Played with soldiers as a boy you just can bet.
It is written in the stars
He will get his captain's bars,
But he hasn't got enough box tops yet."
There are promotions in Real Life by companies that work like this: On each package of the product there's a coupon, you collect X coupons, send them in, and win a prize. X may be a reasonable number, but can also be ridiculously high. Often used to gauge and improve customer loyalty. A common marketing trick.
Sometimes, this works like a lottery: Your chance of winning increases if you send in more coupons.
In fiction, the first prize is something the protagonist really wants; like an all-inclusive holiday in Hawaii for the whole family. Hilarity Ensues when:
- The protagonist buys so many cans/packages of the product that it fills his house.
- The family is seen eating nothing but the product, implying that they spent all their money for it. (Maybe even more than the prize is worth.)
- The protagonist goes to extreme measures to acquire yet another pack of the product when he finds out he has exactly 9,999 coupons and needs 10,000 of them.
- The protagonist doesn't get the prize he wanted, but instead... a month's/year's/lifetime's supply of the product.
- In the first two seasons of Pokémon, Ash wears the hat he won from a competition like this.
- Chapter 75 of Kaguya-sama: Love Is War has Miko get the entire student council to collect bellmarks (basically the Japanese equivelent to boxtops) for charity, with the added rule that they can only use ones from products that they've already bought. Ironically, Kaguya only manages to get 10 of them due to everything in her house being imported. She spends the rest of the chapter trying to render Fujiwara and Ishigami's much larger collections invalid so that Shirogane won't think that she's worthless (and so the fact that Hayasaka had to cut up a precious childhood memento to get her those ten won't be for nothing).
- In A Christmas Story, Ralphie collects label after label from containers of Ovaltine, coming to hate the stuff, but drinking it anyway because he knows if he collects enough labels he'll get that coveted Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. When he finally gets the ring and decodes the secret message, he discovers that the message reads: Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.
- Played for Laughs in Better Off Dead, where Lane's younger brother cuts the coupons out of every box in the house, before using up the contents, leading to a Running Gag of characters pulling boxes out of the kitchen cupboards only for everything to spill out. Among the prizes he wins are a fully functional Ray Gun, a book on how to pick up "trashy women", and a construction kit for an actual working space shuttle, which he uses to fly off into space at the end of the movie.
- Played for drama in Punch-Drunk Love, in which Barry Egan's obsession with getting enough pudding coupons to trade for a plane ticket just comes across to those close to him as more evidence that he is an unstable Cloudcuckoolander. It becomes more heartwarming when he proposes to his Love Interest and adds that he thinks he'll be able to get enough coupons for two tickets before the contest ends.
- Robert A. Heinlein's Have Space Suit Will Travel: Clifford Russell enters a Skyway Soap contest with the grand prize of a trip to the Moon. Each soap wrapper sent in counts as an entry. He wins a used spacesuit, and as a result ends up going on an adventure that takes him to the Moon...and beyond.
- In the Dorothy Sayers novel Murder Must Advertise, Lord Peter Wimsey comes up with a marketing campaign based on this scheme while working undercover in an advertising agency. The Lemony Narrator says the one thing you cannot buy with Wifflet cigarette coupons is a coffin, it not being admitted that a Wiffler will ever need one.
- In Robert McCloskey's Centerburg Tales the local children proudly show off the jacks sets and tops they received from sending in Whoopsy-Doodle Breakfast Food box tops to Grampa Hercules, who reminisces about saving chewing tobacco plugs to receive a music box.
- An episode of Brit Com The Worker, starring Charlie Drake, has his character buying hundreds of boxes of cereal so he can find a Golden Ticket to a prize contest. He then spends weeks training for the contest until he's fully confident of winning but shows up on the wrong day.
- In an episode of Victorious, the main characters buy a ridiculous amount of ice cream, in order to win a free Ke$ha concert.
- In the Father Ted episode "Grant Unto Him Eternal Rest", when Ted discovers Father Dougal isn't sure he believes in an afterlife, he asks "Dougal, how did you enter the church? Was it like, collect six crisp packets and become a priest?"
- The Goodies: In "It Might As Ell Be String", one of the violent advertisements the ad industry has sunk to at the start of the episode involves Captain Fisheye (a parody of Captain Birdseye) announcing that he has your children and will only release them if you send in box tops from 10 packets of Fisheye Fish Fingers.
- Tom Lehrer's "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier", on the album An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer, parodies this, or rather parodies the military's staffing standards of the time through the medium of this trope. An up-and-coming young Lieutenant is said to be destined for a promotion to Captain... once he collects enough box tops.
- Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes once sent in coupons for a propeller beanie. In his case, the biggest problem was that he had no patience waiting for it to arrive in the mail. Also, he is disappointed to find once it arrives that he can't use it to fly.
- In the Dennis the Menace (US) comic book story "Dennis vs. Television", which was also translated into Spanish, Dennis collected cereal box tops without actually buying the cereal, hoping to win a big prize.
