"Cheerios Commercials and The Messages They Send to Little Girls," Lisa King (2002)

Over the years, advertisements for Cheerios have changed significantly when it comes to depicting little girls. In the early 1950s, these cartoon-style adventure ads were marketed to children, but in these commercials the boys got all the glory and attention. Thirty years later, the 1980s Cheerios adventure ads gave girls a more equal footing with the boys. Since then, girls in these ads are more likely to save the day than they are in need of rescue. As opposed to Cheerios commercials of the past, the company’s advertisements that were geared toward children in the 1980s created a fantasy of girls as physically strong, skilled, heroic, decision-makers.

Early Cheerios commercials depicted their female character through the classic stereotype of the damsel in distress. In constant need of rescue, she was completely helpless and in need of a hero to save her from yet another predicament. She was a non-entity. Her only role was that of a helpless object in need of rescue. She was relegated to the equivalent of the nameless, faceless, group of townspeople that the Cheerios Kid would often have to save as well. Her lack of importance was evidenced by the advertiser’s choice to equate a little girl with an unnamed crowd of innocent bystanders in need of assistance. Each simply served the purpose of depicting the Cheerios Kid as a hero; it really did not matter who he rescued, just that he was credited for doing so.

At some point along the way, the girl in the Cheerios ads of the ‘50s and ‘60s was given a name, Sue. It was progress, but the character, Sue, still had no real voice or personality. Often, the only sounds from her were her screams for help. One black and white commercial of the adventures of the Cheerios Kid and Sue points this out.

The first thing that is heard in this cartoon ad is Sue crying, “Help! Dragon!” This is her only line. Sue is never actually seen in this commercial, but it is implied that the dragon has her helplessly trapped. Since the ad is targeted at children, sound effects, a rhyming narration, and a catchy jingle are run throughout this one-minute mini-adventure. The jingle says that the dragon roamed the countryside so the call went out for a strong hero to rid the area of the terrible menace. The Cheerios Kid takes on the challenge. Dressed as a knight on a steed, he eats his Cheerios, rams the dragon, and knocks him out. Victorious, the Cheerios Kid puts a foot on the dragon and stops to flex his muscle. His muscle has a Cheerio inside of it, suggesting that the Cheerios are responsible for his strength. Finally, he sings the catchy little jingle about the power in his Cheerios.

The young boys watching this commercial probably felt powerful themselves, especially if they were Cheerios eaters. They learned that boys are proud, brave heroes. To experience the thrill for themselves, it is likely that little boys all across America ran happily around their living rooms doing reenactments of the Cheerios adventures they saw.

However, the early Cheerios ads gave little girls a very different message. The message they received was that girls were weak, incapable of helping themselves, and in need of male assistance if they wanted to get out of a tight spot. It was clearly demonstrated to them that they had no voice of their own. They could never be heroes. After all, if girls were heroes would it not interfere with the boys’ acts of heroism? They learned that a girl’s role was to boost a boy’s self-image not necessarily to be seen or heard (except when crying for help). The fact that this message came by way of a happy little cartoon probably made the idea go down a bit easier for little girls as they sat down to eat their Cheerios. Fortunately, a new message for girls was on the horizon, though it took many years to arrive.

In the 1980s, advertisers for Cheerios chose to make Sue a much different character than the one she had been for the preceding thirty years. She was given an active role as an equal opportunity rescuer of people in distress. Sue’s physical strength was equivalent to that of the Cheerios Kid, and she contributed her own problem-solving skills to the dilemmas that came up. She was given a voice, a personality, and for the first time, Sue and the Cheerios Kid were working together as a team. This message has continued to the current day, and has given girls growing up over the last twenty years the idea that they are strong, capable, decision-makers with personalities of their own. One colorful 1980s Cheerios ad demonstrates this change.

The commercial begins by showing a peaceful setting of barnyard animals quietly grazing in the background while Sue and the Cheerios Kid are at the barn stacking hay. A tornado with an angry-looking face on it blows in, sweeping the helpless barnyard animals away. Sue and the Cheerios Kid are concerned and briefly discuss the problem before going inside the barn to eat their Cheerios breakfast. The cereal makes them stronger as they eat together at the table. When they are finished, they both flex their equally large bicep muscles, each one containing a Cheerio inside of it. Sue fearlessly swings from the rafters and kicks the tornado out of the barn. Waiting outside, the Cheerios Kid finishes it off by swinging it around and letting go, sending it flying, apparently, so it can do no further harm. The commercial ends with both characters flexing their bicep muscles again and declaring in unison, “A Cheerios breakfast!” Throughout the commercial, Sue and the Cheerios Kid have an equal give and take dialogue with each other; neither one outshines the other. Both characters choose to handle the situation in their own way, but together they are an effective team. This time, they are both heroes.

Over a thirty-year period, Cheerios commercials have gone from depicting girls as powerless, needy objects to strong, skilled, heroic, decision-makers with brains and personalities. Maybe advertisers realized that they could sell cereal without denigrating girls in the process. Maybe they have also gotten on board with the idea that girls are not simply useful for puffing up the egos of their male counterparts, but that they actually have something positive to contribute to the world as well. Heroes can be found in both genders, and it is a good thing, because we all need a hero now and then.