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A Prize Inside

Richard Quinn

A LONG TIME AGO, when I bought gas for my car, the attendant gave me a miniature jar of grape jelly. In fact, every time I’d fill up, I’d receive a little jar of jelly or a juice glass—back in 1964.

If I didn’t get jelly, I’d get a faux tiger’s tail, which I dangled from my gas tank. When that tiger tail was stolen, I hung its replacement from my rearview mirror. Yes, those were the days when you were encouraged to buy gasoline. I wonder whether there’ll be incentives while you’re waiting for your electric vehicle to charge?

I opened a box of Cheerios this morning and had a flashback. Where’s my prize? My favorite cereal-box prize as a child was the little plastic submarine powered by baking soda. I’d put it in the sink, and it sunk and then rose to the top. There were toy frogmen that did the same.

In my youth, boxes of cereal contained small rockets and mini-Frisbees—even a pistol. That last one was printed on the box. You cut it out, along with assorted miniature cars and characters. We collected them all.

Even better were the miniature metal license plates packed inside our Wheaties cereal boxes back in the 1950s. You collected them or put them on your bike. No chance of getting all 50 states, though. There were only 48 states back then. I was never allowed to have a two-wheeler and I was embarrassed to put one on my tricycle. I just collected them. You can find them on eBay these days.

These amazing gifts were not limited to cereal. On occasion, Wonder Bread gave away miniature loaves of bread at our local A&P supermarket. We’d take them home and make ourselves two-inch square peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Quite satisfying, if not exactly filling.

And who can forget Cracker Jack prizes? There used to be charms and miniature figures made from celluloid. Before that, Cracker Jack boxes contained baseball cards and tin whistles. In the 1970s, you could get a miniature pinball game.

The possibility of a kid popping one of these prizes in his mouth led to worries about choking. Pretty soon, the prizes were reduced to pieces of cardboard. Today, the Cracker Jack “prize” leads you to the internet.

My favorite Cracker Jack prize was the real deal, a tattoo. Who can forget licking your arm and pasting on a temporary tattoo? Very cool indeed—until the “temporary” took a lot of scrubbing to remove after your mother spotted it.

The prizes we sought as kids didn’t always arrive inside a cereal box. Many times, I sent away for the prize by mail, perhaps earning it by enclosing box tops. There was an Ovaltine decoder ring to reveal a secret message—though mine actually was a pin, not a ring.

Yes, those were the days. People who wanted us to buy stuff gave us junk. It’s no different today, just more subtle and less fun. Now the trend is an access code. Scan it off a box and wonderful things appear on your phone or tablet, but nothing to collect in your junk drawer.

Let’s not forget that adults were marketing targets, too. I can still taste the glue from licking hundreds of Green Stamps to be pasted in a book to redeem at its retail store. My mother was obsessed with collecting them. I was in big trouble if I forgot to collect my stamps after a purchase at the store.

Today, I count my Starbucks points as I work toward a free $6 latte. And my airline miles—accumulated with credit card spending—earned me first-class tickets to South America three years ago. I also buy my golfing supplies with American Express points that I spend on Amazon.

Without all this creative marketing, the price of many products might be lower. But who can resist the allure of “free” stuff?

Richard Quinn blogs at QuinnsCommentary.net. Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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