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The Death of Little Mikey by Pop Rocks and Soda

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

Dear Urban Legends:

Do you remember the story from the late '70s / early '80s about the Life cereal kid named Mikey? How he would eat anything? Well, I remember hearing on the playground at the time that Little Mikey ate a whole bag of Pop Rocks candy (y'know, the kind of little candies shaped like Wonka's Nerds now that crackled on your tongue and "popped" in your mouth?) and slammed a can of Coke. Supposedly, Mikey's stomach exploded from the combination of the "fatal" candy and soda mix and he died.

Needless to say, most of my friends were scared to eat the stuff ever again... but some of the "braver" kids tried it. The only thing that exploded on them were the contents of their stomachs all over the place (i.e., they puked).

Dear Reader:

Who among us — of a certain age, I mean — can forget those ubiquitous TV commercials of the early '70s and the immortal catchphrase, "Mikey likes it"? Or the original roll-out of Pop Rocks candy by General Mills a few years later? The one-of-a-kind confection, which looked like gravel and crackled on your tongue, proved to be wildly popular until around 1977, when rumors began circulating to the effect that kids had actually died — either from "suffocation" or a "burst stomach" — after eating them.

Mikey, Pop Rocks, and soda

One version, which said the doomed children had imbibed a carbonated soft drink at the same time, became particularly virulent and by 1979 had morphed into the claim that it happened to one specific child, the actor who had played Little Mikey in the Life cereal commercials.

Mind you, none of the variants of this story were true — no one was ever injured, let alone killed, by consuming Pop Rocks, with or without a soda. The fact is, a packet of the candy contains no more carbon dioxide than a soft drink. It might make you burp, at worst.

Rumor died with candy (and child actor's career)

Unfortunately, the boy who played Little Mikey at the age of three never achieved much fame outside of those commercials and, by the late '70s, had seemingly vanished from sight. This gave the rumor legs, and sales began to suffer. Despite an effort to dispel the falsehood by taking out full-page ads in dozens of newspapers across the country and mailing explanatory letters to 50,000 school principals, misinformation prevailed and General Foods was forced to pull Pop Rocks from the market in 1980. The rumor died with the candy. (Pop Rocks enjoyed a resurgence five years later when the patent changed hands, and have been off and on the market since as different companies bought and sold the rights.)

Proof positive that Pop Rocks and soda didn't kill Little Mikey is the fact that his real-life alter ego, John Gilchrist, is still alive and at last report was working as an ad executive for a New York radio station.

See also:
Pop Quiz: Celebrity Urban Legends

Sources and further reading:

Exploding Stomachs: Myths and Facts: Did a Handful of Pop Rocks and a Chaser of Soda Kill Little Mikey?
Montreal Gazette, 14 September 1997

Pop Rocks - Fizzy 1970s Candy Makes a Comeback in the U.S.
Christian Science Monitor, 12 December 1996

The Choking Doberman and Other "New" Urban Legends
By Jan Harold Brunvand (W.W. Norton: 1984)

How Pop Rocks Candy Works
About.com: Chemistry

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