Food History

Where Did All the Cereal Box Prizes Go?

April 12, 2016

Think back for a second: There was once a time when you didn’t crave avocado toast, you would stick your tongue out at the very idea of fermented oatmeal, and you wouldn’t pack homemade muesli in a mason jar before racing out the door. Maybe you were five, maybe six, your biggest worry was how much your jelly sandals were going to make your feet sweat, and sugary breakfast cereals reigned supreme.

If you were lucky enough to pick your breakfast poison (i.e. your parent wasn't committed to stocking the pantry with the whole-grain stuff), you may also remember that this choice came down to a very particular ratio of taste, texture, and the promise of the prize inside the box.

I recently realized, however, that most cereals no longer offer an in-box promotional prize, regardless of sugar content or the age group they're being marketed to. Gone are the days of free color-changing spoons, limited-edition Pez dispensers, and Darkwing Duck fanny packs.

No prize in sight. Photo by Sarah Daniels

Kellogg’s was the first company to start including these in-box bonuses, implementing the playful promotion soon after they started mass marketing Corn Flakes at the turn of the 20th century. The brand offered a book called The Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Book that purchasers could send away for after buying two or more boxes. The movement was immensely popular, and over two million copies were printed during the giveaway period.

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It was the implementation of cheap plastic manufacturing methods in the 1950s that saw the rise of the cereal-box prizes we might be a bit more familiar with: Until the 2000s, children were greeted by tokens of their favorite cartoons as they came careening out of boxes of Cheerios or Cap’n Crunch. A personal favorite of mine was any spoon that could do something more than shovel cereal into my mouth (change color when dipped in milk, light up with the push of a button, or glow in the dark), though similar winning prizes included rub-on tattoos, plastic figurines, Flinstones erasers, and of course, Pogs of any sort.

I don't care that this pen will die quickly, I WANT IT. Photo by The Chive

So why have these toys all but disappeared from supermarket aisles? No one really seems to know for certain. There is a lot of speculation that cereal companies are afraid of being sued for choking hazards, and some claim that a few children actually tried consuming the toys. Others still blame the fact that kids don’t want anything that’s not a video game.

When I called the customer service department at Kellogg’s to ask, all they could tell me was that it was a decision made by the marketing department based on in-depth research. Instead, the company now uses their boxes to offer an internet access code that enables families to participate in an online rewards program, similar to that offered by credit card companies or mainstream airlines—a far cry from the Chex Quest CD-ROMs and Carmen Sandiego games that were once the most in the way of digital interaction that cereal companies offered.

The amazing bike spinners of yesterday versus the (ahem, lame) interactive offers of today. Photo by Gray Flannel Suit, Nestle

General Mills, on the other hand, suggested a glimmer of hope, stating that they do in fact continue giving in-package promotions, but only in partnership with large media events. In honor of the release of the newest Star Wars movie, for instance, they offered a small robot toy that recipients could look through like a telescope; the premiere of the Batman v Superman movie will launch boxes accompanied by one-of-a-kind collectible comics that should be available this summer. This policy is an odd exception to today’s bauble-barren supermarket aisles, a small compensation for a purchase that (while nostalgically nourishing) offers a less-than-ideal morning option now that our eyes are open to so many better homemade breakfasts.

The decline in prizes is not completely surprising when you consider the logistical hurdles—like cutting costs, avoiding lawsuits, and minimizing waste—that companies face in our contemporary culture, but that doesn't make its acceptance any easier: So many children will never know the pleasure in reaching to the bottom of the box to discover a knick-knack. The next time I feel the need for a bit of a breakfast throwback, I'll go ahead and pick up a box of sugary morsels from the nearest market—but I'll need to bring my own glow-in-the dark flatware.

What was your favorite cereal prize? Let us know in the comments!

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Sarah E Daniels

Written by: Sarah E Daniels

It's mostly a matter of yeast.

1 Comment

Noreen F. April 12, 2016
My mother quit buying cereal with prizes because we'd dig through the box for the prize and then the cereal would sit there until it went stale!