The Golden Age Of Crappy Little Plastic Toys In Cereal Packets

The strange world of movie tie-in breakfast cereal and its recent movie into the nostalgia market.

The shelves of B&M stores across the country were recently brightened with packs of cereal branded as Back to the Future chocolate balls and Jaws multigrain shark shapes. The former was clearly very cool, the latter jaw-droppingly awesome, and the only slight peeve one could have, while popping both packets into one’s basket, was that the Jaws graphic designer went for the slogan ‘Feeding time’ instead of ‘You’re going to need a bigger bowl’.

Almost as quickly, both cereals disappeared from the shelves as opportunist wheeler-dealers snapped the £1.99 packets up by the trolley-load and started flogging them on eBay at a tenner a pop. Exciting as they are, these are merely the latest examples of a concept that dates back to the 1930s – licensed breakfast cereal as movie merchandise.

The earliest cereal-cinema collaboration seems to be something called Wheaties which, in 1936, issued a set of six packets with impressive spot-colour pictures of film stars on the back, promoting their latest movies. Four were westerns: Gene Autry in The Big Show, Hopalong Cassidy in Trail Dust, Johnny Mack Brown in Lawless Land, and Harry Carey in The Lost Outlaw. The two most collectable, for obvious reasons, depict Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan Escapes and Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan in Undersea Kingdom. A full set sold at auction for $632 ten years ago, although the Tarzan box goes for 500 bucks on its own in good condition apparently.

Which raises the interesting point that old cereal packets have double collectability. On the one hand, there are movie fans willing to pay top dollar for a scarce piece of licensed merchandise; mass-produced but mostly binned after use. And on the other, there is an underground culture of actual cereal box collectors, more interested in the brand than the branding. Thirty years ago I picked up an issue of a fanzine called Flake: The Breakfast Nostalgia Magazine, a gloriously nerdy publication whose eighth issue was themed around sci-fi related cereals. And it’s an eye-opener. (From the letters page: “You overlooked several Kellogg critters in issue 7 like the Raisin Bran honeybees from the fifties, the Raisin Bran Sun, the Apple Jacks kids and Wally bear. Why?”)

Early examples in the Flake feature listing ’45 Blast-off Boxes’ are tie-ins for 1940s/1950s radio or TV series such as Space Patrol, Tom Corbett – Space Cadet and Captain Video. Alongside the boxes themselves, collectors go understandably crazy for the ‘premiums’ – the tiny plastic toys which were once de rigeur in breakfast cereals. Well, I say ‘toys’. I believe the technical term is ‘choking hazards’. Other, safer enticements to generate pester-power in the aisles were things such as masks and badges that could be cut out from the back of the packet, or things that could be sent off for, enclosing a box-top and a quarter. Both of which, naturally, damaged the packet, thereby making complete examples much rarer.

(I did actually get slightly annoyed when The Young Master ripped our Back to the Future box in his eagerness to chomp down on its unhealthy goodness, but then realised we’re clearing out crap ahead of a house move anyway so I’m not saving bloody cereal packets for ten years in the hope of making a killing on eBay. Though I bet some people will.)

In the UK, the trailblazer in licensed tie-ins seems to have been Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks which was home to several Gerry Anderson promotions. Little plastic Thunderbirds figures, little plastic Thunderbirds vehicles, Joe 90 button badges, Captain Scarlet button badges, little plastic Captain Scarlet vehicles… and some cool send-away offers including construction kits of FAB1, the SPV and Mac’s Car. Furthermore, the brand had no qualms about featuring Scott Tracy or Joe 90 or Captain Scarlet as the main image on the front of the packet.

Sugar Smacks’ piece de resistance, however, was surely their set of five Star Trek button badges in 1969 (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu and the Star Fleet logo, since you’re itching to know). The box front image of Mr Spock is so iconic it was actually the front cover of Flake. Legend has it that Leonard Nimoy’s son paid $1,000 for one of these as a gift for his dad who had no idea it existed. (Fortunately, he didn’t buy Nimoy Sr the 1971 Corn Flakes packet with a terrifying cut-out Mr Spock mask on the back. Others in that series were Kirk (unrecognisable), an android (generic bald bloke), and Sulu and a Klingon, which were both vaguely racist.)

