Under the Influence

A Prize In Every Box: Premiums, Toys and Box-Tops

Remember when you were growing up, and you'd find a prize inside your cereal box? Prizes, premiums and box-top offers have been a staple of modern marketing since the 1800s. We'll tell the story of how the first ever box-top offer was the result of a critical marketing mistake - but it set the stage for a century of...
Under the Influence: A Prize in Every Box: Box-Tops, Toys and Free Prizes (Season 2 Episode 2) - Under the Influence: A Prize in Every Box: Box-Tops, Toys and Free Prizes (Season 2 Episode 2) - EP

Remember when you were growing up, and you'd find a prize inside your cereal box? Prizes, premiums and box-top offers have been a staple of modern marketing since the 1800s. We'll tell the story of how the first ever box-top offer was the result of a critical marketing mistake - but it set the stage for a century of product giveaways. We'll also explore the psychology of free prizes, like how the public is instantly attracted to a mail-in offer, but so few go to the trouble of redeeming their prize. 

From the first Kellogg's cereal prize, to Crackerjack, to the Happy Meal, to a promotion involving the Beatles that resulted in a lawsuit - it's a fascinating aspect of marketing.

Back in 1954, an adman named Bruce Baker was given an assignment. 

His client, The Quaker Oats Company, had asked him to come up with a new premium promotion for their cereals. 

In the marketing world, "premiums" is a word for the toys and prizes found inside cereal boxes and other packaged products. 

The premium had to tie into the TV show Quaker was sponsoring, called "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon." 

Source: YouTube

Then Baker came up with the idea of putting a land deed in every box of cereal. 

The Deed would be for one square inch of land in the Yukon. Kids would get to own a piece of the land that Sgt. Preston actually patrolled. 

A 19-acre plot of land in the Yukon would only cost $1,000. 

21 million one-inch parcels could be cut from the land. Deed printing and cost of the land would all come in under $10,000. 

It was a big, unique, affordable idea. And - it tied in beautifully with their Sgt. Preston of the Yukon TV show. 

So Quaker approved the idea, and bought a 19.1 acre plot of land along the Yukon River - sight unseen. 

The promotion launched on the Sgt. Preston show on January 27, 1955, and ads appeared in 93 newspapers. 

klondike big inch certificate.jpg
Source: yukoninfo.com

The response was beyond Bruce Baker's wildest dreams. The public scooped up Quaker cereal as fast as land deeds could be stuffed into the boxes. Grocers had to set up special Quaker displays to handle the rush. Every box was sold. 

Quaker was thrilled. 

By the late 1950s, Sgt. Preston had gone off the air, and the one-inch land deed promotion had run its course. The Klondike One-Inch Land Company was kept alive for a while to handle inquiries, and the 19-acre plot of land was eventually repossessed by the Canadian government for non-payment of $37.20 worth of tax. 

And that was the end of the Quaker One-Inch Land giveaway. 

Or so they thought. 

Many years after Quaker's one-inch land rush promotion, the company began getting thousands of requests from deed-holders. 

Former children, their attorneys, their widows and their executors were writing to inquire after their "property," which they assumed had increased in value over the years. People were serious about their seven-by-five inch deed, which, by the way, was 35 times larger than the piece of land it represented. 

It became no laughing matter at Quaker. They were threatened with lawsuits, and the time and expense required to answer the letters was enormous. 

As it turns out, Quaker had protected itself by not registering any of the land titles. So the deeds had no value. 

But needless to say, it was one of the most successful marketing premiums of all time - and one of the biggest headaches - as Quaker still gets letters to this day. 

Not all free prizes, toys and box-top offers ended up haunting the parent company, but premiums are one of the most fascinating aspects of marketing. They not only helped sell millions of products, they ensured more brand loyalty than almost any other marketing strategy. 

In 1851, the idea of sending in box-tops was born. 

And it all started with a critical mistake. 

B.T. Babbitt owned a soap company that manufactured Sweet Home Laundry Soap. 

Up until that time, women would buy raw cakes of soap from merchants. There was no packaging whatsoever, and the cakes were just piled in big barrels. 

But B.T. Babbitt was convinced women would be more attracted to a soap wrapped in paper. It was also a good way to brand Sweet Home Laundry Soap, and make it distinctive. 

Unfortunately, women avoided the product completely, and reached instead for the plain soap they were used to. 

So B.T. Babbitt did what most marketers would do when staring at thousands of unsold products. 

