Movie promotion these days comes at us from all angles. Banner adverts fill our PC screens, we get trailers, teaser trailers, even teasers for teaser trailers, trailers for trailers, giant billboards making film stars hundreds of feet tall and all manner of tie-ins and giveaways. But back in the 80’s, before things like the internet, mobile phones and jetpacks for everyone, movie distributors were desperate to find ways of putting their latest film in your face. And a lot of them did that, quite literally, through the power of breakfast cereals. Before freely available high-street coffee and energy drinks, cereals were the go-to start to the day.
Free gifts (or prizes, as our American cousins call them) in cereals had been around since the early part of the century. But the merchandising boom that Star Wars kicked off in the late 1970’s saw movie-related promotions and freebies become more popular in the 80s. And they all went down a similar route – what tat can we put in boxes of cereals that kids will incessantly hound their parents to buy? Here are a just a few of the ways they tried, and generally failed, to bring the magic of the movies to the breakfast bowl.
Superman III Action Replay Cards (Shreddies)
The third Christopher Reeve movie is not the best Superman film ever made. But it’s also not the worst, thanks to Superman IV – The Quest For Cheap Production In Milton Keynes. But neither of those films are quite as disappointing as having to buy the mini-brillo pads that are Shreddies to get a ‘wipe-clean’ game card based on scenes from the film.
The wipe-clean element was where the phrase Action Replay came from – meaning you could play, wipe and re-play. In reality you played, wiped, and actioned it straight into the bin. Half a dozen cards featured cartoon-styled loose interpretations of key cinematic scenes titled ‘Ski Chase’ (which would be more accurate if it were titled ‘Richard Pryor Slippy Slidy Tumble Time’) or the thrillingly named ‘Tower of Pisa Game’. Each laminated card required you to fill in a square based on some complex rules, often with a friend, and then try to pretend you were having fun on your caravan holiday on the Isle of Wight.
Variations on Battleships and Hangman were overshadowed by the majestic ‘Computer Game’ where you asked your victim/friend to circle a set of numbers so you could then say “I have a computer brain” and guess the sum total – because if there’s one thing all young Superman or movie fans love, it’s doing some maths. The only thing you ever wanted to wipe after one game was your memory of the game itself. As horrifying an experience as being sucked into the Superman III computer, only with the lingering taste of malt.
Jaws 3 3D glasses and scenes (Shredded Wheat)
The third Jaws movie is not the best Jaws film ever made. But it’s also not the worst, thanks to Jaws IV – Sharks Have Feelings Too. Looking back, the idea of getting children excited about a film where people get eaten by a giant shark feels like an odd tie in. But then I remember the 8 year old me demanding my mother drive me to the Cash & Carry on a Friday night so I could buy a box and realise that the promoters had clearly pitched this just right.
Jaws 3 was shown in 3D in some cinemas, hence the natural extension of giving away Jaws 3D glasses to look at captioned illustrated scenes from the film. Put on the specs and gasp as “The visitors run for their lives as the water pours in” or bite your nails as “There is a desperate attempt to escape” – descriptions that would also sum up the feeling cinema-goers would have upon seeing the film.
Each grisly scene was rendered slightly comedic in pencil and then overlayed with green and red lines that, with the help of your branded bins, came to life for a few seconds before causing hours of headache-related fun.
My mum only ever bought me one box, less worried about the content of the film and more from the fact I was violently sick the only time I ate the actual cereal, a breakfast that, if you offered it to a starving shark it would look at it and go “You know what? I’m going to say no, I’m genuinely full”.
The Black Cauldron character figures (Cornflakes)
Each night, as I tuck my daughter into her bed alongside her Olaf the Snowman, Nemo, Tinkerbell, Rapunzel and Bing Bong cuddlies, it’s incredible to think how much money I write-off each week on Disney soft toys. It’s equally incredible to think that Disney animation was ever anything less than the all-conquering beast of brilliance it is today.
