THE DEBUNKER On May 8, 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia, two men tried to mix up a batch of a new pain reliever for their pharmacy. The result was so delicious they marketed it as a soft drink instead, and Coca-Cola was born. Coke turned 133 years old this month, but any brand that's been so beloved for so long is liable to accumulate its share of folklore. Take a brief, refreshing pause to correct your carbonated conjectures about Coke with Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings.
The Debunker: Did Mikey Die from Drinking Pop Rocks in Coke?
For Generation X, it was one of the most indelible and influential TV commercials of the era. A picky eater named “Little Mikey” is encouraged by his skeptical older brothers to try Quaker Oats’ healthy-looking cereal Life. To everyone’s surprise, “He likes it!”
But today, Little Mikey might be more famous for something he didn't like. According to one of the most pervasive urban legends of all time, the actor who played Mikey tragically died later in his childhood when he made a dangerous mistake: he mixed Pop Rocks "popping candy" with Coca-Cola to create a lethal, super-carbonated cocktail that his stomach couldn't handle. RIP Mikey, exploded by carbon dioxide.
I have always loved this bit of folklore for its zany, Mad Libs quality. (Little Mikey, Pop Rocks, and Coke? A good urban legend can apparently be just about any combination of nouns.) There are a couple factual problems with the myth, however. First, General Foods has been explaining patiently since at least 1979 that a package of Pop Rocks contains about as much carbon dioxide as half a can of soda. Totally harmless, in other words. As TV's Mythbusters demonstrated on the show's very first episode, you can dump six whole packages of Pop Rocks into a stomach full of soda, and there won't be any kind of gastric rupture.
The second problem with the legend: "Little Mikey" is still alive and well. John Gilchrist, the child actor in the spot, is now in his early fifties. He keeps a low media profile, but he was the longtime director of media sales for MSG Networks when Ad Age last caught up with him in 2017. That's a demanding job, and I don't think Madison Square Garden's TV network would hire anyone who died thirty years ago in a freak snacking-related accident.
Quick Quiz: What second flavor of Life cereal was rolled out alongside the original recipe in 1978, and still accounts for a third of all sales?
Ken Jennings is the author of twelve books, most recently Planet Funny and co-hosts the most important podcast in human history, Omnibus. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.