Marketing Nostalgia

 Curio & Co. looks at nostalgia through the classic prizes inside Cracker Jack. Curio and co.

Cracker Jack sweetens up America’s past

In 1893, brothers F.W. and Louis Rueckheim mixed popcorn, peanuts and molasses together and introduced their concoction at Chicago’s First World Fair. A salesman sampling the snack exclaimed, “That’s a cracker jack,” and this popular slang term became the brand name. The rest, they say, is history.

History – because since then very little has changed, and though Cracker Jack has been sold from one company to another they have continued to market themselves as a piece of America’s past.

Cracker Jack’s first foray into the collective culture of America came in 1908, when the product’s name appeared in what is now considered to be the anthem of America’s pastime, baseball – Take Me Out to the Ballgame. Although he had never seen a baseball game in his life, Jack Norworth, wrote the lyrics to Take Me Out to the Ballgame during a 30-minute subway ride inspired by an ad he saw on the train for an upcoming game. This now famous song features the product prominently in the line: “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack, I don’t care if I never get back.”

The song has since been recorded over a hundred times and is sung as part of the ‘Seventh Inning Stretch.’ In between halves of the seventh inning, crowds stand and are led in singing the game’s anthem. With this song, audiences are transported momentarily back to baseball’s glory days – back before billion-dollar contracts and players’ strikes. Over 50 million people attended a Major League Baseball game last year – witnesses to the best example of product placement in existence.

Toys were first included in Cracker Jack in 1912 and advertised as a surprise in every box. It proved to be a successful marketing strategy. Boxes of Cracker Jack have since been purchased with the sole intention of finding out what the surprise might be – a whistle, a secret decoder ring, a temporary tattoo.

Since 1912, over 17 billion toys have been given out spawning an entire industry of prize collecting at conventions and auctions around the world, and the sentiment is always the same: The prizes were better when I was a kid.

The prizes weren’t better. They couldn’t have been. Every generation remembers their prizes fondly, denouncing the current generation as cheap and boring. True, the prizes have changed over the years due to safety reasons, but if each generation complains about the quality of the prizes, when where they really good? The first group of kids back in 1912 probably complained that the popcorn was better before they started putting prizes in the boxes.

The secret to the prizes when we were kids, of course, is we were kids. Cracker Jack serves as a reminder to our own childhood, or more importantly, to the notion of an ideal childhood: a childhood when kids could roam small towns and play outside until dark as long as they were within shouting distance of home – a world free of child molesters, gangs, drugs and other very real dangers. The prizes remind us of a safer world – exactly what current Cracker Jack prizes are trying to achieve.

Cracker Jack provides consumers with an opportunity to dwell in the past, reliving old glories. Frito-Lay, the current owners of Cracker Jack, make their money by compressing this past for our consumption. Whether we reminisce about icons of our nation’s idealized history, or of our own imperfect childhood, Cracker Jack helps to lull us into a feeling of nostalgia by selling us back our own memories.