I'm not sure how many of you will remember this stuff, but it was just too weird not to mention. Video store chains became especially popular during the early 90s; a fact proven by the insidious amount of Blockbuster commercials strewn into TV breaks at the time. As more and more movie nights were staged from home, popcorn finally shed its "theater treat" stigma for good while sales soared. Those microwaveable bags of kernels became and remain a staple in most households, with several companies competing for the coveted top spot. Yes, there's competition in popcorn.
So how do you make one popcorn more attractive than the other? For the most part, it's all the same shit. Covering the packaging with pretty colors and in-your-face fonts only took these companies so far, and while dubious additions like cheddar dust and Cajun red spice helped differentiate the products, General Mills had something else in mind. Something strange.
"Pop Qwiz." Perhaps the first and only popcorn marketed exclusively towards children. Thrown under General Mills' "Pop Secret" banner, Pop Qwiz really broke the mold. Junk food with a gimmick is common nowadays, but this stuff was pretty unique in 1991. Basically, it was just regular, buttered popcorn dyed in every color of the rainbow. You had bags of red popcorn, blue popcorn, green, yellow, you name it. That alone was sure to bring in a substantial clientele -- kids'll eat anything that looks odd.
Pop Qwiz had more to offer than weird colors, though. While each of the mini-sized bags had correspondently bright colors, the colors of the bags didn't necessarily match the shade of the popcorn within. What was surely just a cost cutting measure was sold to us as a "game" -- it was up to us to guess which popcorn color was in each bag. The point of the game is up for debate, as we got to eat all of the popcorn even if we guessed wrong. Taking things even further, the bags had all sorts of quizzes, puzzles, and other stupid games printed right on 'em. Children always appreciate things tailored specifically for them, and while popcorn wasn't an important victory, we took it with great pride. We had our own popcorn. Tomorrow, the world.
You'd have to imagine that some kids would've begged for Pop Qwiz just by passing the colorful box in grocery stores, but the point was really driven home with General Mills' ad campaign. This was crucial for ten trillion reasons, and I swear, I've counted. Okay, how often do you see popcorn advertised during children's programming hours? It's pretty rare, so Pop Qwiz was playing to an audience its competitors never even thought to tackle. Another point: when a kid wants popcorn, words are rarely minced. "I want popcorn." That's all that's ever said. No specific brands are mentioned, no bias towards one particular popcorn is conveyed. Just a simple "I want popcorn." By throwing the "Pop Qwiz" title in our heads, General Mills created a sense of inadvertent brand loyalty. If we wanted popcorn, we asked for popcorn. If we wanted crazy wacky colored popcorn, we asked for Pop Qwiz. And what kid wouldn't always prefer crazy wacky colored popcorn?
This was all much more brilliant than it seemed on the surface, and the commercial was a real keeper to boot. I know I focus more on earlier years with these articles, but as I was entering my ugly, lonely teen years during the 90s, I ended up watching a whole lot more television. Alone. This "Pop Qwiz" ad, to me, is just as synonymous with the time as any of the big ones, including that PSA where the Ninja Turtles exposed the dangers of marajuana. It surprises me that the snacks weren't very successful -- I guess the world just wasn't ready to accept, much less eat radioactive green popcorn. Artists are so often unappreciated in own their time, even if they only work in kernels.
Okay, so the commercial went like this: a mock game show set complete with teethy host paves way for a spirited round of Pop Qwiz guessing games. Three contestants, three bags of popcorn. Who will guess the color correctly? Who will take home the grand prize of extreme buttery taste?
Stop acting like it's so out there. One of the most popular game shows in history featured Regis Philbin letting stumped contestants send collect calls to their cousins in Idaho. A gameshow revolving around popcorn can't be too far off. With the fashion trends of the early 90s being rather unconventional for kid shows on network television, they instead dressed the host up like a negative image of MC Hammer, complete with pants tight enough at the hip to prove any boastings about his dick size true or false.
