Decades of thinking outside box to sell cornflakes, other cereals

Kellogg's celebrates 100 years of stirring up business with pioneering ad campaigns


The Kellogg Co. didn't begin with a snap, crackle or a pop. It began with an accident.

According to corporate legend, in 1894 the Kellogg brothers, W.K. and John Harvey, were boiling a batch of wheatberries in their experimental kitchen when they were called away. By the time they returned, the wheatberries had turned stale, but the enterprising siblings forced the grain through the rollers anyway.

Voila! The first flaked cereal.

A few years later, W.K.'s experiments led to the development of flaked corn. When Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes - and with it the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Co. - was officially launched 100 years ago this year, it was with a prescient mix of promotional gusto and a product profile in sync with the United States' infatuation with self-improvement regimens.

The cereal company "was at the forefront of this kind of advertising," says Ted Hake, the chief operating officer of Hake's Americana & Collectibles in Timonium, which sells Kellogg's memorabilia. In 1907, an ad campaign bodacious for the era urged housewives to wink at their grocers on Wednesday for a free box of Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes. They winked aplenty. Satisfied customers went on to buy the cereal, and sales ballooned.

W.K. Kellogg, a natural marketing whiz who would part ways with his older brother soon after the company's founding, understood the added value of sales promotions and appealing to consumers through their children.

That keen marketing sense led Kellogg's to be the first sponsor of children's cartoons on Saturday mornings, according to company history.

Cornflakes have changed little over the past century - except for short-lived makeovers involving freeze-dried bananas and other edible novelties. With the introduction of Frosted Flakes, Sugar Smacks and Cocoa Krispies in the 1950s, plain old cornflakes were no longer under the same pressure to be kid-friendly.

But, like scores of other Kellogg products, the cornflakes cereal box itself became a vehicle for pioneering advertising techniques and graphics by famed artists that would later comprise a category of sought-after collectibles.

Ross Lloyd, of Vandergrift, Pa., has amassed an admirable collection of kids' cereal boxes, mostly from the 1960s through the 1990s, that was recently displayed in a fine-arts gallery at the California University of Pennsylvania.

"Cereal boxes unlock a lot of childhood memories that otherwise have laid dormant for 30 years," Lloyd wrote in an e-mail. "The characters, prizes, the stories on the box panel, all the `messages to mother' that said, `this cereal is a nutritious part of a good breakfast' - all bring back great memories of Saturday mornings, watching cartoons, and really `playing' with your cereal prizes. You had balloon-powered boats and cars, as well as rubber band-powered vehicles, rings of all kinds, and tops, even mini terrariums with real seeds that actually grew!"

Today, an intact cereal box can fetch a lot of money. "One of the rarest boxes by Kellogg's is Kream Krunch - Corn Flakes with real freeze-dried ice cream in the cereal," Lloyd says. "Made in 1965, there are only a few boxes known to exist, and one recently sold for $1,200 in 2005." (He doesn't own it.)

Usually, boxes that depict characters and personalities - from the Lone Ranger to Dale Earnhardt Sr. - are more desirable than "generic" boxes, collectible experts say. Boxes from the 1960s with television characters Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear "can bring $300 in nice condition," Hake says.

Noted illustrators J.C. Leyendecker, N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell created pictures for Kellogg's cereal boxes. Their design and subject matter were calculated to suit the times, making it relatively easy today to identify the decades when certain boxes were produced.

Cereal-box artwork is "very decade-driven," says Harry Rinker, a collectibles expert based in Pennsylvania. "The cereal companies have done a great job [adapting to] shifting tastes in color schemes, art, motifs and so forth."

In the 1930s, the backs of cornflakes boxes featured adventure stories about famous aviators, including Adm. Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennet.

During World War II, kids could cut out a turbo jet plane from the back of a box of Kellogg's Pep, a whole-wheat and bran-flake cereal, and attach an aluminum wing found in the box. Cereal packaging also promoted the purchase of war bonds, and sales material portrayed Rice Krispies characters Snap, Crackle and Pop riding on Jeeps, says Alinda R. Arnett, archivist for the Kellogg Co.

"In the '50s, they did an awful lot of promotions involving Superman," says Hake, author of Hake's Price Guide to Character Toys.

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