This is the story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down… all because of a box of product samples given away by Blockbuster in the 1990s.
See, I was planning to do a Deadsites entry on Blockbuster. After digging up a version of its webpage from 1997, something caught my eye. That little yellow box on the lower-right.
“FREE BONUS PACK.”
What was that about? I had to know.
Once I clicked, the Deadsites plan took a backseat to a new mission. A mission to learn everything there was to know about Blockbuster’s “Bonus Boxes” — those being cardboard boxes filled with coupons and samples, given away at Blockbuster stores at scattered points throughout the ‘90s.
On Blockbuster’s 1997 website, these boxes were erroneously called Bonus Packs. Oh well, same difference.
Their description: “Inside is the sweetest mix of snack goodies, baby bars, coupons, freebie offers, game entries, and sugar treats. Open this treasure box up, and one little gleeful surprise after another spills out. Each one comes in perfect sizes for stashing away in secret spots and sneaking into places. Heh, heh, free stuff is cool!”
Apparently, these Bonus Boxes weren’t much different from the Treat Boxes formerly given away at Toys “R” Us stores. Technically free — but not really since you had to buy something to get one — the boxes gave Blockbuster’s promotional partners a chance to raise awareness about everything from breakfast cereal to laundry detergent, all by way of trial-sized samples.
Despite being a pretty frequent Blockbuster visitor throughout the ‘90s, I never knew about these boxes. I’m assuming that some of you did. You lucky pricks.
The spread of samples shown on Blockbuster’s site looked incredible, too. Holy shit, is that a pack of Cinn*A*Burst gum? And Starburst Fruit Twists?! I AM SO IN. Or at least, I’m kicking myself for not being in when I had the chance.
Some of you may be wondering, “What’s the big deal?” I concede that rabid excitement over samples given away by video stores two decades ago isn’t a common trait, but this is what I am, and you best believe that I put every ounce of mental energy into finding out more about these boxes.
I eventually found this newspaper article, from November of 1994. (Yes, it’s even older than Blockbuster’s website.) Aside from using the proper “Bonus Box” title, the article was beneficial for simply confirming their existence.
Here, a Blockbuster exec was pretty truthful about the point of the boxes. For the teensiest bit of overhead, they could convince a bazillion members to rent three movies instead of one or two.
The article also tells us that the Bonus Boxes were not a one time thing. This is pure conjecture, but starting in 1995, I’m guessing there were two per year.
Lastly, we’re given additional tidbits about past samples, which included a trial-sized box of Rice Krispies, and something from Keebler. Hopefully E.L. Fudge. Could you imagine going to the video store and walking out with free E.L. Fudge cookies? Can you not see why I’m obsessed with these Bonus Boxes?
…but I wasn’t done researching, not by a long shot.
I was amazed to discover a newsgroup post from 1993, including someone’s firsthand account of what was in his Blockbuster Bonus Box. (If you weren’t around for newsgroups, think of them as the precursors to today’s message boards.)
Not only did this prove that the Bonus Boxes had existed since at least 1993, but the author — who probably wouldn’t believe that his thoughts about product samples from 22 years ago are still readily available — even gave us a full list of the contents!
A tiny box of Triples Cereal? Come on, that’s great!
One thing still bothered me, though. What did these Bonus Boxes actually look like?
Well, judging by the image above, lifted from Scullion Design’s online portfolio, they looked like that. Colorful, firmly branded, and filled with tiny bags of peanuts and gumballs.
I am SO PISSED that I missed out on this.
But you know me. Ephemera is my shtick. Learning about Blockbuster Bonus Boxes was one thing, but I knew I wouldn’t be totally satisfied until I actually had one. Heavy Googling informed me of a 1996 Bonus Box tied in with The Phantom, and as fate would have it, Time Passes Nostalgia actually had the damn thing for sale. The collectibles-for-sale site is charmingly archaic, and it’s a plain miracle that I was able to fish this up.
After confirming that it was still available, I paid a hefty price and played the waiting game. (Or maybe not such a hefty price. Who else would have such a thing for sale?)
Today, my Blockbuster Bonus Box arrived. Now, I knew from the description that most of the contents would be missing, so no, sadly, it didn’t come with any expired cereal or candy. But there were still a few things left inside.
Aside from a Phantom-themed envelope stuffed with coupons — including one for Jolly Rancher bubble gum — there was a AOL 2.5 program disk! Yes!
I shouldn’t be so excited over a shrinkwrapped AOL 2.5 program disk, but brother, I am. I dare say that I needed this disk. More specifically, I dare say that I needed a AOL 2.5 program disk that’s spent the last 20 years hiding inside of a Blockbuster Bonus Box with the Phantom’s head all over it.
By now you’re asking yourself, “What the fuck was the point of this article?”
Actually, there are two points:
1) To thank Blockbuster for their Bonus Boxes. I’m way late to do it, but these things were clearly awesome, and I’ll forever regret not paying attention when getting fresh ones was still possible. I’m so envious of everyone who participated back then, because I know, better than most, that twenty years’ worth of retrospect can turn minor moments into major triumphs.
2) To celebrate the power of the internet, which didn’t only allow me to learn about some really old and utterly inconsequential thing, but provided me with the means to actually ACQUIRE said really old and utterly inconsequential thing. If you think about it, that’s just nuts.
This post will mean little to most of you, and it will soon be buried in Dino Drac’s archives, collecting new readers at a rate of maybe ten per year. And yet, somehow, if I had to pick one article that encapsulates the whats and whys of everything I do, it just might be this one.
This stupid one, about the boxes of shampoo samples given away at video stores.