The snack that survived the '60s
The story of Bugles and the competitors it outlasted
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There are few decades in American history—and probably none in the country’s recent history—as mythologized as the 1960s, with its layers of seismic change and cultural shifts, and that’s true even when you’re talking about corn chips.
Before the 1960s, there just weren’t a lot of mass-market corn chips or other corn-based crunchy snacks—a typical grocery store may have carried Fritos, which launched in the 1930s, but that was pretty much it. (I know: heartbreaking.) But then, in that great Decade of Change, with its brash rock ‘n’ roll and bell-bottom jeans, everything got bigger and weirder, offering a clear delineation between Ye Olde Times and the Modern Era. This is the period when Doritos arrived on the market, in 1966 (as Gustavo Arellano discusses here and in his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America), but it’s also the era of a million other brands attempting to get into the corn-chip market, with assorted flavors, shapes, advertising strategies, and levels of success. From these many methods of messing around with maize, there remains but one survivor: Bugles.
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It’s not clear exactly why General Mills wanted to get into crunchy corn snacks in the early 1960s, but it seems safe to surmise that the rise of Tex-Mex foods was part of it. The cuisine was popular enough that a restaurant called Casa de Fritos was part of the original culinary offerings when Disneyland opened in 1955 (its menu soon included something called a “Fritos shell,” which was basically a taco salad bowl, one of the early American variations on a corn chip). Frito was the largest snack manufacturer in the USA and General Mills wanted to get its own bite of the growing market.
Other smaller-scale snack companies had recently gotten into corn chips, including a product made by Morton Foods called “Chip-Os,” which advertised as a wild new novelty because they were—get this—round. Here’s one of their ads from 1961:
General Mills made its first move into the snack space in 1963, when it purchased Morton, and soon decided to make its own new products. “The snack business in this country has, during the past 10 years, been experiencing a sustained annual growth of approximately 12 per cent,” one of the company’s executives told the Minneapolis Tribune. “In a sense, snack time has become the biggest meal of the day for the American people.” (Sidebar: “Snacks are the biggest meal of the day” would be a good t-shirt, someone please make that.)
The occasion for the Tribune story was the launch, in 1964, of three new General Mills corn-chip-like products: Bugles, in the shape of a cone; Whistles, little stubby tubes that could also, theoretically, serve as tiny musical instruments; and Daisy’s, little flower-shaped cups. Here they are in an ad from 1966:
They were perfect for eating while watching your shows, so General Mills called them “Televittles.” Really. They each had their own flavor: Bugles was “like campfire-roasted corn,” Whistles was “like grilled cheese on toast,” and Daisy’s were “like oven-puffed popovers.” The three snacks debuted in six test markets before going national, and they were such a hit that they were soon joined by other General Mills snacks in yet more shapes, as you can see in this truly test ad made by Jim Henson, three years before “Sesame Street”:
If you don’t feel like clicking and seeing a truly sinister Cookie Monster precursor trying to scarf down a bowl of snacks, I’ll just tell you that (a) the products were called Wheels, Flutes, and Crowns, and (b) YOU’RE MISSING OUT, GO WATCH THAT.
The General Mills riffs on corn snacks were so popular that other companies quickly got into the same market, including Nabisco Flings and Quaker Corn Skis, Dippy Canoes, and Salty Surfers. Behold:
If you’re chuckling at all those brand names, you’re not alone. “Who on earth named these products, and how much of their popularity is due to the catchy name, one wonders,” Ruth Ellen Church wrote in The Chicago Tribune in 1967.
The novel shapes were also essential to the sales pitch, as General Mills made clear in its ad campaigns, which always included the line “Suddenly … snacks are in great shape!” Here’s one for Bugles (its ads often included caricature of American Indians; one TV spot was considerably more racist):
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So the story of Bugles is a pretty straightforward one: a large corporation saw a trend (Tex-Mex food and just, like, snacks) and wanted to capitalize on it in a way that was novel and allowed them to show off their cool new technology (check out all these SHAPES!). The same year that Bugles and its sibling-snacks went national, General Mills was trying the same basic product-development moves with its cereals, adding the sweet innovation that was freeze-dried fruit; just two years earlier, they’d added a a sugary quirk factor to Cheerios in the process of creating Lucky Charms, as we discussed last week.
The problem with novelty foods is that the often don’t last—a cool shape or offbeat name often isn’t enough to keep sales going in the long term (just ask Orbitz). Why did Bugles endure while the many similar corn snacks of the era did not? I have absolutely no idea. (If you have a hypothesis, please comment below). But endure it did—you can still buy them today, in many flavors and in many countries (see below)—while the others only exist in scenes from “Mad Men.”
And now, a list of Bugles flavors around the world
Copied straight from Wikipedia, so may not be entirely accurate
In Cyprus, Bugles are manufactured by People's Coffee Manuf. Ltd and are being marketed and distributed by Laiko Cosmos Trading Ltd. They are available in 3 flavors, Original, Nachos and Vinegar.
In Kuwait, Bugles are manufactured and marketed by the KITCO parent company.
In the United Arab Emirates, Bugles manufactured by IFFCO UAE under their Tiffany subdivision, and is marketed and sold as Bugles with similar styling to the U.S. Bugles.
In France, Bugles are manufactured and marketed by the Benenuts marque of Groupe Pepsico of France under the name 3-D's Bugles in various flavors, including natural, cheese, bacon, ketchup, and ham & cheese.
In Italy, they are called "Virtual" and have been produced by San Carlo.
In China, Bugles are manufactured and marketed by Pepsi.
In Taiwan, Bugles are named "Golden Horns" and have been manufactured by Serena Foods.
In Japan, Bugles are named "Tongari Corn" (とんがりコーン) and have been manufactured by House Foods since 1978.
In South Korea, they are known as "Kkokkal Korn" (꼬깔콘) and have been produced by Lotte Confectionery since 1983.
In Sweden and Norway they are known as "Sombreros", made by Estrella/Maarud.
In Israel they are known as "Apropo", and are made by Osem.
In Turkey, they are called "Cherezza Twist" and "Patos Critos" as they are manufactured by two different companies.
In Brazil, they are manufactured by Yoki, a brand of General Mills.
In Singapore, Bugles are manufactured by Tong Garden Food Products under license. Tong Garden fries its Bugles in palm oil.
In Poland, Bugles are sold by Frito Lay Poland Ltd. under "star" brand name.
In the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, Bugles are sold by Lay's as Lay's Bugles.
In Spain and Portugal, Bugles are manufactured by Matutano under the name of 3-D's Bugles and only Bacon-Cheese flavour.
In South Africa, Bugles are Manufactured by Simba as Doritos 3D
In Argentina, Bugles are manufactured by PepsiCo as 3D's
In Lebanon they are manufactured by Fantasia Chips.
In Indonesia, Bugles product are held by Garuda Food as Garuda O'Corn snack since 2020.
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There is only one possible reason for the success of Bugles. Ask any child what they like about them- the way you can put them on your fingers like claws and then eat them off one by one.