CDs in Cracker Jack boxes? Maybe soon

by Alan Zisman (c) 2001. First published in Vancouver Computes, April 2001

Remember Cracker Jacks? The classic caramel corn with the prize in every box. And what a prize it was! A blue plastic one-size-fits-all ring with a butterfly on top. Or something equally valuable. "Where'd you get that? In a Cracker Jacks box?" was a standard put-down in my elementary school.

For contrast, think back to the early days of CD, when all the audio CDs in the world were produced in one of only two CD-pressing plants. Even more recently, when recordable CDs cost $25 each, and the drives to record them cost several thousand dollars. Definitely not something you would find in a Cracker Jacks box.

How things have changed! Now, audio and data CDs are cheaper to produce than the plastic jewel cases they're packaged in, and magazines with bundled CDs are commonplace.

Free CDs have taken a giant leap beyond computer magazines. This winter, Gap Kids gave a game CD, Snow Day to visitors to its stores. Advertising hype? Well of course. The store's name is featured on the CD jacket, and the program icon is a Gap logo. But much to my surprise, it's actually not a bad little game for the 7-12 year old set.

Not surprisingly, all the kids in the game are wearing Gap-branded clothes, but otherwise there's no overt corporate presence. Except? only half of the activities are playable right away. Click on one of the others and you're urged to check your computer regularly. More or less once a month, a notice pops up a boot up saying it's time to visit your local Gap Kids store to get the code to play another game. Fiendishly clever! (To save on gas, here are two of the codes: For Skate Race, enter 894367; for Snowball Frenzy it's 426985-- as I write this, the final code hasn't been released yet). Snow Day has proven to be quite popular with the kids at the elementary school where I teach, and is one of the few games that is popular with both girls and boys. And it's doubly-bilingual: both English/French and PC/Mac.

At about the same time, bringing the classic Cracker Jack strategy into the digital age, General Mills has been including Hasbro computer game CDs in some of its breakfast cereal boxes. Not just demos, full versions of six different games are featured. Unlike Gap's Snow Day, these games were not specially produced for this promotion, but were sold in stores until recently.

Smaller, specially marked boxes of Cheerios (and other GM brands) include printed tokens. Five tokens and $5, along with a mail-in form get you the complete set of 6 CDs. But the larger-sized boxes take the Cracker Jack model one step better?a game CD is inside the box, visible through a cellophane window, so you can select which game you get.

I've been kid-testing these games at my elementary school, as well. (Students can play games before and after school). Tonka Search and Rescue, which is rated for ages 4 and up, works best with the littlest ones. Operation, and Monopoly Junior are favorites with a broad range of kids. Monopoly Junior, in particular, is a real winner?a simplified version of the game that it seems like every child is familiar with, but adding fun features that couldn't happen in a 'real world' board game.

The other games were less popular, however. Yahtzee and Boggle are faithful adaptations of the original board games, and while those were favourites of my family on summer nights at the cabin, none of the school kids saw the point. And the murder-mystery game, Clue, rated for ages 10 and up, seemed too complex. None of the kids who tried it was able to get much past choosing a character. Perhaps these games would work better with a child playing together with a parent or older sibling who is already familiar with the rules of the game.

I was pleased to see that there was no advertising for General Mills in these games. The CD disks and envelopes had modest GM and Hasbro logos, but that was it?not even a mention of the cereal company in the game startup screens.

There are a couple of things I find interesting about this whole mini-phenomenon. The first is that CDs are now cheap enough that they can be offered as free prizes in cereal boxes.

The second is that enough people have home computers that these companies believe a give-away aimed at computer owners will increase sales. Clearly, computer owners are not a nerdy niche any longer. In fact, families with school-age children are more likely than any other demographic group to own a home computer.

Finally, there's not much of a Mac presence here.  Gap SnowDay and GM's Tonka Search and Rescue includes both Mac and PC versions on the disk, but the other GM giveaways are PC only. For the most part, it seems that Apple just doesn't matter.

I suppose it's only a matter of time until we get CDs as Cracker Jack prizes, too. 

Note: (January 2007) Readers might be interested in Mike Melanson's webpage The Gap Game

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan