In 1971, a commercial premiered which came to define not only a decade but an entire generation of finicky young eaters. As millions watched with sweaty anticipation, three brothers sat around a kitchen table and prepared to eat a breakfast that would change their lives forever. Mikey, a chubby-cheeked young boy in a red turtleneck, stared at a heaping bowl of Life cereal that he wasn’t going to touch. “Mikey doesn’t like anything,” one of his brothers observed as he watched Mikey ponder the mysterious cereal.
Then came the silence. We waited and wondered: Would Mikey eat it? And more importantly, would he like it? He gazed at his bowl for what seemed like an eternity. And then suddenly, Mikey ate a spoonful! And then another! And another, and another!
“He likes it! Hey, Mikey!” His brother exclaimed. And the world wept as one.
This Life cereal commercial was such a success that it lasted almost fifteen years, and it’s young star became a national hero. Mikey was a symbol of hope for kids everywhere. It seemed that little Mikey might very well lead us all into a cereal renaissance.
But then tragedy struck. Just a few months after Mikey’s commercial debut, we were told, the crotchety kid with the heart of gold had died. We were shocked at this terrible news. How could a world made so beautiful by Mikey have taken him from us?
The story told time and time again was this: poor, foolish Mikey had eaten a deadly combo of Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola. The fizz created by this fusion caused his stomach to explode.
None of us doubted the story, and why should we? We’d all heard rumors that Pop Rocks contained an illegal drug, and that it had once been declared illegal by the U.S. government. We trusted the facts of Mikey’s death to be true, but we wanted more information. Had Mikey swallowed just a handful of Pop Rocks or the whole package? Had he taken a swig of Coke or downed the can in one gulp? And were the Pop Rocks and Coke taken together or one after the other? We craved every detail about Mikey’s untimely demise, if only to protect ourselves from a similar fate.
In 1979, General Foods, the manufacturer of Pop Rocks, attempted to dispel the Mikey rumors. They took out full-page ads in forty-five major publications, wrote over 50,000 letters to school principals around the country, and sent the junk food’s inventor on a national tour to demonstrate that Pop Rocks induced nothing more deadly than a mild burping sensation.
The ruse didn’t work, and Pop Rocks was taken off the shelves briefly during the 1980s. Curiously enough, it was also around this time that Coke was replaced with New Coke, a bland beverage with considerably less carbonation. It was quite possibly just a coincidence, but it only validated and amplified the nation’s Mikey paranoia.
Mikey’s death should have been easy enough to disprove. If Mikey was really still alive, all he had to do was make a public appearance, and we would have been convinced. But Mikey was nowhere to be found. Just before he disappeared, the actor who portrayed Mikey (John Gilchrist) had appeared in hundreds of commercials, pitching everything from Pepto Bismol to Skippy peanut butter. But after 1971, Mikey was noticeably absent from TV, save repeats of his famous Life commercials. One burning question burned on our minds: why would a young boy with such a promising career suddenly decide to quit?
During the last few years, rumors began circulating that Mikey, now in his early 30s, is very much alive and working at a radio station in New York. But the story can neither be confirmed nor denied. Ronald Bottrell, Quaker Oats’s senior manager of corporate communications, would only say that, “We had to conceal him so that people would still think he was this chubby-cheeked, freckle-faced kid.”
It would seem then that Mikey isn’t only dead, but his death is part of a massive government cover-up. Do they really expect us to believe that Mikey is living a life of solitude? The Mikey we knew and loved — if he were still alive — would more likely be eating bowl after bowl of his favorite cereal, Life.
But perhaps the most conclusive proof of Mikey’s death occurred in January of 1999, when Quaker Oats reprised the Mikey ad campaign well over a quarter-century after its debut, this time with an all-adult cast. The commercials featured a “grown-up” Mikey who, we were expected to believe, provided definitive proof that the beloved national icon was alive and well and still enjoying cereal. But none of us were taken in by the scam. The haggard old actor portraying Mikey looked nothing like the precocious child we remember so fondly.
Where were the chubby cheeks?
Where was the red turtle-neck sweater?
That wasn’t Mikey! Mikey is dead!
Eventually, the truth came out. After a Watergate-like investigation, it was revealed that the “new” Mikey is, in fact, New York-based actor Jimmy Starace. In an Associated Press story, Quaker Oats reported that the original Mikey asked to remain anonymous in publicity associated with the updated campaign. Mikey (a.k.a. John Gilchrist, a.k.a. the Dead Boy) told reporters that he was still under contract to Quaker and “couldn’t say much.” Although Gilchrist insisted that he was the real Mikey, he declined to be photographed.
And why would he decline to be photograph?
Perhaps because The Real Mikey is seven-feet underground.
(If he is seven-feet underground he is unable to pose for photographs.)
At a time when Mikey’s memory has been so callously exploited by the same corporations that destroyed him, and then viciously sought to cover up their destruction of him, we should all take a moment to reflect on Mikey’s legacy, however bittersweet. He was a good boy who lived a full, if short, life. He may not have survived to enjoy the fruits of his stardom, but his life was not in vain. He taught us, after all, as a nation, how to overcome our prejudices and enjoy cereals of all kinds.
It is almost fitting that junk food killed Mikey for he loved it so dearly. Perhaps it is some slim comfort that we know Mikey left this world enjoying the food that made him happiest. We will think of him every time we sit down to eat a bowl of cereal, and say aloud the words that Mikey taught us, or would have, had he lived to speak them: “This is my body, broken for you.”
Mikey is dead! Long live, Mikey!