Gum Poppin’ and Popular Culture

rockwell

Detail from Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), Going and Coming, 1947. Oil on canvas, 16″ x 31 1/2″. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, August 30, 1947. Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, 1973.15.

By the mid-twentieth century, children were among the largest group of gum chewers. For them, part of gum’s appeal lay in the tactile sensation of chewing: the experience of the sharp fruity flavor in one’s nose; the sticky feel of it stretching between your teeth and hands to see how long it could last before snapping; the seemingly-endless firmness of the cud as it circulated within the mouth. Children were also cautioned not to swallow gum, a warning that morphed into its own set of myths and legends. While adults enjoyed the sensory characteristics of gum, the sense of wonder it created among children became its greatest marketing advantage into the 1950s.

wrigleys

1952 two-page Ad, Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum, with “Tips to Housewives” & Peanut Butter Soup Recipe (2-page advert)

Childhood was not merely a category of age; it was a state of mind. Nostalgia, or at least the nostalgic image of childhood constructed by gum companies, could courage adult consumers to purchase a stick of gum. As one marketing research report found, “Gum chewing is an important rallying point of the constant struggle going on within every individual between the desire to grow up and the wish to remain a child.”[2] Thus the key to gum advertising lay in the recognition that gum is the “battleground, the no-man’s land, as it were, for the combat between psychological growth and maturity and the opposing forces of childhood pleasures.

By far, gum had its greatest impact on culture through its association with sports and the comic book world. The Topps Corporation developed their highly popular “Bazooka” bubble gum in 1947, and began wrapping pieces in small comic strips, featuring the character of Bazooka Joe, in 1953. Topp’s main competition was Fleer, who produced “Double Bubble” with comics they licensed. Bazooka Joe, with his ragtag gang, appealed to kids and quickly became collectible—today there are over 1,500 variations of the comic.

Boys and girls around America began to associate gum with merchandise as clever marketing made the act of purchasing into an act of collecting. For 1 and 5 cents, Bazooka gum—“Young America’s Favorite” promised tantalizing goods like baseball gloves, pocket knives, and baseball paraphernalia for intrepid boys who collected and sent in a certain number of Bazooka comics—similar to Wrigley’s promotional offers to adult retailers fifty years earlier.

As advertising shifted from print to televisual media, Wrigley’s gum followed suit. Joan and Jane Boyd were the first Doublemint Twins to appear on television in 1964, continuing the prewar tradition of linking gum chewing with adult femininity through a focus on clean, white teeth. Additionally, the formerly disquieting Spearman mascot developed cuter, childlike features and made his debut with the Saturday-morning cartoons to appeal to children.

Back – Chewing Gum in a Postwar Age                                        Next – To Chew or not to Chew?

[1] One ad from a 1952 issue of Billboard promoted the “world championship” Bubble Gum Blowing Contest in which 500 boys and girls were said to compete. Billboard, July 26, 1952, p. 59.

[2] Warren’s Mint Cocktail Chewing Gum and Bub Bubble Gum, 1947, Box 2/48C, Ernest Dichter papers (Accession 2407), Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE 19807, 2.

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