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The 1980s snack that melted away
The rise and fall of Jell-O Pudding Pops
Hello, Snackers. It’s summertime in the 1980s and there’s a new treat in town.
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This is an updated version of a post that originally ran last summer.
When you’re an adult, looking at the ice cream selection in a grocery store can easily turn into a Proust/“Ratatouille”-style wormhole back to childhood. For me, an ice cream sandwich conjures memories of a particular park, an orange Popsicle takes me back to a bout of strep throat, and a Bomb Pop reminds me of the specific twinge of guilt I felt whenever I ate one, because my pacifist mother didn’t like the militaristic brand name.
But when I look through those freezer doors, there’s one nostalgia-trigger that’s missing: Jell-O Pudding Pops, which have been out of production for about ten years, but were a fixture of American snacking in the 1980s and 1990s.
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Jell-O Pudding Pops officially launched in 1981, at a price point of $1.99 for a box of twelve. They were the result of more than a decade of trial and error in search of the product’s signature soft texture, which came from the same emulsifying agent used in Cool Whip and which I can feel in my mouth right now.
All products are emblems of the time and place in which they originated, but Pudding Pops have an especially strong bond to their cultural moment. There was the spokesman, a now-disgraced sitcom star we’ll call “Gill Gosby,” who was then at the height of his powers, with the highest Q score in the USA. But there was also so much more.
Technology, for example: Before launching Pudding Pops, parent company General Foods ran some of the earliest consumer-product computer simulations. “The old days of running a test market in Peoria for a year are over,” MIT business professor John D.C. Little told Computerworld, a quote that is amusingly at odds with the fact that General Foods didn’t trust the simulation and ended up running three-year product trials in Cincinnati, Denver, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City.
Most of all, though, Pudding Pops the 1980s boom in packaged snacks for the after-school set, especially within the broad category of “ostensibly healthful convenience food.” A General Foods spokesman told The New York Times in 1981:
While mothers still wanted [pudding’s] “wholesome goodness” for their children, Mr. Rosow said, afternoon snacks such as ice cream and packaged cakes were usurping the place of conventional desserts that were not readily portable and required preparation time. “The question was, ‘How can we put pudding in the path of the afternoon snack opportunity’?” said Mr. Rosow. “What we did was to freeze it and put it on a stick.”
It was an odd moment in the broader cultural landscape, a time when health foods were starting to become widespread across the USA (we covered that in the carob history post a while back), and fitness trends like aerobics classes and long-distance running were taking off, and corporations did the corporate thing and used the themes of the day to sell the same old crap with a “we care about your health” sheen. Marketers did their very best to blur the lines between things that were “wholesome” and things that were not. The most egregious example is probably light cigarettes, which came to dominate the tobacco industry in the 1980s; in the snack world, Kudos bars, with their combination of granola and actual candy, were a not-atypical new product (we also covered that scam of a product here on Snack Stack last year).
Pudding Pops came about specifically because of a shift in consumer trends due to more women in the workforce (marketers and society in general apparently had no expectation that fathers could or would feed their children). To assuage parental guilt over excess snacking, General Foods billed them as healthful. It was a wholesome snack, mostly milk, no big deal, with fewer calories in a serving than the standard vanilla ice cream bar of the era (100 versus 170). General Foods even pitched Pudding Pops to schools in 1985 as not just USDA-approved but an effective bribe to get kids to try (or at least take) other foods:
Jell-O Pudding Pops are already sold in more schools than other brand of frozen novelties—because kids want them. All three Jell-O Pudding Pops flavors can help you increase participation in your USDA meal pattern, because they lead kids to buy meals they might otherwise reject.
Jell-O also marketed Pudding Pops to mothers as a health food they should eat, running ads in Working Mother magazine to make this pitch:
Looking at all the ads in that magazine, from 1985, is a journey, at once fascinating, jarring, and revealing. The most common product categories are toddler toys, “healthful” snacks for busy families, and cigarettes—in the span of four pages, literally, you go from Playskool ABC blocks to Del Monte Lite Fruit Cocktail to Virginia Slims. This is the world in which Pudding Pops were born. (The magazine also contains the most 1980s ad I have ever seen, a one-page spot for Tab that is simply a peak specimen of the era and its design, fashion, and wellness messages directed at women.)
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Even before the national launch, Jell-O Pudding Pops were enough of a hit that competitors were lining up, including Popsicle brand’s Good ‘n’ Puddin’, Swiss Miss Pudding Bars, and Borman’s Puddin’ Pops (the last one resulted in a successful trademark-infringement lawsuit by General Foods, on the grounds that merely dropping the “g” wasn’t fooling anyone).
But Jell-O had the name recognition and General Foods had the funding to beat the competitors, including a research and development budget of $96 million in 1981, and a major ad campaign starring a certain high-profile sitcom star (again, not going to mention him). The payoff: Jell-O Pudding Pops made almost $100 million in sales the first year alone.
According to Culinary Lore, though, Pudding Pops were never actually that profitable, especially for a company (first General Foods and then the brand’s later owner, Kraft) that was otherwise not doing anything in the frozen-foods arena. In 2004, Kraft sold Jell-O Pudding Pops to Popsicle, which changed the recipe (never a good idea, just ask New Coke) and customers moved on to other icy treats. Eventually, the whole brand just kinda died quietly, ending not with a bang but with a product-appropriate slow melting away.
If you look around, you can still find Jell-O branded DIY Pudding Pop kits, with pudding mix and plastic molds—you do all the prep and freezing yourself. But that’s not the same, is it? I mean: Was the appeal of a Pudding Pop the flavor, per se? Or was it, as General Foods understood from the outset, a certain kid-oriented convenience—a snacking experience? For me, that’s the nostalgia trigger: the feeling of unwrapping it on a summer afternoon in the late ’80s and the sensation of biting into it (so soft and creamy!), paired with the knowledge that this snack was provided with love but made by a corporation—which, like it or not, is part of the appeal of a whole lot of snacks.
On that note, I’ll leave you with this message about the importance of Pudding Pops at a slumber party. The 1980s, friends. The 1980s.
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— Doug Mack, Snack Fan