it’s done ironically — see Instagram. Meanwhile, it has little real value in terms of design except to create a certain feeling.

    Let’s not confuse modern rendering for bad design.

  • http://www.fabmedia.com Arlen

    @Ryan. No offense, but modern rendering does not conclude good design. It just means that ou have a handle of a program like photoshop or other similar photo manipulation package. Anyone can be a technical individual, but that does does not make them an artist or a designer. The character design and rendering of today is based on the grabbing of the attention of the children. Children, especially young children, are attracted to facial features and the more enhanced the facial features, the more eye-catching. Also, co ours play an integral part too. There is a very limited co our palette that is used too when marketing toward children. None of this is done for artistic/design sake, but strictly marketing reasons to snag children into eating their product. Nothing else.

  • http://www.wabbaly.com Wabbaly

    Same target market, different generation, that is all. Nice touch on the presentation.

  • David

    In the case of Tony the Tiger and the fruit loops I liked the old boxes better —they seem like characters out of a children’s book. In the case of the trix and captain crunch, the new ones look better. I don’t like the captain with bags under his eyes, makes him look rather old. The trix bunny, I don’t like neither, the old looks arrogant, the new looks crazy.

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