The first contestant is "Kate," a happy-go-lucky blonde from Detroit. Handed a purple bag of Pop Qwiz, she reminds herself that the packaging colors meant nothing. The popcorn inside could be purple, yes -- but it could also be red, blue, orange, or some hybrid color that wasn't mentioned by General Mills but still popped up (pop pun num. one) quite frequently. With only a moment to decide, the beads of sweat appear on her brow more rapidly than I've ever seen sweat beads appear before. Just in the nick of time, Kate blurts out her guess. "Green?"
Sorry Kate, the correct answer was "red." You lose. The host spins Kate's chair in circles, and I'm left to wonder if the forced twirls were perhaps a symbolic flushing of Kate's dignity, as the premiere point of her acting resume will forever be "Incorrect Response #1, 'Pop Qwiz' commercial, 1991." Ever the professional, Kate never lets go of her smile. It's kind of creepy, actually. Let's see if the second contestant has better luck...
His name? Mike. His game? Popcorn. Handed a red bag of Pop Qwiz, Mike's asked the same grating question that killed the hopes and dreams of Kate from Detroit. "What color's in there, Mike? What color?"
Now, Mike had to be careful. The last popcorn color was red -- but would they try to trick him and repeat the color? Conventional wisdom suggested otherwise, but Mike couldn't be sure. He would've flipped a coin to decide, but really, he would've looked damn silly standing up on the stage and digging through his pockets for a quarter. I don't think the host would've appreciated the gesture much, either. During negotiations, he voiced concern over potentially piddling away any future successes in Hollywood by stamping his face all over a popcorn brand that was destined to fail. As a concession, General Mills assured him that he'd be the only one in the commercial allowed to stand. He couldn't pass up that kind of exposure. Mike's fantasies about coin-flippage would've totally breached the host's contract. Mike wasted as much time thinking about these things as I just did writing about 'em. He had to give an answer, stat.
"Purple???? Is it purple????"
Looks like somebody should've flipped a coin, Mike. The correct answer was "green." You didn't win, but at least you tried. That counts for something. Something very, very small.
Here's my man Ted, and boy is he ready. Ted's nonchalant demeanor and nacho cheese outerwear combine to create a serious display of confidence -- it's almost as if Ted knew he was gonna win before he even sat down. Something fishy was going on, but as no more than four people even remember what "Pop Qwiz" was, nobody ever sought out the answers. Was Ted on the take? Part of the show? Owed a favor? The host is infinitely more friendly towards Ted than the previous contestants, so either they knew each other prior to the game, or those other contestants really stunk like shit. Ted plays the crowd like a pro, never once letting on they he was the predetermined victor. The secret stayed with Ted and Pop Qwiz for over a decade, only being exposed as I write these words at this very moment. Sorry to blow your cover, guys. The world deserves the truth. The Pop Qwiz game show was FIXED.
Go ahead, Ted. Say it. Give us your "guess." If we're going to make a mockery of competition, let's do it fast. Ted smirks to the audience, and just as the host hides his face so as not to give away just how much he really knows, Finally, Ted belts out the answer heard 'round the microwave. "Blue!"
It was a hollow victory, but Ted didn't care. When asked for his thoughts on winning the Pop Qwiz Quiz, Ted uttered, "Tastes so buttery!" No, really, that's how the commercial ends. See the clip below for proof. The host confirms our worst fears: all the winner gets is the go ahead to eat a bag of popcorn. It's not a new Corvette or anything, but hey, bluuue popcorn.
For whatever reason, "Pop Qwiz" vanished without a trace. The Internet is a goldmine for this sort of stuff, but while you can find 5,000 mentions of slime-filled Ninja Turtles pudding pies and 10,000 tribute sites to "Jumpin' Jack Cheese Doritos," Pop Qwiz is a sadly unmentioned relic. I still think it was a great idea, though. I certainly fell for it in 1991, and I can't imagine that I was the only kid who was turned on by the idea of neon-colored microwave popcorn. Maybe kids were too taken with Chester Cheetah to give a crap about any other junk food. Maybe General Mills caught wind of the so-called "Ted Scandal," pulling the plug before a public protest.
Or maybe I'm the only one who wants popcorn in all different colors.
- Matt (1/16/04)
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