Did Little Mikey Die From Eating Pop Rocks?

The Classic Urban Legend Debunked

Teen girl sipping red soda
Eric Raptosh Photography/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Most Baby Boomers will remember Little Mikey, the young boy featured in the Life cereal commercials that began airing in 1972. In the original ad, two boys eating breakfast are reluctant to touch the cereal. The brothers decide to offer it to Mikey because "he hates everything." Little Mikey takes a bite and enthusiastically finishes the bowl.

Baby Boomers might also remember an urban legend claiming that Little Mikey died by eating Pop Rocks and soda. The rumor was that the boy ate a whole bag of the candy, which crackles and pops on your tongue, right before drinking a can of Coke. The candy and soda mix supposedly caused Little Mikey's stomach to explode, killing him.

Needless to say, this urban legend kept many people away from the candy. Some of the braver kids tasted the candy-and-soda concoction themselves. No one's stomach exploded, though many kids surely made themselves sick.

Roots of the Legend

Few can forget those ubiquitous Life cereal commercials of the early 1970s and the immortal catchphrase "Mikey likes it."

The roll-out of Pop Rocks candy by General Mills a few years later was also unforgettable. The one-of-a-kind confection, which looked like gravel and crackled on your tongue, proved to be wildly popular. That is, until around 1977, when rumors began circulating about kids who had supposedly died after eating the candy, either from suffocation or from a burst stomach.

One version of the legend said that the doomed children had consumed the candy while imbibing carbonated soft drinks. By 1979, this had morphed into the claim that it was actually one specific child, the actor who played Little Mikey in the Life cereal commercials, who had died in this strange fashion.

Of course, none of the variants of this story was true. No one was ever injured, let alone killed, by consuming Pop Rocks, with or without soda. The reality is that a packet of the candy contains no more carbon dioxide than a soft drink. At worst, it might make you burp.

Did the Rumor Kill Pop Rocks?

Unfortunately, the boy who played Little Mikey never achieved much fame outside of the Life commercials, and by the late 1970s, he had vanished from the public eye. This gave the rumor legs, and sales of Pop Rocks began to suffer.

General Mills launched a campaign to dispel the falsehood, taking out full-page ads in dozens of newspapers across the country and mailing explanatory letters to 50,000 school principals. But misinformation prevailed, and in 1980 the company was forced to pull Pop Rocks from the market. The rumor died with the candy.

Pop Rocks enjoyed a resurgence five years later when the patent for the candy changed hands. Since then, the carbonated confection has gone on and off the market as different companies have bought and sold the rights.

Proof positive that Pop Rocks and Coke didn't kill Little Mikey is the fact that the actor who played the boy, John Gilchrist, survived to adulthood and went on to have a career as an ad executive in the broadcast industry. He was too young when he filmed the original Life commercial to remember much about it later.

The Urban Legend Lives On

The story of Little Mikey and the Pop Rocks has become a classic urban legend. References live on in films, television shows, and music, including mentions in "Urban Legend," "Shrek: The Musical," and more.

The question of whether Pop Rocks and soda could ever prove fatal was even explored in an episode of "MythBusters." The answer, of course, was a resounding no.

Sources

  • Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Choking Doberman and Other "New" Urban Legends. W.W. Norton, 1986.
  • “Exploding Stomachs: Myths and Facts: Did a Handful of Pop Rocks and a Chaser of Soda Kill Little Mikey?” Montreal Gazette, 14 Sept. 1997.
  • Helmenstine, Anne Marie. “Why Pop Rocks Candy Pops in Your Mouth.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, www.thoughtco.com/how-do-pop-rocks-candy-work-607899.
  • “Pop Rocks - Fizzy 1970s Candy Makes a Comeback in the U.S.” Christian Science Monitor, 12 Dec. 1996.