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A standard marketing strategy for breakfast cereals and other products meant for children is to put some sort of "prize" at the bottom of the package--typically something plastic and useless, but still pretty cool to the target audience. Cracker Jack, having started this practice in 1912, was likely the first to do so.
In fiction, when characters notice the Free Prize At the Bottom label on their box of cereal (or other package), they will attempt to cash in immediately. This means employing a method of getting past the actual product, such as sticking one's entire arm into the box and digging around while pieces of food fall out. More innovative characters will come up with a less messy method. In some cases, they find that the prize is missing and may have already been taken.
Since this strategy is specifically used to sell to kids (or, more accurately, their parents), it is most often seen referenced in cartoons, comic strips and other media that are considered as being meant for children, although that's not always the case.
Competition Coupon Madness is a variant. While that trope deals with the collection of box tops or some other part of a product package and sending away for the prize via mail, this trope is for situations where the prize is immediately available in the package itself.
- In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory), the golden tickets are placed inside candy bar wrappers. The book, at least, mentions several rich people buying bulk orders and tearing through them for the tickets, discarding the chocolate. The 70's film version shows Veruca Salt's father doing this for her.
- UHF has a scene where Stanley Spodowski notices — while on air — that the box of cereal he's hawking comes with a free toy. Saying, "Don't let your parents know you do this," he then disassembles the box to get at the toy, making a mess of the cereal.
- In While You Were Sleeping, young Mary Callahan doesn't want her older brother, Jack, to eat her favorite breakfast cereal. When he protests that it's very special cereal, she complains that "last time [he] took the toy surprise."
- During the opening of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2, Jesse's little sister digs through a box of cereal for the free prize, a set of small, plastic finger blades. The cereal, incidentally, is called "Fu Man Chews".
- In the Baby Sitter's Little Sister book "Karen's Worst Day," Karen laments being screwed out of a prize when she opens a new box of her favorite cereal. Her little brother not only finished off the last box, but got the prize: a book of stick-on tattoos. Luckily, he offers to share the prize with her, which mollifies Karen for the moment.
- The short-lived television series The Wizard had an episode in which the title character had invented a little robotic beetle-like thing that was specifically designed to dig through boxes of cereal and retrieve the prize at the bottom.
- One of the spoof ads on The Goodies was for Goodies Plastic Spacemen, which came in a cereal box with a free corn flake.
- In Scrubs, JD has a flashback where he had a box of cereal that ended up having, not one, but two secret spy decoder ring prizes, he gives one to Turk and they both claim it's the best day of their lives (even above Turk proposing to Carla).
- One episode of Psych begins with young Shawn trying to get the prize from a box of cereal, and then his dad shows him that the most efficient way to accomplish this is to just open the box from the bottom.
- An episode of Full House has Stephanie trying to fish the prize out of a cereal box, but DJ stops her, telling her she's "not supposed to put her arm inside someone's breakfast." Later in the scene, Danny almost chokes on his cereal and discovers the prize Stephanie was looking for: a toy dinosaur that's a lot smaller than she expected.
- A late episode of Home Improvement has Tim's niece Claire, who's going through a bratty phase, want the toy that comes in a still mostly-full box of cereal. When told to take her hand out of the box, she dumps the cereal all over the table.
- The music video "I'm on a Boat" involves Andy Samberg discovering a coupon for a free boat trip for three in his cereal.
- Referenced in "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad" by Meat Loaf:
I know you're looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks
But there ain't no Coup de Ville
Hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box
- Happens frequently with Jason in FoxTrot.
- A Story Arc in Peanuts concerned getting one free marble in a box of Snicker-Snacks cereal. In one strip Charlie Brown told Shermy that the packing center made an error - there were 400 marbles and one Snicker-Snack.
- In one Sunday Strip, Garfield dived into a bag of cat food after Jon told him about the prizes at the bottom. Garfield surfaced with a whistle and Groucho Marx glasses.
- At one point in The Secret of Monkey Island, Guybrush finds a box of his favorite breakfast cereal. The prize at the bottom turns out to be necessary to making progress.
- Layla in Eerie Cuties won a random prize with CD (see the next page) and one extra mood swing of her new good friend as a bonus in bonus. Yes, "she leads a charmed life".
- An episode of Ren and Stimpy showed Stimpy's preferred method for getting at a Muddy Mudskipper cereal bowl caddy: He just gets a very big bowl and pours all of the cereal into it. After he claims his prize, he stuffs the cereal back into the box.
- The Simpsons had an early episode in which Bart tries to find a police badge in the bottom of his cereal. It turns out Homer got to it first.
- Another episode features a box of Krusty-O's brand cereal that comes with a free jagged metal O at the bottom. Bart accidentally eats it.
- In the Phineas and Ferb episode where they make working X-ray specs, they use them to look into cereal boxes to figure out which boxes contain the good prizes.
- At the start of the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Shanghaied", SpongeBob is shaking his cereal box to find the toy inside. Just then, a giant anchor crashes into his house, leading to the line: "Squidward! The sky had a baby in my cereal box!"
- Taz-Mania once had a bit where Taz went to insane lengths to get the prize from a box of cereal...which turned out to be one of those baking-powder propelled submarines.
- An episode of Cow and Chicken is about Chicken finding a credit card in a cereal box. Also, in the episode where he gets insomnia after eating coffee-flavoured cereals, he finds a pair of underpants for prize.
- An episode of The Angry Beavers featured Norb and Dag competing over a variant: the boxtop prizes. Dag would reach in and grab the Free Prize At the Bottom, but Norb would clip boxtops and mail them back (and receive a much better prize in return). The end of the episode has the beavers themselves become the prize after a mishap at the cereal factory.
- In an episode of The Fairly Odd Parents, this trope is taken advantage of by a race of super-cute aliens, who use their charm to take over other planets by making the inhabitants of said planets want to buy more Giggle-Pie "Merchandise".