Parents caught wind of the story and -- with no internet to fact check -- believed the candy was a killer. They flooded the phone lines at General Foods' corporate offices, ringing off the hook, 24-hours day, seven days a week, according to Rudolph. "Is it true that Mikey is dead from eating Pop Rocks?" worried mothers would ask.
"It killed me," Saltzgaber says. "Retailers called, wanting to send it back."
Rudolph adds, "Sales were going down the tubes."
To put the rumor to bed, the company first called dozens of principals at grade schools across America, but it was a game of whack-a-mole. By the second week of 1979, sales had plunged dramatically.
Frustrated, executives coughed up $500,000 to buy full-page ads in 45 major newspapers. The ads insisted Pop Rocks "could induce nothing worse in the human body than a hearty, non-life-threatening belch." But the ads didn’t work.
That’s why, the next year, a second frantic call came into "Mikey’s" New York home. This time, a Pop Rocks executive was on the other line.
"We tried to get 'Mikey' to do a Pop Rocks commercial to prove he was really alive," says Saltzgaber. "It was the only way to squelch the rumor, which had captured the imagination of the people."
Pop Rocks honchos hoped that hiring the kid for an ad would prove to America that the candy was safe. But Gilchrist’s parents turned down the offer. The 12-year-old still had a contract with the makers of Life Cereal, which ran the iconic "He likes it!" ad until the mid-1980s. And that firm threatened to pull it from air if he inked a deal with Pop Rocks, says Rudolph.
The child actor’s mom and dad were simply trying to protect him, Gilchrist says. "They didn't want me to be associated with a negative story. They did a great job of shielding me from the whole thing. I’m sure they got a lot more calls than they let on," he explains.
Meanwhile, Gilchrist and his pals were knocking back pouches of Pop Rocks and feeling just fine. "It wasn’t my favorite candy, but I liked it," Gilchrist says. "I knew back then it couldn’t kill you. So did my friends -- because I standing right in front of them."