His name is the stuff of legends, myths, and folklore. His product is synonymous with sugary childhood confectionery and early-morning breakfast-table memories. His jingle has inspired generations, and the stereotype he embodies has elicited public outcry.
The man of the moment, the hero of the hour, the mascot of General Mills’ most notorious and questionably-healthy line of classic cold-cereal greatness is none other than Sir Charms, aka L. C. Leprechaun, aka Lucky the Leprechaun!
Leftovers and Peanut Shavings
The year was 1962, and the company was General Mills. Famous for Wheaties and Cheerios, General Mills was (and still is) an integral part of Americana. Instead of simply resting on its laurels, however, the company challenged its crack team of developers to create a new and exciting kind of cereal. Part of the challenge involved utilizing the company’s existing factories—one which produced the breakfast of champions and the other those famous cheery Os.
John Holahan was the man who found the metaphorical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and inside that pot was the idea for Lucky Charms. The factory that already produced the oat-based Cheerios had plenty of leftovers, and it was Holahan who decided those bits would constitute 75% of the new cereal. As for the remaining 25%, that’s where he had to get creative.
In some form or another, Circus Peanuts have been around since the 1800s. The famous, flavored-marshmallow candy has sported many different names and manufacturers in its century-and-a-half history, but it remains otherwise unchanged as a product. Holahan supposedly got his idea for the marshmallow component of Lucky Charms from the shavings of Circus Peanuts; ironically, the candy itself is not generally well-liked. Even so, Holahan saw potential in the combination of these two excess edibles—leftover oat bits and Circus Peanut shavings—and the rest is history.
It’s worth noting that Lucky Charms, when first released in 1964, was not a big seller. Like Cheerios, the oat bits were not very sweet, and certainly not sugar-coated. However, after coating the bits in sugar and relaunching the cereal, General Mills found that the target audience (kids) responded much more favorably. Lucky Charms was the first cereal to feature bits of marshmallow, called “marbits,” and sales improved with the advent of brighter, more colorful, more diverse marshmallows.
The Luck of the Not-So-Irish*
Any marketing guru knows that a great mascot makes good products better, at least in public perception. A year before Lucky Charms was unleashed on the unsuspecting masses, the folks at General Mills were hard at work crafting just such a mascot. Enter Edward Becc, the lesser-known counterpart to the famous Lucky the Leprechaun.
At 72 years of age and a height of 4’2”, Becc is a curious, almost leprechaunish fellow; for a little person, he’s a little tall, but the likeness he bears to General Mills’ infamous mascot is remarkable. “My first name’s Edward, which means something to the effect of wealth protector. And my last name’s Becc, which in a roundabout ironic way, means small or low in stature. I guess I’m as close to a real-life leprechaun as you can get without actually being one.”
Becc showed up at General Mills’ doorstep in 1963, looking for work in the sales division. “It was an accident that I wound up in marketing. The receptionist gave me the wrong floor number.” The marketing department thought Becc had been hired to act in a commercial; Becc thought his peculiar reception by a room full of jokesters was some kind of test. He indulged their sense of humor and riffed on the leprechaun theme they were working with, and from that union Lucky was born.
“It’s really quite bizarre, the way it all came together. You put up with a lot of looks and curious stares being short. Everybody assumes you enjoy playing the stereotype to some degree or another, so I’ve learned to just shrug it off. It can be fun at times, of course. That’s what we did in that marketing meeting—we spun ideas and ran with a theme.”
In the end, the marketing department ran with quite a few of Becc’s themes, and they later gave Becc financial compensation for it. “It’s funny because I didn’t get the sales job I went in for, but I did wind up with part ownership of the character. Lucky’s based almost entirely on the caricature I threw at them! Some of the catchphrases that came later, those weren’t mine. But a lot of it was. The funny thing is, I’m not even Irish. It still makes me laugh thinking about it.”
In the forty-plus years since Lucky’s commercial debut, the character has gone on to become one of the most recognizable (and most quoted) fictitious cereal mascots since Tony the Tiger—who did for Kellogg’s what Lucky did for General Mills. Arthur Anderson, actor of film, stage, and theater, provided the voice for Lucky’s animated incarnation for almost thirty years. In a 2005 interview, Anderson, like Becc, stated that he’s not Irish either. “I just have an Irish-sounding name.” And a lot of luck.
Those Magical, Marvelous Marbits
Of course, the biggest charm of Lucky Charms is the marshmallows. My sister used to pick out the oat pieces until all that remained in her over-sized bowl were marshmallows—or something like marshmallows. Remember, those famous “marbits” are remarkably like Circus Peanuts: made with sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, soy protein, food coloring, and artificial flavoring. And, depending on who you ask, a little bit of magic.
Along with coating the bits of oat in sugar, General Mills discovered that consumers responded well to frequent alterations to the marshmallow lineup. Anyone who enjoyed Lucky Charms as a child can tell you that the “marbits” of today are almost unrecognizable compared to those of the past. Not only are they larger, but almost all of the original shapes have been altered, replaced, or combined with others.
When the cereal first debuted, it featured pink hearts, orange stars, yellow moons, and green clovers. The lineup has undergone so many changes (some of which were limited-time only, others commercial duds) that keeping tack has become a chore. Holahan called Lucky Charms a “lesson in creative marketing,” and time has shown his words to be true.
As of this article, the current marshmallow lineup is as follows: pink hearts, orange stars, purple horseshoes, green clover hats, blue moons, rainbows, pots of gold, and red balloons.
Hearts, Stars, Horseshoes, Clovers and Blue… ACORNs?
In 2004, political activist James O’Keefe and the Learning Institute proposed that Rutger University should stop serving Lucky Charms, citing that Lucky the Leprechaun “promotes negative stereotypes of Irish Americans.” A video of the meeting is available for viewing on YouTube; James O’Keefe, as some may know, was involved in the videos that exposed the group ACORN for dubious conduct, resulting in its temporary loss of federal funding.
That anyone finds Lucky the Leprechaun more offensive than the unholy level of sugar and corn syrup that riddles his delightful box of candy-coated charms is mind-boggling, says Edward Becc. “He’s a cartoon character for a breakfast cereal,” Becc shrugs, shaking his head. “And he’s not even representing a real person. If anyone should be offended, it’s probably the leprechauns.”
Despite this minor tarnish on the shoe buckles of General Mills’ most popular Irish mascot, Lucky Charms remains a colorful contender in the battle for your breakfast bowl. A walk down the grocery store cereal aisle will reveal not only multiple shelves of the classic oats and “marbits” marvel, but also boxes of its recent cocoa-themed spinoff—Chocolate Lucky Charms! And you thought it couldn’t get any sweeter.
The next time you find yourself hankerin’ for a delectable menagerie of multicolored, magically delicious candied oats and marshmallow bits, look no further than Lucky Charms. Sure, it may not be the breakfast of champions, and you may not recognize half of what spills out of the box, and the nutritional value may be worse than that of a rabbit’s foot, but hey—it’s an American institution!
And I must confess, it’s still a guilty pleasure to hover over my bowl of cereal and squeal in a terrible, stereotypical Irish accent: “They’re after me Lucky Charms!”
*Edward Becc is a fictitious character created for the purpose of this article. All other details in this article, however, are factual (albeit creatively embellished).