How the Explosive 'Pop Rocks and Coke' Legend Destroyed an Iconic Candy Brand
John Gilchrist, the child actor best-known as Mikey from Life cereal's most notable commercial, was tossing around a baseball in 1979 when his mom got a bizarre phone call from a stranger in tears.
"I'm so sorry to hear about your son!" the woman wailed.
"What do you mean?" Gilchrist's mother shot back. "He's at the park -- he just came home from school."
Probably just a wacko, his mom thought -- but "it weirded her out," recalls Gilchrist, now 49, "so she sent my oldest brother to drive by the field where I was playing to make sure I was OK. That’s when I first heard the Pop Rocks story."
Gilchrist -- then an athletic 11-year-old living in Westchester, New York -- had unwittingly become the subject of a wild rumor: the actor who played Mikey in the 1972 Life cereal ad mixed too much of the carbonated candy with too much Coca-Cola and his stomach exploded. Variations of the urban legend claimed that it was his head that had exploded or specified the precise number of Pop Rocks packets and Cokes involved (six each). But however it happened, the poor kid had died tragically and the entire country was talking about it.
"Mikey lost his Life!," hollered children on playgrounds across America. Spooked parents who heard the tale flooded the headquarters of General Foods, the company behind Pop Rocks, with worried calls and refused to let their kids eat the fizzy fad candy, which had arrived on shelves with great fanfare in 1975. Sales plunged. "When that story hit the country, it was like, 'Bam!'" says Jerry Saltzgaber, former Pop Rocks business manager for General Foods.
Even long after the lore was debunked (Gilchrist, obviously, is fine), few have heard the whole truth behind the first-of-its-kind candy and its beginnings as an accidental lab experiment. Behind the scenes, production was more dark than sweet: Confectionary chemists lost fingers churning out the highly pressurized treat. Splashy product rollout plans were foiled by candy bootleggers. And the fallout from the Mikey rumor sent Pop Rocks into a spiral of crisis from which it would never recover.
"By the end, we were forced to destroy tons of the candy," says Marv Rudolph, a product developer for Pop Rocks in the '70s. "We literally buried it in the ground."
Bill Mitchell, an inventor and chemist for General Foods in Hoboken, New Jersey, was tinkering with his latest lab obsession in October 1956, when he made a revolutionary breakthrough, according to Rudolph, who wrote Pop Rocks: The Inside Story of America’s Revolutionary Candy. Mitchell wanted to create crystals that would make sparkling Kool-Aid. His original vision didn’t pan out, but the carbon-pumped liquid sugar he concocted dried into sweet pebbles. Mitchell put one on his tongue and was thrilled by the popping, fizzing sensation. He added pineapple flavoring, offered some to his secretary and took a bag home to his kids.
Word about the futuristic treat spread internally and became all the rage among the company’s food-science geeks, who called it atomic candy. "I thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen," says Rudolph. "If your kid had a birthday party, you'd say, 'Bill, make me a batch!'"
Executives at General Foods, however, were not as impressed. The company mostly sold cereal and other dry foods, so it had little interest investing in candy, let alone one so strange. "It was considered a freak lab curiosity," Rudolph says. "They'd say, 'That’s nice, but can’t you move onto something useful?'" Meanwhile, Mitchell -- who later invented Tang and Cool Whip -- quietly filed patent papers the same year to protect his secret formula.
The recipe gathered dust until the early '70s, when Herman Neff was hired as a new company vice president for General Foods. On a tour of technical center in Tarrytown, New York, Neff met Mitchell, who offered the VP a handful of the popping pebbles, which he kept around the office for fun, according to Rudolph. Neff’s eyes lit up. Kids would flip for this stuff, he said, and ordered it be mass produced. He launched a small promotional campaign to give it away with packs of chips in 1974.
The next year, General Foods' marketing team rounded up a bunch of 8-to-12-year-olds in Yuma, Arizona, to gauge in a focus group how big a hit the candy might be. "The kids went crazy," says Gabrielle Korab, a product manager for Pop Rocks in the '70s. "Their eyes would open up wide, they would shoot out of their seats and giggle."
It sealed the deal; the company poured big bucks into developing the candy. "We knew from those focus groups this thing was gonna go big," Saltzgaber says.
To come up with a name, Neff enlisted his son’s grade-school class. He handed out pouches and wrote "Exploding Treats," "Pop and Snap," and "Pop Rocks" on a chalkboard, then asked the kids to vote, Rudolph wrote in his book. Pop Rocks won by a landslide.
With Mitchell's patent set to expire in 1978, time was not on the company's side. Workers were instructed to stir carbon dioxide-injected molten sugar with boat-like propellers in giant vessels. Producing the Pop Rocks on such a large scale for the first time ever was a risky feat. Candy chemists hadn't yet perfected how to make it by the ton; it had only ever been produced a few pounds at a time. Scalding hot liquid sugar threatened to blow up in the faces of workers, who wore moonsuit-like gear to avoid burns and injuries. The sweet bubbling potion cooled and dried inside tubes, which were whacked with 9-pound sledgehammers, shattering the candy into tiny fragments.
