Finding a prize in the bottoms of cereal boxes is a happy childhood memory for many of us. It was one of the best parts of grocery day for a child growing up in the 1960’s or ’70’s, and perhaps even before. The cereal was secondary to the prize, and whether or not the cereal had a prize determined how much we begged our parents to but it. The little trinkets were highly motivating, and made for very successful marketing, despite the fact that they had almost no value.
The problem with cereal box prizes is they were usually way down in the very bottom of the box. They were the “prize” for eating all the cereal, after all! Most of us wouldn’t have it. There were three ways that you might get the prize out of the box without having to eat all the cereal first. The two most basic methods were jamming and pouring. You might start by just jamming your hand down into the cereal, crushing it as you went, to retrieve the prize by brute force. Some cereals guarded their prize better than others, however. A modification to the jammer method was to push on the sides of the box to round it out, and then shake the box to see if you could make some room and glimpse the prize. This worked sometimes. The last resort: pouring. You just poured out all the cereal into a large bowl (or right onto the table if you were that kind of kid) and got the prize. Putting the cereal back into the box was never as easy as it seemed, though. Quite a lot of trouble for something that broke almost immediately or became boring after a few minutes. There were some prizes, though, once in a while, that we worth treasuring. In fact, some cereal box prizes are today sought after collectors items.
The Very First Prizes Didn’t Come in the Box
In fact, breakfast cereal box prizes have been around for quite a long time, they came about when the breakfast cereal industry was still in its infancy. However, the first prizes weren’t placed inside the cereal boxes. According to most sources, the first-ever prize used to market cereal was introduced by Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in 1909. These “cereal premium prizes” were at first, a point-of-sale giveaway. Customers were given a copy The Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Book if they purchased two boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. You can read more about what was inside these books here.
Later, Kellogg’s changed from an in-store point-of-sale offer to a mail-in offer. After only four years, in 1912, Kellog’s had distributed 2.5 million of the Jungleland Books. The company kept offering various new editions of the book for many years, all the way to 1937. Some of these books, today, are collector’s items, selling for up to $60.
In the 1920s, Kellogg’s also gave away Stuff-Yourself Nursery Rhyme Rag Dolls, in exchange for Kellogg’s box tops (number required unknown). Prizes inside boxes would have to wait.
Looking for “specially marked boxes” so you can send in a proof of purchase and wait a couple of weeks to receive your prize in the mail was certainly not the preferred method of obtaining cereal prizes, but it was one of several methods eventually used by cereal companies to distribute prizes:
- In-store – prizes given away after a required number of boxes of cereal were purchased.
- Mail-order – Prizes were mailed in exchange for a UPC label (Universal Product Code). At first, box-tops were mailed in.
- In the box or “in-pack promotion”
- Attached to box or “on-pack promotion” – the creme-de-la-creme and oh, so rare!
Before we can move on to the first prize to be packed inside a cereal box, though, we have to give credit where credit is due. The breakfast cereal industry was not the first to put prizes inside boxes. No, the first, and the absolute king of box prizes, was Cracker Jack. The first toy surprises began showing up in Cracker Jack boxes in 1912, made of paper and metal. Many different types of prizes were given away in the early years, like movie slide cards, tin soldiers, tops, and metal Baseball score counters and baseball cards. The largest collection of Cracker Jack prizes ever assembled, by Chad Dreir, CEO of Ryland Homes, sold at auction for $35,000.
The First Cereal Box Prizes?
It is not clear when the first-ever prize was inserted into a cereal box since by the 1950s they were appearing quite regularly. However, Kellogg’s began placing pin-back buttons into Pep cereal boxes in 1943. The first set of pins were 36 small buttons featuring WWII U.S. military squadron insignia. You can view a great collection of these on USMilitariaForum. Later, comic book characters appeared.
In 1946, the game changed when a screw injection molding machine was invented by James Watsone Hendry, allowing toys to be produced very quickly and at very low cost. In the 1970s Hendry developed an injection molding process for cereal prizes, which enabled many new kinds of prizes to be made quickly and cheaply.
What Happened to Cereal Box Prizes?
Cereal box premiums were ubiquitous even up until the 1990s but then they began to fade. Why? Blame lawsuits and concern for our children’s health. Not only were some of the toys small and dangerous for young children, and often made with unsafe materials, parents and consumer advocate groups linked premium toy giveaways with the marketing of sugary and unhealthy foods directly to children. The pressure for cereal companies, fast-food chains, and other companies that marketed foods to children all but killed the cereal box prize.