Meet Chester, the mascot for the “ChipMates” line of cookie cereal. Here you can see him doing his thing, opening his arms wide in celebration of the cereal brand which he is exhorting you to enjoy in all its flavorful, vitamin-enriched kidtastic goodness. He is cute and non-threatening, particularly for one who is clearly meant — by attire and accoutrement — to be a pirate. As required by the National Code of Cereal Mascots, his eyes are wide and unlidded, his eyebrows arched with pleasure and his mouth ever so slack, showing just a hint of tongue, as if to imply the joy of consuming the cereal is so great that one’s brain simply cannot ask one’s jaws to clamp down and risk not tasting the powdery, particulate fragments that hover in the air above the bowl, jostled up after the cereal has tumbled the distance from the box to the bowl’s concave surface. He is everything a cereal mascot is meant to be.
What do we really know of Chester? What is his story? What are his motivations for presenting this bowl of cereal to us? To which of the two great cereal mascot archetypes does he belong? Is he a Taster, one of the lucky mascots, like Tony the Tiger or Toucan Sam, who gets to enjoy the product he is so assiduously pitching? Or is he a Chaser, one of those poor bastards like the Trix Rabbit, doomed to the Sisyphean task of promoting a cereal he himself is never once allowed to enjoy? The pirate garb suggests he is a Chaser; after all, pirates spend their time chasing booty, which they may or may not ever get. But on the other hand, perhaps this pirate already has his treasure — these dun, chocolate-spotted discs of corn and oats — in which case, like Lucky the Leprechaun, he would be tasked with keeping said treasure from cute but frighteningly rapacious children who chase him about trying to get it for their own. Which would put him solidly in the Taster camp. Fact is, Chester could swing either way. We don’t know.
And we can’t know. And that is because Chester is the mascot not for a national brand of cereal, but for a store brand (or, those in the industry call it, a “private label” brand), made for the Krogers supermarket chain here in America’s heartland. As a mascot for a private label brand, Chester finds himself in an uncomfortable position. His job performance is hampered, not because of his lack of skill in his job, but by the simple mechanics of private label distribution. None of his efforts, for example, will ever get ChipMates into a Food Lion or a Safeway. They have their own private label cookie cereals, possibly with their own mascots — an excitable giraffe, perhaps, or maybe a baker out of his mind with cookie-based rapture.
But more than that, as a store brand mascot, Chester is denied the vehicle that would allow his character its narrative: The commercial. Everything we know of all the major cereal mascots comes in 30-second animated snippets; it’s how we know Tony the Tiger is an excellent lifestyle coach, or that Snap, Crackle and Pop have virtuoso comic timing, or that the poor Trix Rabbit is in desperate and immediate need of therapy. We will never have these brief windows into Chester’s soul; store brands aren’t given commercials of their own. At best, they get a picture in an advertising circular or a second or two on a local TV ad, as the camera pans across a collection of private label items and some droning announcer declares the remarkable savings they afford. Two seconds of being panned across is not enough time to develop a coherent backstory. All Chester gets is the cereal box, and a single, ambiguous pose.
And, of course, he’s lucky to get even that. Some mascots don’t even get a box; think back on the humiliation visited upon Schnoz the Shark or Mane Man as they tried to entice consumers to their cereal in flimsy plastic bags, shelved, as they always were, on the bottom shelf of the cereal aisle. Think also on the extremely high rate of unemployment among cereal mascots. When was the last time Baron Von RedBerry got work? Or Twinkles the Elephant? Or Dandy, Handy ‘N Candy? The dirty secret about being a cereal mascot is that if it doesn’t work out — if your cereal flops or management decides to make a mascot change — you’re through. You can’t get work again. No other cereal will hire you. The best you can hope for is that somewhere along the way some advertising whiz kid decides to run a nostalgia campaign, and then you get trotted out again, gamely smiling for the camera and pathetically grateful that the income will help you get your meds (cereal mascots are ironically susceptible to several diseases related to vitamin deficiencies). Say what you will about the ignominy of being a store brand cereal mascot, but at least it’s steady work. Creating new mascots for a private label brand is money the grocery store companies simply aren’t going to pay.
Be that as it may, spare a moment for the existential plight of Chester Chipmate, a mascot without voice or history or personal motivation, an enigma wrapped in a mystery, coated in sugar and fortified with minerals. Who knows what wisdom he might impart to us if he had just one 30-second animated commercial? An exclamation that his wares are chiptastic? A promise that his cereal is good to the last crumb? An admonition that in this life we all have to make choices, and some choices come with their own pains, which we must accept with eyes wide, eyebrows arched, jaw slacked and tongue slightly visible? Perhaps all these things. Let us enjoy a bowl of ChipMates and think on it.