March 27, 2008

No Toys In Cereal Boxes

Stupid Question ™
Aug. 20, 1998
By John Ruch
© 1998

Q: Why are there no toys in cereal boxes anymore?

A: Anybody who grew up between 1960 and the mid-’80s—and didn’t have a nutritionist for a parent—remembers fondly rooting through cereal boxes for toys.

Baking soda-powered submarines. “Freakies” figurines, tiny puzzles, pens shaped like monster fingers. And the legendary Cap’n Crunch whistle that coincidentally replicated the secret tone AT&T workers used to access the phone system for free.

Times have changed. Out of about 70 kiddie cereals I surveyed in a recent grocery store trip, only six offered in-box toys—a huge decline.

Three of those (in Post’s Honeycomb and Frosted/Honey Nut Shredded Wheat) were sucky posters. Post’s Fruity Pebbles offered a “Stone Age Scramble” puzzle, General Mills’ French Toast Crunch had a pack of “Watermelon Mania” Twizzlers candy, and General Mills’ Cinnamon Toast Crunch had a pair of “Spy Specs” that let you see behind your back.

Mail-in offers—most requiring multiple proofs-of-purchase and extra money to boot—were far more prevalent. The only thing Cap’n Crunch is offering these days is the chance to buy a “Mulan” clock. (Good luck hacking the phone system with that.)

Kellogg, which pioneered giveaway items with 1910’s “Funny Jungleland Moving Picture Book,” has stopped putting toys in its cereal boxes altogether.

Both Kellogg and General Mills said market research is the reason.

“Within the last 10 years, we’ve seen a shift,” said Kellogg Product Publicity Manager Kenna Bridges in a phone interview. “Where it used to be trinkets and toys, people now want higher-quality items”—mail-aways such as CDs and computer software.

However, something besides consumer needs started shifting 10 years ago: product-liability vulnerability.

In 1988, a Pennsylvania girl nearly choked to death on a “Cool Flutes” in-box toy from Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies cereals, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Actually, trouble for the generally small ’n’ shoddy in-box toys began in 1973, when the safety commission was founded with a mission that included hardcore toy regulation.

Since 1983, the commission has logged 26 complaints about cereal box toys—including the death of a 13-month-old who choked on a toy ball in 1987.

Spokespeople for Kellogg and General Mills (which has a toy safety committee) told me that they didn’t know if safety concerns factored into in-box toys’ decline.

But if you can offer higher-quality items with schemes that require the buying of multiple boxes of cereal, all while preventing choking-related consumer complaints, it’s gotta be a better deal for cereal companies.

All of which leaves us with the real question: What are you supposed to do with a box of Froot Loops now? Eat it?

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