He panicked. 

In desperation, he decided to try a marketing gimmick to sell them. The idea was simple: Ask women to send in three Sweet Home Laundry Soap wrappers, and in return, they would receive a free picture of flowers. 

It was, quote, the "bouquet that wouldn't wilt." 

The promotion was a HUGE success. Women grabbed Sweet Home Laundry Soap by the handfuls, sometimes 25 at a time, sent in the wrappers, and collected the full series colourful flower lithographs. 

With that, the marketing concept of sending in box-tops and wrappers was born. 

And B. T. Babbitt saved his company. 

The success wasn't lost on other marketers. And as product packaging became more prevalent in the early 1900s, the boxtop became the premium device of choice. 

Enter the Kellogg's Company. 

In 1906, Kellogg's Corn Flakes was the new product of the fledgling company. 

W.K. Kellogg was a budding marketer, and he decided to launch Corn Flakes with a powerful promotion. 

It was based on a "gift with purchase" strategy, which is still in use to this day. 

Kellogg's developed "The Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Book." 

Source: Terry O'Reilly

It featured cartoon drawings of an elephant, a giraffe, a lion and an alligator. 

The drawings were designed so that children could switch the head of one animal onto the body of another with the legs of a third. 

Kellogg's delivered carloads of the books to grocers with their Corn Flakes orders, and grocers gave one book to every customer who bought two boxes of Corn Flakes. 

So successful was this promotion, that it would become the foundation of Kellogg's marketing for the next 30 years. 

In 1909, Kellogg's changed the offer from an in-store giveaway to a mail-in offer. All people had to do to get the book now was send in a box-top and a dime. 

By 1912, Kellogg's had distributed an astonishing 2.5 million Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Books. 

Kellogg's would continue the box-top book offer until 1937. By that time, over two generations had thumbed its pages. 

The 1893 World's Fair introduced many new food products to the world - one of them was a caramel-coated popcorn and molasses product. 

At first, the snack didn't have a name, but it did have a slogan: 

"The more you eat, the more you want." 

Then, in 1896, a salesman sampling the product exclaimed... "That's a crackerjack!" Which, at that time, was a slang term for something great. 

Suddenly, Crackerjack popcorn had a name. 

And soon, another piece of the Crackerjack marketing puzzle fell into place in 1908, when this song became popular at the nation's ballparks: 

Source: YouTube

But it wasn't until 1912 that Crackerjack began putting prizes into its boxes as an ongoing marketing strategy. 

From that time forward, every Crackerjack box would proclaim a "Prize in every box!" 

Source: YouTube

Not only was there a prize in every box, but Crackerjack saw an even bigger opportunity, and began to offer a collectible series of prizes. It was a masterstroke, as the public rushed to collect entire sets. The strategy ensured repeat purchases, and Crackerjack sales exploded. 

Even today, Crackerjack's "Surprise Inside" offer is still going strong... 100 years later. 

In his 1955 book titled, Ads, Women and Box-Tops, marketer Duane Jones tells the story of creating the first box-top offer ever broadcast on national radio. 

Working at the Benton & Bowles advertising agency back in 1933, Jones was tasked with coming up with an idea to market Colgate-Palmolive's Super Suds Detergent. 

Super Suds.jpg
Source: plan59.com

So Jones went to agency founder Bill Benton and pitched the idea of asking customers to send in one Super Suds box-top and a dime, for which they would receive a package of flower seeds in return. 

Bill Benton just stared at Jones and told him it was the stupidest idea he had ever heard. 

But Jones persevered, and eventually convinced Colgate-Palmolive to try it. 

In only 10 days, 600,000 people had sent in Super Suds box-tops. That was 60,000 box-tops per day. 

When ad agency boss Bill Benton saw the spectacular results, he exclaimed, "I knew it was a great idea right from the start!" 

You gotta loves bosses. 

Next, in 1947, Duane Jones approached the Vice President for The Manhattan Soap company with a radical idea. 

They had a product called Sweetheart Soap. 

Sweetheart Soap ad.jpg
Source: etsy.com

Jones suggested the Manhattan Soap Company refund the cost any new customer's first three cakes of Sweetheart Soap. 

The company said no. 

But then Jones unfolded his plan: 

Ask women to go to their closest grocer, buy three cakes of Sweetheart Soap, and write the company a 25-word letter telling them why they either liked or disliked the soap. Then all they had to do was send the letter, along with three wrappers, and Sweetheart Soap would refund the purchase price, plus postage. 

