The tidal wave of merchandising following the release of Star Wars in 1977 was a fundamental transformation in how pop culture could be monetized. Thousands of items, ranging from clothing to toys, were produced from dozens of licensees. Fans could wake up on Darth Vader bedsheets, brush their teeth with a Yoda toothbrush, and slip on a Chewbacca backpack before catching the school bus.
The lone exception to that escapist morning routine? Breakfast cereal. It wasn’t until 1984—seven years after the original Star Wars hit theaters—that fans could purchase C-3POs, a puffed-wheat breakfast concoction that featured the golden droid on boxes. The delay was the result of changing tastes in the realm of product licensing. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the major cereal companies figured out that people wanted to literally consume their entertainment.
Cereals have long relied on colorful characters as a way of marketing their wares. Tony the Tiger was introduced by Kellogg’s in 1951 and quickly became the solo mascot for Frosted Flakes after cohorts Katy the Kangaroo, Newt the Gnu, and Elmo the Elephant fell by the wayside. Store aisles were soon stocked with boxes bearing Toucan Sam (Fruit Loops); Snap, Crackle, and Pop (Rice Krispies); and the dubiously ranked Cap’n Crunch.
As the decades wore on, the characters became intergenerational, able to appeal to kids and adults who remembered them from their youth. But it was also hard to muscle in on the market with so many of those mascots dominating shelf space. It wasn’t until the 1980s that cereal makers took notice of census reports hinting at a growing population of kids under the age of 9 and began plotting ways to appeal to tiny, outstretched hands at grocery stores. Their solution was existing brand recognition. Why spend time and effort creating a new cereal mascot when they could effectively lease one with a built-in fan base?
General Mills, then and now one of the leading cereal manufacturers, owned toy company Kenner. Kenner, in turn, had a licensing deal with American Greetings, owners of the popular Strawberry Shortcake property. In September 1982, General Mills debuted a Strawberry Shortcake cereal, the first to be based on a licensed fictional character. To the great satisfaction of General Mills executives, it was a major success. Shortcake fans devoured it.
Quickly, General Mills pursued an E.T. cereal, based on the smash 1982 movie. Arriving in 1984, the company believed a sequel—which never materialized—would keep it flying off shelves. A Pac-Man cereal followed. When neither product managed to reach Shortcake-level success, General Mills stopped pursuing licenses in 1985. But that was hardly the end of tie-in corn puffs.
Ralston Purina, a conglomerate that counted both breakfast cereal and dog food among its offerings, was faced with only minimal market share when compared to the “Big Two” titans: General Mills and Kellogg’s. Because launching a brand-new cereal was such an expensive proposition—marketing costs could grow to $40 million during the first year alone—it made more sense for Ralston to capitalize on existing properties, where their expenditure might only be $10 to $12 million. Their first attempt was a sugary riff on Cabbage Patch Kids. Released in 1985—at the point in Cabbage Patch mania where adults were getting into physical altercations over the dolls—it sold well, and Ralston seemed to have found its niche.
The next few years would see a number of Ralston products hit stores. Cereals based on Donkey Kong, Spider-Man, Gremlins, Rainbow Brite, Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Batman made what would otherwise be generic cereals palatable to a youth demographic and had novelty beyond the brand associations. The company’s Nintendo Cereal System in 1989 had one box with two different bags of multi-colored cereal. Others, like Batman, came with super-sized prizes like a coin bank that was shrink-wrapped to the box. Never mind that many of the concoctions were almost identical—the Spider-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cereal had pieces resembling Ralston’s Chex cereal relabeled “spider webs” or “ninja nets.” Fans of the properties ate it up.
Owing to their status as a tie-in product, these cereals had one fatal flaw: They typically sold well for just 14 to 18 months, whereas Tony the Tiger could keep moving flakes for decades. But by the time one cereal began to decline, another was ready to take its place. If Ralston’s Jetsons grew stale on shelves, Bill and Ted's Excellent Cereal was ready to go. The company found its most enduring tie-in with its marshmallow-stuffed Ghostbusters cereal, which remained a bestseller for an incredible five years running. (Propped up by an animated series and a 1989 sequel, it kept the property visible. C-3POs, in contrast, suffered from a lack of any new Star Wars movies after 1983.)
Not everyone could make the premise work. Quaker’s Mr. T cereal bombed. Ralston’s own Prince of Thieves cereal, an attempt to capitalize on 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves movie, was victimized by contractual limitations. Star Kevin Costner refused to appear on the box, diminishing the association.
Ralston continued the tie-ins into the 1990s, with the Family Matters-endorsed Urkel-Os joining cereals based on The Addams Family, Batman Returns, and others, usually paying a 3 to 5 percent royalty on each box sold to the licensors. While it made Ralston profitable, it also made them appealing for a buyout. To cement their status as cereal king, General Mills wound up buying Ralston in 1996 for $570 million. The deal largely put an end to the licensing promotions.
Today, there’s nostalgia for these edible gimmicks. Funko, the company behind the Pop! vinyl figures, maintains a line of themed cereals based on Pac-Man and less obvious properties like The Golden Girls. Unopened boxes of Batman cereal pop up on eBay from time to time. Some cereal loyalists even try to replicate the flavors, mixing Lucky Charms and Crispix to mimic the distinctively chalky taste of Spider-Man cereal. But for the most part, the industry has fallen back on the same standbys that were popular 70 years ago.
As one brand executive put it: Kellogg’s doesn’t need the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when they’ve got Corn Flakes.