We’re back with another addition of Urban Legend: Fact or Fiction. In this chapter, we take a deep dive into one of great food-related legends- Pop Rocks and Coke, and whether or not they actually killed the kid from the Life Cereal commercials.
Do you remember that LIFE cereal commercial from the 1970s? The one where the kids don’t want to try the cereal so they pawn it off on their finicky little brother, but “Mikey likes it!.” Did you know the actor that played Mikey died by drinking a coke while eating pop rocks at the same time? Apparently, this lethal combination causes so much gas to build up in your stomach that it just explodes! That’s why you couldn’t find Pop Rocks for a while in the 1980s. They were afraid this dangerous combination would kill even more innocent children!
Leave it to schoolyard gossip to remain steadfast and unchanging. Over several decades there have been very few alterations made to the Mikey exploded myth. While Mikey, played by actor John Gilchrist, wasn’t the first child to supposedly suffer this grim fate, he was by far the most widely told version.
People probably honed in on Mikey since he was a widely known figure but still anonymous. Most people had no idea what Mikey’s real name is, let alone what part of the country he lived in. And while Gilchrist did do a slew of commercials none of them had the staying power of the LIFE ad. So to the general public he kind of just disappeared, aiding in the myth that he was dead. Basically, this myth used someone recognizable, but at the time, untraceable to the general population.
Some variants do specify he drank six cans of cola and six pouches of Pop Rocks. Probably in an effort to make it sound like the candy needs to be in a high concentration to kill you. It also shuts down any naysayer who was fine after trying the allegedly deadly combo. Other variants say it’s so lethal that it didn’t even make it to the stomach, and poor Mikey’s head exploded. [Director David Cronenberg has never confirmed or denied that this urban legend was the inspiration for the head burster scene in “Scanners.” But I would like to start that myth.]
Recently Pop Rocks were replaced by Mentos after it became trendy to dump them into soda and watch as the concoction spewed foam.
The History of Pop Rocks and Coke Legend
Produced by General Foods, Pop Rocks entered the market in 1975 to much fan fair. Not only was it a cool new candy that popped and fizzed in your mouth. But the company also did a “slow release” plan, where distribution started in the Midwest and moved east. This was to generate more buzz with the scarcity of the sugary treat. It worked, and the candy sold like crazy in each new market. Demand got so high that bootleggers were going into test markets, buying packs at .15 cents and selling them for $1. “Children [are] rumored to be reselling their Pop Rocks for $200 a kilo,” reads an article in the May 1978 issue of the New York Times. But this word-of-mouth hype would later be what almost killed the product.
It’s assumed a group of boys from the midwest dreamed up the rumor. “Boys are drawn to danger and that’s where it ultimately came from,” says Marv Rudolph, a product developer for Pop Rocks in the ’70s. “It was a daredevil thing to brag about eating them. But it got out of control.” Rudolph also literally wrote the book on this product with “Pop Rocks: The Inside Story of America’s Revolutionary Candy.”
By the late 70s, this urban legend was seemingly everywhere. While Gilchrist was out playing in 1979, his mom received a rather alarming phone call. “I’m so sorry to hear about your son,” a sobbing woman wailed. “What do you mean?” Gilchrist’s mother asked the total stranger. “He’s at the park — he just came home from school.”
She wrote it off as someone who was unstable or just playing a cruel joke. But it freaked her out enough to send Gilchrist’s oldest brother to the park to check. This is when the child actor first heard the rumor of his own bizarre death.