1985’s The Black Cauldron didn’t have much going for it. It had already tested badly with audiences – far too dark in places for kids, far too childish in places for adults, not cauldron-y enough for metallurgists. But the promoters had an idea – crudely produced plastic figures in a variety of hideous colours, complete with cardboard playsets on the back of the cereal box which you could cut out and then never ever use.
Again though, the young me tore open the box with glee, rummaging in the cereal ‘sack’ to see if I could get a brand new fig…ah, no, it’s the pig again. The fifth pig out of five boxes. I’ve seen pictures of the full set on Ebay, but believe these were likely faked by NASA and Stanley Kubrick, as all I ever got was the pig. Oh for a Horned King, a Gurgi or Princess Eilonwy, all names that I had to look up, such was the lack of lasting impression the film had.
One other complaint – the box stated “your figure may be between the box and inner packaging or inside the inner packaging”. That was a lie. It was never in the box. It was always in the inner packaging, at the bottom, meaning you either had to wait until you’d eaten 12 bowls of cereal (good luck telling a child to wait) or you performed a sort of cereal ‘vet examination’ by thrusting your arm, elbow deep, into the flakes and rummaging blindly. For every plastic pig we had, we had a matching bulging box of cereal on account of never being able to get the now swollen inner packaging back in the box.
The Black Hole Shrinky Dinks (Shreddies)
Just read those words again. See if you can say ‘Shrinky Dinks’ without wanting to do a Hong Kong Phooey impression. The only thing more ridiculous than the name was the concept – getting kids to play with hot ovens. The basic idea of Shrinky Dinks was to place plastic items in an oven to shrink them down in size, while retaining their colour and shape. Sound like fun? Why is no-one answering?
Surprisingly, these were big in the 70’s and 80’s and the movie men knew it, and one of the first to take advantage was Disney’s sci-fi spectacular The Black Hole. I quite love the film now: it looks incredible, it has a marvellous downbeat soundtrack, great character design and an end sequence that feels like something they cut out of Event Horizon for being a tad too sinister.
Earning Disney its first PG certificate, the film is genuinely unsettling with some mild swearing and a lot of death. With that in mind, the marketeers clearly thought that giving children plastic sheets featuring characters from the film which you then had to place in a super hot oven to shrink, was the best way of attracting a younger audience. Maybe there was a direct spiritual link between the fire laden hell-like scenes of the trippy finale and the majestic warmth that a domestic gas cooker provides. Or maybe it was just that plastic was cheap and kids like a) robots and b) melting things.
The back of the box gave you ideas of what to do with your ‘dinks’ which included ‘why not make a keyring?’ and ‘why not make a badge?’ but sadly not ‘why not tell your parents you are wheat intolerant?’
Sadly, not even hot appliance-based crafting helped the film, and it limped to a poor reception from critics and cinema-goers. Co-incidentally, I left a tortilla in the bottom of the oven for a week recently and it came out looking like a big black hole. I threw it away, rather than putting it into a box of Frosties.
Willow pop outs (Cornflakes)
Ah, Willow. Directed by Ron Howard from a story by George ‘I’m not even looking at the keys as I type’ Lucas. Actually, the 1988 fantasy film was a lot of fun thanks to the likes of Warwick Davies with a baby, Val Kilmer in a cage and the majestic work of Industrial Light & Magic.
But how to bring this magical world to life? How about small tombstone shaped polystyrene cards featuring characters and scenes from the film that you could then slot together. That’s it. The entire enjoyment came from the stabilising one piece of polystyrene with another piece – well, at least it distracted you from the shellsuits and death of Roy Orbison (the only other things I can remember about 1988).
“START YOUR COLLECTION NOW… swap with friends” yelled the back of the box, although I wasn’t aware of a particularly big playground black market in tiny coloured pictures of people and generic-looking rivers, castles and hovels, because we were too busy dreaming of the 90’s and worrying about our odd French language teacher. Of course, these days, you could produce these things, put them in a nice box with a collector number on, and sell them for £14.99 a pop.
So there you go. Five breakfast promotions for five films that snapped, rather than crackling or popping at the box-office.