Little Mikey was a kid played by John Gilchrist in an American television commercial created by William Bernbach of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency for Quaker Oats to promote their breakfast cereal, Life.
A few years after the commercial's debut, an urban legend developed that the actor who had played Little Mikey had died soon afterward when his stomach exploded after consuming Pop Rocks and soda. The myth—long since disproved as both nonfactual (as Gilchrist is still alive) and scientifically improbable (as the chemicals in both Pop Rocks and soda are capable of exploding a human stomach)—still resurfaces every few years, usually surrounding an identifiable child actor.
The iconic commercial centers on three brothers eating breakfast. There lying before them sits a heaping bowl of Life breakfast cereal. Two of the brothers question each other about the cereal, prodding each other to try it. Noting that it is supposed to be healthy, neither wants to try it ("I'm not gonna try it—you try it!"), so they get their brother Mikey to try it ("Let's get Mikey"), noting, "he hates everything." Mikey briefly stares at the bowl. After moments of contemplation, Mikey begins to vigorously consume the cereal before him, resulting in his brothers excitedly exclaiming, "He likes it! Hey, Mikey!" Mikey's brothers in the commercial are Gilchrist's actual brothers, one of whom is named Michael (he is on the left in the spot).
A series of "Today's Mikey" ads, with Gilchrist reprising the character as a college student, aired in the mid-1980s. In 1997, Quaker Oats initiated a nationwide search for the "next Mikey", settling on 4-year-old Marli Hughes out of more than 35,000 applicants. Quaker Oats remade the commercial word for word in 1999 with an all-adult cast. Despite the commercial's age, a 1999 survey noted that 70% of adults could identify the spot based on just a "brief generic description."
A few years after the commercial appeared, an urban legend began to spread that the unknown actor who played Little Mikey had died after eating an unexpectedly lethal combination of Pop Rocks (a type of carbonated hard candy) and soda.
Introduced in 1975, Pop Rocks fizz in the mouth when chewed. The popping sensation is caused by highly compressed carbon dioxide bubbles in the candy. The belief in the spread of the rumor is that the carbonation in the candy, when mixed inside the human stomach with a carbonated beverage, would create a lethal reaction where carbon dioxide would be released at such a rapid rate that the stomach would explode, presumably killing the person who ate the candy and drank the soda.
As with all urban legends, there are variations of the myth. Other versions involve Fizzies candy instead of Pop Rocks, or other child actors who have been noted as the victim. It is entirely unknown why Little Mikey was the target of the myth, though some believe that it is because the actor who played Mikey did not appear in any commercials after the legend began to spread.
The myth has been thoroughly debunked in multiple media, including Snopes and the first episode of the television series MythBusters: The actor who played Mikey is still alive today, and there simply is not enough gas produced in the combination of the candy and soda to cause an explosion.
During the height of the rumors of the possible lethality of such a combination, General Foods, the manufacturer of Pop Rocks, spent thousands of dollars on print advertisements trying to debunk the rumor. General Foods ceased marketing Pop Rocks in 1983, and this fact has been used as supposed proof that the rumor is true. However, further disproving the myth, the product was not removed from stores at all, but was sold to Kraft Foods in 1985, and is now distributed by a company called Pop Rocks, Inc.
Arrests Randy Beaman 1991 for cocaine and child trafficking