"It was highly dangerous," Rudolph says. "I know one at least one guy who lost a finger. It was crushed between a cooling tube and a steel beam. We were working with a 300 degree molten candy and 600 pounds of pressure" -- powerful enough to blow out the sides of a truck. "If you got a leak, a lot of people were going to get hurt."
The hot new treat ripped through the American heartland in a sugary blaze. Execs hatched a "slow release" plan, starting in the Midwest and moving east, to generate buzz about Pop Rocks, which cost 15 cents a pack when it hit the shelves in 1976.
"It was selling like gangbusters," Rudolph says. "You had to be the first one to try it, to show them to your friends or feed them to your dog -- people did all kinds of things with them."
In the first two weeks of its Midwest rollout, 90% of the area’s population had tried it, according to Rudolph. At that rate, the firm predicted every person in America would buy an average of four pouches of Pop Rocks a year, generating a $150 million in profit annually. Plans were in place for Pop Rocks spinoffs, like carbonated bubble gum, chocolate bars, and mints.
As its popularity soared, crooked distributors called "candy jobbers" began selling packs on the black market, according to Korab and her colleagues. The jobbers hauled Pop Rocks to parts of the country where it hadn’t yet been released and sold their stolen wares for a markup of $1 a pouch. "In Texas, one of them bragged to me about how much money he had made on Pop Rocks -- saying he used it to buy a new [Mercedes]," Korab says. "But we weren’t even selling the candy in Texas yet! That’s how we discovered the bootlegging."
Kids were in on the hustle, too. "Children [are] rumored to be reselling their Pop Rocks for $200 a kilo," a May 1978 New York Times article reads. "Demand is exceeding supply." It was the hottest smuggle since Coors, which was shipped east through underground means in the '70s, when the beer wasn’t yet licensed to be sold in states beyond the Mississippi River.
"Oh my God, was it frustrating," says Korab, adding that it foiled the firm’s splashy release plan. "By the time it got east, it was no longer novelty; it wasn’t a surprise."
Despite the scam, the company sold $100 million in Pop Rocks its first year, or $435 million by today’s standards, according to Rudolph. At the peak of the boom in 1978, the firm was producing 5 million pounds of the candy -- or 2.5 billion pouches -- at three factories.
"People would call me and plead for product. It was an absolute phenomenon," Saltzgaber says. The candy often sold out at shops in the Midwest and on the East Coast. "But that was before the whole exploded kid story."
A group of thrill-seeking Midwestern boys were likely first to dream up the Mikey legend, according to Rudolph, who researched the lore and its origin. "Boys are drawn to danger and that’s where it ultimately came from. It was a daredevil thing to brag about eating them," he says. "But it got out of control."
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."
Nevertheless, the company couldn't recover from the myth -- they were forced to discontinue Pop Rocks in 1982.
"It died bad. Business just dried up," Saltzgaber says. "We were stuck with a lot of product to destroy."
Warehouses filled up with old candy. Roughly 300 million pouches were destroyed, much of it hauled in by semi-trucks, crushed and buried in landfills, according to Rudolph, Saltzgaber, and other insiders. "The last thing you wanted was for anybody to get their hands on it," says Saltzgaber.
Looking back, insiders say the firm badly overestimated how popular the candy would be. "It only had novelty appeal," says Al Clausi, a former General Foods senior vice president. "People would try it and have a few laughs. Then they’d forget about it and go back to buying candy bars."
When the dust settled, the company had lost a total of $30 to $40 million, according to Rudolph. Early prototypes of Milky Way-style carbonated chocolate bars were tossed in the trash. A handful of workers lost their jobs or were reassigned to other projects. Most were sent to other departments to work on the next big thing. "Pop Rocks was a fantastic product and the marketing plan was brilliant," Korab says. "But it was a financial disaster."
It's 40 years later and it’s still one of the top questions I get," says Gilchrist, the former child actor who now works as director of media sales for Madison Square Garden. He's confident that if the legend of Mikey's death emerged today, it would be quickly debunked. "The shelf life of that story now-a-days would last two hours," he says.
Pop Rocks have since been revived after the trademark was sold off to Spanish company Zeta Espacial, though it produces much less per year than General Foods did in the '70s, Rudolph says. But the myth of Mikey persists, especially in pop culture: It's mentioned as a passing joke in the most recent season of Difficult People; The Goldbergs have an entire episode dedicated to the concept of mixing Pop Rocks and Coke. Mythbusters debunked it; Green Day wrote a song about it.
Gilchrist speculates the original myth still carries weight because it struck an emotional chord. "People could relate to three kids sitting at a breakfast table and one of them being a finicky eater," he says of the commercial, which was one of the longest-running TV ads of all time. "They felt like I was that character and that they knew the boy who was hurt."
A few years ago, Gilchrist strolled into his office at work and sat down to a pouch of Pop Rocks on his desk as a joke. "I mean, it was funny. The whole story was so ridiculous."
This time, he didn’t eat the fizzy candy. He stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it.