- In Ace Attorney Investigations, Colias Palaeno, the Ambassador of Babahl, keeps handing out coupons in order to drum up tourism — they can only be redeemed in Babahl.
Palaeno: Would you like some more ink? I've got plenty!
Edgeworth: Ah... thank you, I shouldn't need any more.
Palaeno: Oh... in that case, let me make it up to you with some coupons!
Edgeworth: I-I have plenty of those, too! (Where is he conjuring them up from?!)
- Pajama Sam 3 begins with Sam eating a bunch of cookies so he can send the box tops to get a Pajama Man toy. There are multiple box tops throughout the game that, if all of them are collected, add pictures of Sam playing with a Pajama Man toy during the credits.
- Just a throw-in joke and not a story line, but here's an obligatory Simpsons example:
Bart: Nice jacket!
Milhouse: Thanks, it cost me 50,000 Bazooka Joe comics!
- In "Girl of Steal" from My Life as a Teenage Robot, the Cool Toy is the Musique. Tucker wants one so badly that he steals box tops from everybody in the neighborhood then brings them to the Musique store and has a fit when the store manager tells him he has to send the box tops in and wait for the Musique to arrive in the mail.
- In The Angry Beavers episode "Box Top Beavers", Dag picks brands of cereal that have cheap toys in the box, while Norb picks brands of cereal that give you cool toys for sending in the box tops. When Dag decides to go for the cool prize (a street sweeper), and finally finishes eating 10,000 boxes of cereal, he finds out that the sponsors have discontinued the promotion, and the brothers infiltrate the factory to get the prize.
- An episode of The Raccoons has Bert attempting to win a bike by putting together a jigsaw puzzle from pieces that come in a brand of crisps (not knowing that Cyril Sneer deliberately left out one piece of the puzzle so no one can win). Hilarity Ensues, doubly so when the Piglets accidentally drop the single copy of the necessary piece in a crisp shipment.
- On Rocky and Bullwinkle, Boris and Natasha produce counterfeit box tops to get all the prizes and undermine the world's economy. General Mills (which not only sponsored the show, but owned it outright) was not amused and forced the producers to end the story earlier than planned.
- The drama in that arc is that Bullwinkle had an impossible number of legit box tops because he 'couldn't decide what to get.'
- Most of Bullwinkle's legit box tops were inherited from his uncle. When arrested as a suspect of being the counterfeiter, he was asked why he didn't register them at his tax forms.
- The SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Waiting" had SpongeBob devouring 100 boxes of Kelpo cereal practically all at one sitting, all in order to get the box tops needed to send in for a free toy. He then realizes he didn't necessarily have to eat all the cereal in the aforementioned boxes.
- In Hey Arnold!, Arnold and Gerald need to collect 50 cereal box coupons to earn a children's telescope so they can see an upcoming passing comet. Since they collected half of the coupons, they invite their friends and neighbors for the remaining cereal.
- In the A Pup Named Scooby-Doo episode "Terror, Thy Name is Zombo", Scooby and Shaggy go through 450 boxes of cereal to be the first to ride a new roller coaster at a local amusement park. When the park owner asks in astonishment how they were able to eat that much cereal, Shaggy replies, "Like, we were hungry."
- In The Real Ghostbusters, the Slimer! segment "Dr. Strangedog" had Slimer consuming numerous boxes of Freaky Flakes in order to save 100 coupons for a Super Duper Spy Kit.
- The Bump in the Night episode "Made in Japan" had Mr. Bumpy save some box tops from Choco Space Flakes cereal to receive a Turbo Totrenoid robot. When disappointed by the robot being tiny and non-threatening, he and Squishington then decide to mail Little Robot back for a full refund and start saving up on box tops from Sugar Frosted Shark Puffs in order to get a toy submarine.
- Burma-Shave once offered a mock promotion that promised a trip to Mars for anyone who collected 900 empty jars. When Arlyss French, a grocery store owner, managed to actually collect them, Burma-Shave responded, "If a trip to Mars you earn/Remember, friend, there's no return." After French collected another 900 jars for the return trip, they decided to go ahead and send him to Moers, Germany. French was happy about the trip, and Burma-Shave was happy about the good publicity generated from the deal.
- They still have these. Labels for Education, Coke Points/Pepsi Points, Camel Cash... A variation is/was "Green Stamps", which you could earn in several different places and then redeem for stuff.
- In 1999, California engineer David Phillips did the math and found that a particular promotion, in which a food company offered airline frequent flyer miles in exchange for inexpensive food purchases, was a phenomenally good value. For about $3000, he was able to buy enough pudding to redeem for over a million airline miles — enough to fly just about anywhere, first class, dozens of times over. And he donated the food to charity, and he got an $800 tax break for the donation. This story was used for the movie Punch-Drunk Love.
- Pepsi ran an ad for its "Pepsi Points" program that advertised an AV-8 Harrier in exchange for 7,000,000 points. As you might expect, a man presented them with the cash value for the points and demanded the fighter jet. Fortunately, the judge used the Reasonable Person clause and decreed that Pepsi was not legally obligated to fulfill the man's wishes.