I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but I would hazard a guess that it was some time during the late-nineties. They disappeared quietly, you see, so as not to cause too much upheaval. It was a gradual retraction, and it was so successful that over a decade later, many of us have forgotten they ever existed. Box by box, we lost the single most joyful delights of the confectionary industry: cereal box prizes.
Kellogg’s was the first company to offer the ‘gift with purchase’ as part of their revolutionary cereal promotion in 1906. The gift itself was The Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Book, an interactive storybook featuring drawings of an elephant, a giraffe, a lion and an alligator – fun for all the family over breakfast. Half a century later, the invention of injection moulding transformed cereal box prizes; books and puzzles were replaced with mass-produced plastic toys, often modelled on superheroes or comic book characters. My personal favourite was a colour-changing plastic spoon that I fished from a box of Nesquik.
It was a genius marketing tactic, granted, but it was also more than that. For children of the twentieth century, cereal box prizes were part of a tradition; they were the reason we survived weekly trips to Sainsburys, for starters. Every box of cereal brought a new opportunity, a new treasure to be discovered. At least, that’s how it felt in my household.
The cereal box expedition was a weekend ritual. As I perched on the edge of the kitchen table, my tiny hands would carefully unfold the cardboard before tearing through the inner bag in search of my promised reward. Little chocolate balls would spill onto the floor, scattering under still-full shopping bags. Eventually, I’d find it - small, plastic, and generally useless - but I’d feel satisfied, nonetheless.
This, I’m sure, was a common scene across the UK. So, why put a stop to the widespread delight? What monster decided to deprive future generations of the joy of cereal box prizes?
The jury’s out, according to the Internet. No one quite knows what happened, but there are a number of theories.
The most obvious conclusion is that cereal box prizes were removed because they posed a choking hazard. In fact, a number of companies took steps to combat this before they disappeared altogether, placing the small toys inside an additional plastic pouch. Plastic inside plastic, amidst cereal, encased in plastic, within a cardboard box – which brings me to my next point.
We all know that plastic is bad. It’s killing the oceans and ruining our planet. Perhaps cereal box prizes were banned to save the turtles?
Less-toxic materials are significantly more expensive than plastic. And food companies don’t want to spend an enormous marketing budget on freebies; ergo, no more prizes.
Maybe people don’t actually want cheap junk filling up their homes anymore?
The government is in cahoots with the cereal companies, operating a nationwide conspiracy. Their two-pronged attack, so far spanning three decades, involves the gradual dissolution of cereal box prizes (thus making cereal less attractive) and the infiltration of Instagram’s sugar warriors. Their mission? To wean us onto a diet of oats and avocados. So far, we’re totally falling for it.
Whatever the reason (some understandable, others not so much), it’s saddening that this childhood tradition has been lost. So, I would like to encourage Kellogg’s to create a new strand of cereal box treasures for those of us susceptible to nostalgic indulgences (a.k.a. millennials). A few ideas: grow-your-own micro herb kits, meditation balls, scented candles, colouring books, worry dolls. Just a suggestion.