The company said it would go broke paying for all the soap redemptions. 

But Jones replied: No you won't, because the redemptions will be NIL. 

See, Duane Jones understood human nature, and cited the two allies of refund marketing: Lethargy and procrastination. 

Jones knew that very few women would ask for a refund because they couldn't be bothered to write a 25-word letter and send in three wrappers. He likened the task to answering Christmas cards - it's just too much effort. 

But - women would BUY the three cakes of soap BECAUSE of the offer. 

You see that same strategy in use today. That process is just complicated enough to make you say, forget it. Companies, of course, profit greatly from this. 

All of these lessons, born in the 30s and 40s, still influence the marketing world today. 

One of the premiums that I loved as a kid were the Sherriff Pudding hockey coins. 

Shirriff hockey coins.jpg
Source: classicauctions.net

Three sets were issued. The first was in 1960. 

There were 20 coins for each of the original six NHL teams, with a player's picture on every coin. 

Later in 1967, the NHL expansion teams were added. The coins were also found in Sherriff Potato Chips and Salada Tea. And today they are highly prized by collectors. 

Speaking of tea, Red Rose issued collectable cards from 1959 to 1975, featuring such things as songbirds, dinosaurs and butterflies. 

Source: Terry O'Reilly

Beginning in 1967, Red Rose also offered figurines to collectors, and continues to do so to this day. 

Red Rose Figurines box.jpg
Source: shop4antiques.com

But one of the master marketers when it came to premiums was, and is, McDonalds. 

Back in 1977, McDonald's asked adman Bob Bernstein to come up with a marketing idea for kids. 

Thinking about it one day, he noticed that while his nine-year old son ate his cereal, he read and re-read every word on the cereal box every morning. When he asked why he did that, his son replied, "What else is there to do?" 

That gave Bernstein an insight: Kids want something to do while they're eating. 

Which led to the idea of creating a meal just for kids - which he called "The Happy Meal." 

It sounds like a no-brainer today, but it was a radical idea back in the late seventies. 

Source: YouTube

The Happy Meal looked like a colourful lunch-pail with the Golden Arches for handles. Along with the food, the most important ingredient of all was a toy that changed nearly every week. 

Happy Meal box.jpg
Source: guysandgoodhealth.com

It was an immediate hit. Today, Happy Meals account for about 10% of McDonald's revenues, or about $3 billion dollars annually. 

The report also points out that the Happy Meal is the largest influence on that decision, with over 80% of kids aged six to nine saying they enjoyed getting a toy with their meals. 

Happy Meals are served at over 30,000 McDonald's restaurants in more than 100 countries now - making McDonald's the world's largest distributor of toys. 

Even my favourite band had a one-time brush with a box-top offer, or shall I say, a can-top offer. 

Source: Terry O'Reilly

In England in 1986, Heineken, working with record company EMI, offered a special Beatles promotion to their customers. 

Source: Terry O'Reilly

When you sent in 4 ring-pulls from specially marked Heineken beer cans, along with 2 pounds and 99 pence, you received a special cassette titled, "Only The Beatles." 

Source: Terry O'Reilly

It contained 12 Beatle songs with outtakes, and was the first time a special package of Beatles songs had ever been issued for the promotion of a commercial product. 

It didn't last long. 

It seems Heineken had forgotten one tiny detail - namely to get permission from The Beatles. Their company, Apple, claimed to know nothing about the Heineken deal - and their lawyers responded faster than you could say "Lucy in the Sky With Law Suits." 

As a result, the Heineken/Beatles offer was halted, and the limited number of cassettes as well as the Heineken beer cans that were sent out advertising the Fab Four promotion are very valuable today. 

"A free prize in every box" was a powerful marketing strategy when it was first developed over 80 years ago. 

It appealed to the child in all of us - regardless of age - and it delivered the two things advertisers crave: Desire and loyalty. 

The Happy Meal was one of McDonald's biggest successes, not just because it combined food and entertainment, but because it created an emotional connection between kids and McDonald's. 

A toy inside the Crackerjack box has distinguished that brand in the competitive candy category for decades. 

Box-top mail-ins seem hopelessly old-fashioned now. Today, consumers want higher-value offers- like movie tickets or DVDs. Now, you get a prize code and head to a website or Facebook to redeem your premium. 

But one thing hasn't changed - consumers still keep their eyes on the prize ... 

...when they're under the influence. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?