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Little Mikey was a character of a young boy played by John Gilchrist in an American television commercial created by art director Bob Gage (who also directed the commercial) and copywriter Edyth Vaughn "Edie" Stevenson of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency for Quaker Oats to promote their breakfast cereal Life,first airing in 1972. The popular commercial was in regular rotation for more than twelve years, ending up as one of the longest continuously running commercial campaigns ever aired.
The iconic commercial centers on three brothers eating breakfast. Before them sits a heaping bowl of Life breakfast cereal. Two of the brothers question each other about the cereal, prodding each other to try it, and noting that it is supposed to be healthy. Neither wants to try it ("I'm not gonna try it—you try it!"), so they get their brother Mikey to try it ("Let's get Mikey"), noting, "he hates everything." Mikey briefly stares at the bowl. After moments of contemplation, Mikey begins to vigorously consume the cereal before him, resulting in his brothers excitedly exclaiming, "He likes it! Hey, Mikey!" Mikey's brothers in the commercial are Gilchrist's actual brothers, named Michael (the one on the left in the spot) and Tommy.
The advertisement was very popular and won a Clio Award in 1974. It was also often referenced in retrospectives of classic television advertisements: in 1999, TV Guide ranked it as the #10 commercial of all time. Despite the commercial's age, a 1999 survey noted that 70% of adults could identify the spot based on just a "brief generic description."
A series of "Today's Mikey" ads aired in the mid-1980s, with Gilchrist reprising the character as a college student.
In 1996, Quaker Oats commissioned director Rick Schulze of Industrial Light & Magic Commercial Productions to digitally composite a bottle of Snapple, then a subsidiary of Quaker Oats, into the original Life ad, via longtime Snapple ad agency Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York. This time, however, in an ironic twist, Mikey doesn't like the product.
Life's ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago revived the Mikey character for two campaigns in the late 1990s. In 1997, Quaker Oats initiated a nationwide search for the "next Mikey", settling on 4-year-old Marli Hughes out of more than 35,000 applicants. She also appeared in a TV commercial, "Better Life" directed by Howard Rose, where she is seen telling her classmates how she won the contest and travelled to New York to do some TV shows. She adds that as the new Mikey she gets to eat as much Life cereal as she wants. In 1999, Quaker Oats remade the commercial word for word with an all-adult cast acting like kids. Mikey is portrayed by New York-based actor Jimmy Starace.
A few years after the commercial appeared, a false urban legend spread that the actor who had played Little Mikey had died after eating an unexpectedly lethal combination of Pop Rocks (a type of carbonated hard candy) and a carbonated soft drink, which caused his stomach to inflate with carbon dioxide. A Mythbusters exploration of the legend in detail debunked the story, adding that the show had tried to contact John Gilchrist, but he did not return their calls. However, the legend is false, as Gilchrist lived into adulthood and Pop Rocks contain less carbon dioxide than half a can of such soft drinks; in addition, the human stomach is too elastic to rupture or explode from consuming such excesses of carbonated foods or beverages. By 2012, Gilchrist had become director of media sales for MSG Networks, and said that he had no clear memories of filming the commercial when he was age 3 1/2.