It didn’t take long for parents to catch wind of the fantastical story. With almost no way to verify its details, they began to flood the phone lines at General Foods’ corporate offices. All asking “Is it true that Mikey is dead from eating Pop Rocks?” While General Foods obviously denied the rumor, many still took it as fact. To be fair, most companies won’t willingly admit that their product killed a small child.“It’s being kept out of the news” is a popular excuses for a lack of media coverage in urban legends. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even set up a hotline to assure anxious parents that the fizzing candy is harmless
Seeing few options the company called dozens of principals at grade schools across America, to dispel the playground fodder. Eventually, sending the inventor of Pop Rocks on the road to explain that they generate less gas than half a can of soda. But it was of little use, by the second week of 1979, sales had plummeted. Eventually, executives shelled out around $500,000 to buy full-page ads in 45 major newspapers. The ads insisted Pop Rocks “could induce nothing worse in the human body than a hearty, non-life-threatening belch.”
As one last-ditch effort to keep Pop Rocks alive, they called Gilchrist’s home. “We tried to get ‘Mikey’ to do a Pop Rocks commercial to prove he was really alive,” Jerry Saltzgaber, former Pop Rocks business manager for General Foods, said. “It was the only way to squelch the rumor, which had captured the imagination of the people.” But the 12-year-old still had a contract with the makers of LIFE Cereal. They threatened to pull the ad, which ran until the mid-’80s, if he did an ad for Pop Rocks. Even if he did do an ad for them, cries of “imposter!” would probably have dismissed any proof of life that it provided.
The damage was too sever and the company had to destroy a lot of inventory, losing millions in the process. They stopped marketing Pop Rocks around 1983, fueling the rumors even more. But during their apparent hiatus, Kraft bought the rights to the product from General Foods. In 1985 they came back on the market as “Action Candy” through a company named Carbonated Candy. But after some of the dust settled they were able to come back under their original name.
Like most urban legends it has permiated pop culture so much that a complete list of references just isn’t feasible. But we’ll hit a few notable examples:
- 1994 – season 6, episode 9 of “The Simpsons” titled “Homer Badman” Homer uses a can of Buzz Cola and Pop Rocks to create a fiery explosion.
- 1998 – the slasher classic “Urban Legend,” has a folklore professor ask a co-ed to eat Pop Rocks and then down a soda. She refuses to do it and specifically references Mikey. She still won’t do it even after it is explained to her he is alive and well. Another classmate takes the challenge and fakes his stomach exploding to the delight and dismay of the class.
- 2001 – the band Green Day released the song “Poprocks & Coke” as a new single on their greatest hits album “International Super Hits.” Though the song has little to do with the legend.
- 2003 – the pilot episode of “Mythbusters” debunks this legend. In 2017 Liberty Science Center did a “Mythbusters” exhibit where they debunked it again.
- 2014 – season 2, episode 5 of “The Goldbergs” titled “Family Takes Care of Beverly” centers around this myth.
- 2015 – The YouTube channel Good Mythical Morning did their own test. Where they also pulled the “it made my stomach explode” prank.
Is it Real?
Obviously, Mikey is alive and well so that element is completely debunked. The only possibly legitimate claim that I can find was brought forth in 2001. A California couple said they were suing Baskin-Robbins after their five-year-old daughter swallowed Pop Rocks in the chain’s “Shrek Swirl” ice cream. They claimed that their daughter “woke up from her nap screaming in pain.” She was taken to a medical facility where “doctors had to insert a tube into her stomach to remove the air.” The only theory on how this may have happened seems to be, “She didn’t chew it thoroughly,” family lawyer Barry Balamuth told the Contra Costa Times.
Reporting on this case is sparse at best with zero follow-ups in the past 20+ years. Which normally means either the case was dropped, or settled out of court. Normally the product being removed from stores would be a tip-off for its validity, but the “Shrek Swirl” was only a limited-time flavor. So there is no telling if it was pulled early or not. But it does seem like Baskin-Robbins has had products with “popping candy” off and on since this happened.
So, if it was caused by a lack of chewing, and marketed at small children, it stands to reason more kids would have ended up sick. Since there is no publicly available information about the outcome of this case, this being a freak occurrence for one unlucky little girl cannot be ruled out.
If this is the only case of a child getting sick in the 48 years that the candy has been available. We think it’s reasonable to say your stomach is safe.