For kids of the 1970s, the iconic sci-fi breakfast cereal tie-in was Weetabix and Doctor Who. In 1975 there was a series of 24 little stand-up card characters inside the packets. Six different Daleks, two Tom Bakers, one Lis Sladen and an impressive range of monsters including such unlikely suspects as an Axxon, a Draconian and a Quark. Perfect for junior Who-nerds, with the back of the packs featuring backgrounds of alien planets for hours of endless fun. Two years later, the Doctor was back on Weetabix packets with a set of four board games. The card-playing pieces were again a mix of the iconic and the weirdly obscure. Who can forget such legendary characters as Vega Nexos and Blor? (Predating this, the first Doctor Who tie-in was actually, and inevitably, Sugar Smacks, which offered a range of Who badges in a 1971 pack depicting… not sure, might be Rod Hull.)

By 1981 Weetabix had moved on from Doctor Who to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with stand-up card figures of 18 characters/aliens inside the packets and cut-out card models of the Enterprise and a Klingon Battle Cruiser. Fourteen years later, Trekkies were again enticed with TNG card figures and backgrounds as a tie-in to Star Trek: Generations. As an extra incentive, the reverse of the figures had stickers of Star Trek spaceships, with a send-away offer of a poster on which to affix them. But of course, if you did that, you instantly reduced the value. Oh, decisions decisions. Better buy two.

In the early 2000s, movie tie-in premiums became remarkably complex. Kelloggs offered Star Wars lightsabre mazes and King Kong battle rollers in 2005 across all their major brands; actual functioning toys rather than crappy plastic or card figures. In a rare example of something both cool and useful, 2017 Shreddies packs contained a Last Jedi bag clip that looked like a lightsabre and could be used to keep the cereal fresh.

So this is still going on, the main difference from yesteryear being that the premiums are now in little plastic bags for health and safety reasons (because there clearly isn’t enough plastic packaging in the world). Back in the day, the choking hazard was simply stuffed in with the cereal, archaic packaging technology resulting occasionally in the Kelloggs equivalent of a double yolk egg. Urban quasi-myths persisted of people finding whole handfuls of toys due to some snafu at the factory, a concept immortalised in an episode of The Goodies when Bill tipped an entire packet of plastic spacemen into a bowl and retrieved a solitary corn flake.

Whereas British cereal tie-ins tended to be a regular cereal with a premium or offer, the USA has a history of creating a specific cereal to tie-in with the blockbuster movie du jour (although all were, of course, simple variations on a theme). There were cereals representing Ghostbusters, ET, The Addams Family, Batman (actually bat-shaped cereal!), Batman Returns, Gremlins and more – usually with a sticker or trading card inside the pack. Probably the most legendary of these were C-3POs, a Star Wars cereal launched in 1984 to tie in with… erm, I’ll get back to you on that. Still, the TV ad was a bit of extra income for Anthony Daniels.

Maybe it’s a reflection of the global economy, but recent movie tie-in cereals have increasingly not bothered with premiums, cynically figuring that the packet itself is enough to entice marketing-enthralled kids (and adult nerds). Additional cynicism is evident in alternative packets, requiring double purchases. Thus there were both Superman and Batman cereals produced for Supes vs Bats: Dawn of Justice, and for Captain America: Civil War there was just a single cereal available in both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark boxes.

Which brings us to the Jaws and Back to the Future cereals, which would seem to constitute a new era in breakfast tie-ins. Up till now, merchandising has always served an obvious purpose. Whether toy or sticker or cut-out mask, the freebie promoted a current cinema or television property. But the two latest cereals trade on pure nostalgia. Few eight-year-olds will pester their parents for a packet of Jaws cereal, but to grown-ups with disposable income, these things are breakfast catnip.

By the time you read this, I expect the packets will have pretty much all migrated to eBay. But if you do find one, keep the packet by all means, but at least eat the damn cereal. I can report that both are surprisingly tasty, and as enjoyably unhealthy as can be managed in today’s era. But, oh man, if only they had included a Chief Brody character card or a plastic DeLorean…


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