In 1912, the Cracker Jack company made a fateful change to its business strategy. Starting in 1910, every box of the caramel-corn snack had contained a coupon, perhaps for a household appliance, or for a watch or a piece of jewelry. But Cracker Jack then decided to pivot hard toward selling to a different demographic, and began including a toy—perhaps a figurine, a toy car, or a toy ring—in every box. Sales exploded thanks to children’s sudden demand for Cracker Jack toys, and the subsequent boom in prizes included with children’s snacks and junk food has lasted for generations. (The McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, for instance, is a modern descendant.)
Surprise toys, whose specific characteristics are a mystery until after purchase, are the latest craze in the industry, and the revelation of what’s inside the packaging is part of the products’ appeal. L.O.L. Surprise Dolls, for example, which come in boxes that display only a vague silhouette of the doll inside, were named the 2019 Toy of the Year by the Toy Association, and a few years back, Hatchimals—toy creatures that hatch out of eggs—enjoyed a holiday demand rivaling that of Cabbage Patch Dolls and Tickle Me Elmo. Surprise toys can seem distinctly modern, given that their popularity is often linked to “unboxing” videos on YouTube. But when I asked Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, a curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, about this trend, she pointed out the popularity of Cracker Jack toys more than a century ago. While unboxing toys are certainly all the rage today, their central concept isn’t necessarily new. Their appeal isn’t limited to kids, either, but rather rooted in a natural human desire for relatively controlled suspense.