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The sad fate of cereal box toys

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When was the last time you found a prize in your box of breakfast cereal?

Chances are it's been at least a year or two. More likely it's been ten or twenty. Once ubiquitous, the humble cereal-box toy has nearly disappeared from the aisles of grocery stores around the world, putting a quiet end to a story that's very nearly as old as breakfast cereal itself.

As it happens, both the prizes and the foodstuff began in the same place and with the same famous family.

Both owe their existence to the Kellogg family -- Dr. J.H. Kellogg, the eccentric sanitarium director and enema fan depicted in the movie The Road to Wellville, and his younger brother Will Keith Kellogg. The pair share joint credit for their most famous invention, the corn flake, but it was Kellogg, Jr., the more business-savvy of the pair, who hit upon the idea of taking their product outside the (doubtless high and imposing) walls of their sanitarium, and to a wider audience. First he sweetened them with sugar, and then, in 1909, he added a prize to each box.

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Where the craze began.

It wasn't a cheap plasticky toy, however, and nor was it actually in the cereal box itself. Instead, it was a book buyers could send away for, after they'd bought at least two boxes of Kellogg's cereal. Called The Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Book, over two million copies were printed over the promotion's staggering 23-year lifespan.

But the golden years for the breakfast cereal toy came with the dawning of the age of cheap plastic manufacturing methods in the '50s. Ask your local sexagenarian for tales of the cereal toys of their youth, and you'll get the picture:  paper dolls, squirt guns, stickers, records, flocks of plastic fighter jets, little submarines that floated and sank automatically when you put a pinch of baking powder in their special compartment.

Best of all, they came in sets, and in order to collect them all you'd either have to eat your way through box after box after box of cereal, or swap them with your schoolmates. Magic stuff -- and toys very much like them remained popular all the way through to the 80s.

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Vintage submarine cereal toy

So what killed them? Urban legend would have it that flocks of children accidentally inhaled the toys, mistaking them for bizarrely misshapen Froot Loops or mutant Cheerios, and the makers discontinued the toys in an effort to limit their legal liability. Adding fuel to the fire is the well-known (and true) fact that US law forbids the importation of one of Europe's favorite candies, the Kinder egg, because each one contains a small toy. But has anyone really died from choking on a prize they found in a cereal box?

Not as far as we can tell, although there are anecdotes aplenty -- and no shortage of well-documented near-misses. Back in 1988, a Pennsylvania girl nearly died after choking on a "Cool Flute" musical toy packaged in Corn Pops cereal. Her accident prompted Kellogg to recall some 30 million similar playthings, and there have been other incidents since.

More recently, in 2000, the company recalled almost a million NASCAR-themed toy cars after the wheels started coming off and posing a choking hazard. It was more of a theoretical danger rather than an actual one, and no injuries were associated with that case, but recalls are neither cheap nor public-relations home-runs no matter the situation.

Accidental inhalation isn't the only safety concern they've faced. Kellogg -- yes, again -- hit trouble when it packaged a Spiderman-themed wristwatch with Rice Krispies in 2004. This time it wasn't the prize itself that snared Kellogg, though -- it was its mercury battery, which caused howls of protest from environmental groups and state legislators opposed to the use of the notoriously hazardous metal in toys.

"No healthy breakfast begins with mercury," quipped Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal in a letter to the food giant. Although the offending toy - -a wristwatch that could project Spidey pictures onto nearby walls at the touch of a button -- was in its own plastic bag and separated from the cereal, Kellogg removed the product from shelves and promised never to use mercury batteries in toys again.

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Cheerio, Batman!

Is it a case of twice bitten, twice shy? Perhaps -- but the cereal box toy is not totally gone. Here and there they pop up again: in 2008, Cheerios and Golden Grahams boxes contained Batman figures in honor of the release of The Dark Knight, and a year later a popular promo saw Lego racecars showing up in similar situations. Still, they're now the odd exception and not the rule they once were.

If it's not safety, then why the fall from favor of what's apparently a very popular promotional technique? We called Kellogg and asked them.

"Kellogg has always looked for ways to provide premiums and promotions that are engaging and relevant to our consumers," said spokesperson Kris Charles. She cites a promotion for the launch of The Amazing Spider-Man that gave customers access to exclusive online content and free movie theater tickets. And that's not all.

"Last month," adds Charles, "we launched a new web site, www.KelloggsFamilyRewards.com, where consumers can enter codes found inside packages of Kellogg products to earn a variety of rewards for the entire family, such as movie tickets, toys and books, digital rewards such as music and eBooks, gift cards, sports equipment, and coupons off Kellogg products."

Still, it's not quite the same to open a box of cereal and find a code — call us old-fashioned if you must. Somewhere between the lines of Kellogg's statement is the heart of the problem: the company doesn't think throwaway toys appeal to modern, discerning cereal purchasers. Maybe the kids of today aren't interested -- or maybe one toy in a couple of weeks' worth of cereal isn't enough to keep their attention.

It's a curious turnaround, and one that seems to be at odds with consumer sentiment. Consider this: what is the world's largest distributor of toys? Not Wal-Mart, not Amazon, not Toys-R-Us, but McDonald's. If you want to know where your cereal box toys have gone, perhaps you should try looking in the bottom of your Happy Meal bag.

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